Rossini: Stabat Mater

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COMPOSERS: Rossini
LABELS: EMI
WORKS: Stabat Mater
PERFORMER: Anne Netrebko (soprano), Joyce DiDonato (mezzo-soprano), Lawrence Brownlee (tenor), Ildebrando D’Arcangelo (bass); National Academy of St Cecilia Chorus & Orchestra/Antonio Pappano
CATALOGUE NO: 640 5292

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Rossini’s world-conquering operatic career ended in 1829, with the premiere in Paris of his ground-breaking William Tell, a work that looked forward into the future of French grand opera while summing up the huge range of technical skills he had acquired over the previous two decades. Bringing closure – even if not initially planned as such – to this central aspect of his creativity, Rossini himself would live on for nearly four decades, for much of it in poor health.

A host of small, intimate compositions would nevertheless eventually flow from his pen during his final Parisian years – the so-called Péchés de vieillesse (Sins of Old Age) – but there would be only two further substantial works, both of them religious: this setting of the medieval poem Stabat Mater (written in two tranches – half in 1832, the remainder in 1841), visualising Mary standing at the foot of the cross where her son was crucified, and the later Petite Messe Solennelle (1864), a personal and distinctive setting of the Mass, small in its forces, wide in its scope. 

Following on from their highly successful recording of the Verdi Requiem, Antonio Pappano and his Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia forces here move naturally on to what is indisputably one of the other major classics of 19th-century Italian religious music. Like Verdi, Rossini was steeped in operatic composition when he wrote the Stabat Mater, even if no longer producing operas. But any criticism of the piece as too operatic for a religious work is misplaced; Rossini, as with other Italian composers, would have seen no discrepancy in applying florid vocal writing or dramatic touches to a sacred text.

The result is a highly individual but genuine masterpiece. Clearly, Pappano’s vast experience of opera is an asset in his approach to this work, too, blending together perfectly its solemnity and theatricality. Each movement is beautifully shaped both in its individual phrases and its overall structure. 

A finely balanced quartet of soloists distinguishes themselves, too. Anna Netrebko provides a vividly dramatic ‘Inflammatus’. Joyce DiDonato’s expressive ‘Fac ut portem’ is expertly delivered. The graceful individuality of Lawrence Brownlee’s tenor applies firm articulation to the ‘Cujus animam’. Ildebrando D’Arcangelo’s bass brings strong presence and resonance to the ‘Pro peccatis’ and the deliberate interventions of ‘Eja, Mater’.

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The choral singing is notable for its refinement of tone, while the orchestral playing retains a lucidity whatever the texture. But above all it is Pappano’s stylistic assurance, and his understanding of the need in Rossini to combine flamboyance with discretion, that makes this a superior account of one of its composer’s greatest achievements. George Hall