January 03, 2019


Rossini: Péchés de vieillesse, Volume 8—Chamber Music and Rarities 1. Alessandro Marangoni, piano; Massimo Quarta, violin; Enrico Dindo, cello; Ugo Favaro, horn; Lilly Jørstad, mezzo-soprano; Bruno Taddia, baritone; Ars Cantica Choir conducted by Marco Berrini. Naxos. $12.99.

Rossini: Péchés de vieillesse, Volume 9—Chamber Music and Rarities 2. Alessandro Marangoni, piano; Laura Giordano, soprano; Alessandro Luciano, tenor; Bruno Taddia, baritone. Naxos. $12.99.

Rossini: Péchés de vieillesse, Volume 10—Chamber Music and Rarities 3. Alessandro Marangoni, piano; Giuseppina Bridelli, mezzo-soprano. Naxos. $12.99.

Rossini: Péchés de vieillesse, Volume 11—Chamber Music and Rarities 4. Alessandro Marangoni, piano; Laura Giordano and Maria Candela Scalabrini, sopranos; Giuseppina Bridelli and Cecilia Molinari, mezzo-sopranos; Alessandro Luciano, tenor; Bruno Taddia and Vittorio Prato, baritones. Naxos. $12.99.

     The last four volumes in the somewhat misleadingly titled Naxos series of Rossini’s “Complete Piano Music” bring to an end an ambitious, more-than-decade-long project released starting in 2008 and including recordings made between 2006 and 2017. Although the 11 discs are indeed packed with piano music and although all of them feature Alessandro Marangoni, their real reason for being is not the piano alone: they are a presentation of the charmingly titled Péchés de vieillesse or “Sins of Old Age,” some 200 salon pieces written by Rossini after he retired from composing following his spectacularly successful operatic career. That ended with William Tell in 1829, when Rossini was all of 37 years old – but the composer lived an additional 39 years, during which the Péchés de vieillesse were essentially all he created. Being a savvy businessman as well as a prodigious composer of operas – 39 of them in 20 years, not counting a couple of pastiches created by others with his permission – Rossini arranged the Péchés de vieillesse in 14 albums in such a way that his wife, Olympe Pélissier, would eventually be able to sell them, as she did after his death.

     Collectively, the Péchés de vieillesse constitute a mishmash of a mishmash. That is, each album is in itself a compendium of largely unrelated works of various types (although some albums have a clearer overall theme than do others); taken together, the albums are a mixture of mixtures. In the Marangoni-focused Naxos series, the Péchés de vieillesse become a mishmash of a mishmash of a mishmash, because every CD contains bits and pieces from various albums, thereby guaranteeing utter confusion among listeners interested in finding any sort of order in the material, or imposing some on it. What makes the Péchés de vieillesse so charming, however, is that none of this matters. Even in their original collected form, these little gems (some precious, many more semi-precious) make minimal organizational sense; this means that the Marangoni series is as good a way to enjoy the music as any – and is likely to be the only such way to hear the Péchés de vieillesse in their entirety, since there seems little chance of any company other than Naxos undertaking a project of this magnitude.

     That said, the final four CDs in the series end up being even more of a potpourri than the earlier ones: if the Péchés de vieillesse are a miscellany, these discs are a miscellany of the miscellany, or perhaps a set of appendices. They include not only pieces from the official 14 albums but also ones written as if they belong in those albums but remaining, for one reason or another, uncollected or unassigned. No one seeking organizational clarity need apply to be a listener to these discs. But they will be enormously appealing to lovers of Rossini, of musical trifles in general, and of insights into the way composers produced their works. Those abound here. Just how skilled at vocal composition was Rossini? Well, Volume 10 contains a very moving Elégie in which the singer sounds only one single note, and Volume 11 includes an Ave Maria setting sung on only two notes – apparent impossibilities that Rossini not only makes possible but also turns into genuinely involving pieces. The Péchés de vieillesse as a whole contain only four works for two voices, all of which are included in Volume 11, and here Rossini’s adept vocal writing is shown through the way he combines different vocal ranges: soprano and mezzo-soprano, soprano and tenor, tenor and baritone, and tenor and mezzo-soprano.

     Not everything here is a trifle. Volume 8 includes the dramatic cantata Giovanna d’Arco for soprano and piano, essentially a 17-minute operatic scene. Volume 10 includes two songs, each called Ariette espagnole, that are mezzo-soprano showpieces and are beautifully proportioned. And how did Rossini choose texts to set? That turns out to be a fascinating question, since (on the one hand) he had “house poets” from whom he requested words, notably Émilien Pacini, but (on the other hand) he often used exactly the same words for multiple pieces of music, considering them a sort of template that he could use to construct a song whose final words would be created sometime later by Pacini or someone else. Hearing how this works is amazing: Rossini’s most-favored “template words” were six lines by Pietro Metastasio (1698-1782), and they are heard twice in their original forms (with different music) on Volume 9, then five separate times (again with different music) on Volume 10, and then six times (two for soprano, two for baritone, and one each for mezzo-soprano and contralto) on Volume 11. Talk about variations on a theme!

     Rossini was quite well aware of his unique style and approach to vocal writing. He considered himself, with some justification, to be the last true Classical-era opera composer, emphasizing middle voices (that is, the middle of vocal ranges) rather than pushing singers to their extremes for stage effect. The amusing ways Rossini expressed his self-knowledge show up repeatedly in these recordings. Volume 9 includes one song “rossinizzata” and one “rossinizée,” both words meaning “Rossini-ized” in, respectively, Italian and French (those are the primary languages of Péchés de vieillesse, but Latin and Spanish crop up as well). And an occasional song is designed for deliberately crude humor, such as La chanson du bébé on Volume 10, in which Pacini’s words involve repeated cries of “pipi” and “caca.”

     Not everything in Péchés de vieillesse or on the final four discs of this series is vocal, of course. The piano is ever-present, both for song accompaniment and for a variety of themes, variations, interludes and the like. And Volume 8 combines piano to quite good effect with several other instruments: violin, cello, and horn. This volume also includes the very unusual Tarantelle pur sang (avec traversée de la procession), which is written for choir, harmonium, clochette and piano: in its 11 minutes, outer sections sandwich an entirely different inner one (the “procession” of the title) as the unusual instrumental combination contributes to the atmosphere. This is one remarkable piece among many. Rossini wrote the Péchés de vieillesse for his own amusement and that of his friends, as well as for pecuniary reasons. It is a rare privilege to join that circle of friends 150 years after the composer’s death through the ever-excellent pianism of Marangoni, the enthusiastic contributions of the various vocal and instrumental soloists, and the willingness of Naxos to devote so many years to the creation of a genuinely revelatory CD sequence of works that, although often unremarkable individually, are quite remarkable as a totality when presented as they are on these discs.

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