Berio & Rossini

Stabat Mater

Swingle Singers

Janice Watson (soprano)
Joyce DiDonato (mezzo-soprano)
Colin Lee (tenor)
Ildar Abdrazakov (bass)

Chorus of the Academy of Santa Cecilia, Rome

Orchestra of the Academy of Santa Cecilia, Rome
Antonio Pappano

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 16 July, 2007
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

This Prom coupled very different works by two great Italian composers.

Berio’s Sinfonia was given it UK premiere at the Proms, in 1969, and is most famous for its longest movement, the witty, inventive and exhilarating third entitled ‘In ruhig fliessender Bewegung’ in affectionate tribute to Mahler. Indeed the underlying pulse is drawn directly from the third movement of Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony, albeit interwoven with a lot of other “lifting” from other well-known composers too, and with a complex overlay of spoken and sung interjections and commentary from eight amplified voices – here the excellent Swingle Singers.

Strangely, in this performance, it was the one movement that did not really take off, not least because the amplification of the voices was not balanced with the general orchestral level very effectively, and thus many of the words and thus much of the essential humour they bring were lost. Sometimes the text sounded distinctly garbled. Despite this there was a huge amount to enjoy. Antonio Pappano’s reading was lithe and full of transparent and clear textures, with much of Berio’s elegant orchestration coming vividly to life with notable contributions from the piano, the harp, and Alessandro Milani’s energetic violin flourishes. In the outer movements, particularly at the start of the first and for the whole of ‘King’, the second movement, the Swingle Singers were very much integrated into the musical body adding that eerie mysteriousness those passages need. In the third movement the patchwork of musical quotations from Strauss, Ravel, Debussy, Bach, Brahms and Stravinsky, to name but a few, had an exuberant playfulness that contrasted well with the more sombre nature of the other sections. The work’s quiet ending, the end of the fifth movement, was marred by some anticipatory applause before the last echoes had died out.

After the interval we moved to the very different world of Rossini with his “Stabat Mater” of 1841, a revision of a work of shared composition of 1832. Here Pappano showed his natural affinity with this opera composer, although Rossini’s style here is at its least operatic. The Orchestra of the Academy of Santa Cecilia played this music with loving care but with drama and bite in the moments when that approach is needed. The musicians’ care was demonstrated by the opening of the third movement where the sombre horn was matched by a rich string counterpoint followed by a plangent contribution by the oboe – all sections caressing and phrasing absolutely beautifully.

The chorus was on fine fettle and demonstrated that much care had been taken over word clarity. The Bach-like fugue in the finale was impressively voiced. For the soloists an appropriately balanced quartet had been assembled. Joyce DiDonato and Colin Lee in particular have impressive Rossini credentials and did not disappoint. Lee delivered the ‘Cujus animam’ in lovely lyrical style, not over-singing and never treating it like a barnstorming ‘can-belto’ Neapolitan song. Lee’s voice has a light vibrato that gives it a warm and varied texture and it blended well with the other soloists. DiDonato is making her name at present as a singer of early music but also as a light Rossini mezzo. Here she demonstrated that she also has power and rather more dramatic tonal quality in her lower register and this offers the promise of exciting times to come. Her cavatina was very affectingly sung and with impeccable diction. She also blended well with Janice Watson’s soprano, and their trills were remarkably synchronised! Watson, fresh for her recent triumph as Katya Kabanova at the Royal Opera House was a late substitute for an indisposed Emma Bell. She was probably, if understandably, the least idiomatic and her voice perhaps lacks the ideal flexibility that Rossini demands, but she has a beautiful limpid and creamy tone and some dramatic top notes crowned her aria. That she was somewhat score-bound and her words were a little cloudy was understandable in the circumstances. Ildar Abdrazakov revealed a sappy, resonant and focussed bass, his penetrative tone adding a sense of urgency to his contributions. It was a shame that there were a few distracting lighting problems towards the end of the final quartet.

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