Saturday 16 February 2013

A new recording from Naxos of Bottesini’s attractive Requiem

Giovanni Bottesini (1821-1889) was a celebrated virtuoso double bass player, as well as conductor and composer. Born at Crema in Lombardy, he was the son of an able musician and clarinet player, sang in the chapel choir and displayed an early talent for music. At the age of eleven, an application was made for him to study at the Conservatorio in Milan. The only place available was to study double bass thus settling the young musician’s choice of instrument.

Bottesini’s teachers were Rossi for double bass and Basilio Basili and Nicola Vaccaj for harmony and composition. On leaving the Conservatorio he travelled with his fellow student, Signor Arditi (a violinist), eventually visiting America before obtaining a lucrative post as principal double bass in the orchestra in Havana, Cuba, a post that he kept for a number of years. It was here that his opera Christophe Colombe was first produced. He visited England in 1849, gaining a great reputation as a double bass player. Interestingly he played a three stringed instrument, somewhat smaller than a standard double bass, preferring this for its sonority.

From 1855 to 1857 Bottesini was conductor of the Italian opera in Paris and from 1861 to 1863 was director of the Italian opera in Cairo, being Verdi’s choice of conductor for the first performance of Aida. In 1871 he conducted a season at the Lyceum in London. In addition to many works for his own instrument, he also wrote fourteen operas, chamber works including eleven string quartets, a Messa di Requiem and an oratorio The Garden of Olivet, performed for the first time at the Norwich Festival. Bottesini died in Parma.

Bottesini’s Messa di Requiem was composed in 1877 after the death of his brother Luigi. It was first performed, in an adapted version, in the Capuchin chapel in Cairo, the first complete performance being at Turin’s Teatro Regio in 1880.

Naxos have just released a new recording of the Messa di Requiem performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra with the Joyful Company of Singers conducted by Thomas Martin, himself a double bass player and instrument maker , and the soloists Marta Matheu (soprano), Gemma Coma-Alabert (mezzo-soprano), Agustin Prunell-Friend (tenor) and Enric Martinez-Castignani (baritone) . Although this new release is not billed as a premiere recording, I can find no other recordings currently available.
Bottesini’s opening Introit and Kyrie: Requiem aeternam, an adagio, immediately draws one in. As the four soloists join together the music rises to a brief Verdian climax before the flowing music continues, the soloists blending well with each other. There is another brief climax before the soprano and mezzo-soprano join followed by the tenor and baritone. There is a grander climax with choir and a fanfare from the brass. This is a fine requiem aeternam, with some glorious climaxes; and The Joyful Company of Singers on fine form. The four soloists continue before the choir joins and brings this section to a stirring, uplifting conclusion.

There is a slightly Mendelssohnian Dies irae with choir and orchestra, an allegro full of drama and imaginatively scored, with lovely descending woodwind above the orchestra. Perhaps the choral writing tends towards the ordinary at times but this is never less than attractive writing.  In the lovely Quid sum miser, Agustín Prunell-Friend doesn’t always sound very strong in this recording yet, in his upper register, his voice can be lovely.

Quaerens me, for choir and orchestra alone, is a very attractive setting, stirring, vibrant and full of life. In the Ingemisco I couldn’t help hearing Mendelssohn again in the orchestration. Bass, Enric Martinez-Castignani has a firm and attractive voice in this lovely andante that has attractive orchestral touches. In the Confutatis the choir opens with the orchestra in a sprung rhythm marked moderato. The four soloists appear in the central section before the choir and orchestra conclude.

The Lacrymosa is a flexible, flowing adagio with the soprano, mezzo, tenor and baritone with orchestra. As a vocal ensemble these four voices work well. There is a faster central section for choir and orchestra.  After an orchestral introduction to the Offertory: Domini Jesu, the soprano, Marta Mathéu, joins. She has a firm, attractive voice, flexible, with a lovely upper register in this nicely paced andantino.

In the Sanctus and Benedictus, the short sanctus, an allegro, opens with orchestra and trumpets full of grandeur. This section, for choir and orchestra, is full of display and, dare I say without invoking too much of Verdi’s influence, theatre. There is a rather pastoral sounding benedictus with the four soloists and orchestra in a gently flowing andantino con moto. The Agnus Dei has an attractive orchestral opening before the soprano and mezzo enter. Marta Matheu and Gemma Coma-Alabert blend well in this andante.

Choir and orchestra slowly speed up to a dramatic little climax in the Requeim aeternam before speeding off in music that is nevertheless marked grave, prior to the music again building to a climax. Female voices alone open the Libera me before the full choir join. These forces alternate until the orchestra joins followed by a solo mezzo-soprano with orchestra. Gemma Coma-Alabert has quite a wide vibrato but provides some beautifully characterful singing in this lovely well-judged setting.

The earlier dies irae then re-appears in dies illa, again slightly Mendelssohnian in character but full of brilliance and gusto with cymbals crashing. The four soloists enter in a quieter section before the choir return to speed up the former theme. Tension is built by quieter sections as the music swirls to a triumphant conclusion with upward orchestral motifs.

I have to say that I enjoyed this Requiem immensely with the imaginative orchestration ensuring that there is never a tedious moment. The recording made at the Henry Wood Hall, London is excellent. There are full Latin texts and translations.

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