Ivan Fedele‘s Scena, commissioned by La Scala and reflecting the operatic connection, was given its UK premiere.
The splendid Stabat Mater by Rossini, no stranger to the Milan opera house, made up the second and more significant part of the evening.
On opening the programme, I was surprised to learn that the first half of the concert comprised just one 17 minute piece. The energetic conductor made up for this by presenting a pre-show-style talk, giving quite lengthy illustrations from the work. While this did pre-empt the performance somewhat, it was probably helpful to most people present in pointing out some key features of Fedele’s composition.
Robertson showed the two contrasting “characters” – a floating theme on solo piano and a frantic scurrying on strings – and the stepping idea, on harp and glockenspiel, a play on “steps” or “scales”, which is an in-joke about the origin of the piece (“Scala” meaning just that in Italian). The audience, most of whom were probably there for the Rossini, gave a polite reception to this rather unremarkable but perfectly pleasant work.
If Scena gave more than an occasional nod in the direction of the opera stage, then the Rossini was definitely coming from the other direction. Like Verdi’s Requiem, it is a major sacred work by a composer better known for his operatic output. This is really evident, with a far showier part for the soloists than is usual and music that often belies the words “sorrow”, “anguish” and “grief” that run through the 13th Century text.
This was a distinguished line-up of vocalists – Patricia Bardon, Majella Cullagh, Colin Lee and the ever-reliable Alistair Miles. The arias are often highly theatrical and far from gloomy, the most famous being the tenor’s Cujus animam, sung with gusto by Lee. Bardon was very moving in the mezzo Cavatina although, as in the Pergolesi setting, it’s very difficult to sing Fac me without it sounding like an invitation. Cullagh, taking time off from playing Rosalinde in Glyndebourne’s Die Fledermaus, also sang beautifully and, together, she and Bardon were lovely in the third part Duet.
The soloists’ parts are extravagant but paradoxically require some restraint from singers more used to giving their all on the operatic stage, if we are to remember that this is holy music. Some of the most heartfelt music is to be found in that for the chorus and the BBC Symphony Chorus was most impressive, particularly during the two great unaccompanied sections.
This work drove Wagner, no less, to write a highly fictionalised account of its genesis under an assumed name in the Neue Zeitschrift fr Musik. With his nose firmly out of joint, he described Rossini casting aside his addiction to pastries and other pleasures and entering a priory to throw off a fully-formed Stabat Mater with a facility that must have really irked the German. That he bothered to attack Rossini in this way, is a mark of how successful was this and the many other masterpieces that the Italian churned out with such apparent ease.
The Stabat Mater is so enjoyable a work that, given a vibrant and beautifully sung performance like this, I left the Barbican uplifted and very glad I’d ventured out on a dull late November evening. Full marks to the BBCSO, soloists and conductor for a concert that delivered far more than it offered on paper.