Review by Margarida Mota-Bull
MusicWeb International, July 2008
Rossini’s decision abruptly to end his operatic career at the age of only thirty-seven has been the subject of many debates and copious articles over the years.
His operas – of which Guillaume Tell (1829) was the last - tend to overshadow his later works, in particular his wonderful Péchés de vieillesse (Sins of old age). This could be one of the reasons why they are neglected. These Péchés comprise pieces for solo piano, for vocal and instrumental ensembles, songs, and the beautiful Petite Messe Solennelle. They are organised in fourteen volumes, each with different names, containing various pieces. Rossini never intended them for publication though some were issued during his lifetime. Most did not come out until the 1950s, which is possibly another reason for their general neglect. However, I still find it difficult to understand why the songs do not appear more frequently in Mélodie and Lieder recitals. Rossini’s substantial quantity of piano music is hardly ever played by today’s greatest pianists. It is true that the composer’s style advanced little in most of the works that form the Péchés de vieillesse and therefore their musical language is generally conservative. However quite the contrary can be said of the character of many of the solo piano pieces; they are clever, amusing parodies of fashions of the time, of other musicians contemporary of Rossini, and of himself and his own work.
Naxos and the distinguished, award-winner pianist Alessandro Marangoni, deserve to be congratulated for the decision to record the complete Péchés. This CD set is the first of the intended series, entitled "Rossini’s Complete Piano Music". The present set occupies two CDs and each is a delight from beginning to end though I preferred the first.
CD 1 contains the majority of the compositions that form volume VII of the Péchés, entitled Album de Chaumière (The Cottage Album), an ironical title if one bears in mind that Rossini did not like the kind of romantic oil painting the name invokes. Marangoni plays each piece with enthusiasm, loving care and dedication. His performance is humorous and joyful as well as precise without being dry. He is also capable of sensuous beauty in the more delicate, lyrical passages. In Gymnastique d’écartement (Exercises for opening), he expresses well the caricature character of the piece but his style remains sober. It never slips into unnecessary exuberance, a "sin" that a lesser pianist might easily have committed. I particularly enjoyed Marangoni’s interpretation of the second piece, Prélude fugassé (Fugal prelude), a strange title to say the least, as a composition cannot simultaneously be a prelude and a fugue. This is a piece evocative of J.S. Bach and of the mark his work left on Rossini’s own writing. The composer pays here an endearing and funny tribute to the great master of the Baroque era. Marangoni’s rendition is suitably humorous and energetic, showcasing his classical brilliance while, in number 5, Prélude inoffensif (harmless prelude), a poetic little gem, he changes into an intentionally romantic, lyrical style, at times beautifully legato, as suits the piece. Undoubtedly this is a gentle tribute to Chopin both in the music and its title. From here, Marangoni easily moves to the charming little parody that is Petite valse "L’huile de Ricin" (Castor Oil Waltz), and swiftly follows it with the final piece of this first CD. Rossini wrote this piece in two sections: one a deep sleep, Un profond sommeil, a quiet, meditative episode, and the other a brusque or sudden awakening, Un réveil en sursaut, which is lively, fast and joyful. The transition from peaceful meditation to rousing energy requires a poetic touch and a resilient, secure technique. These attributes are wonderfully displayed by Marangoni who seems to glide effortlessly across the keyboard in what is arguably the most virtuosic and dramatic piece of them all.
CD 2 continues with the remaining compositions from the Album de Chaumière, which are less attractive than the previous eight though no less demanding in terms of execution. These five pieces are then followed by four precious but little known gems extracted from volume IX of the Péchés, the album for piano, violin, cello, harmonium and horn. The first, Mélodie candide, is one of my favourites. As the name indicates, it is an innocent melody, beautifully modulated, almost naive in character, which made me picture children playing and echoed happy childhood memories. It is attractively and lovingly performed by Marangoni who again demonstrates his versatility in terms of style and his impeccably expressive technique. He moves through the final three pieces with equal ease, delivering a memorable performance of what is to me the "tour de force" in CD 2, the final piece, Impromptu tarantallisé (Improvisation in the form of the Italian dance tarantella). Marangoni revels in the glorious whirling attributes of the music, inviting the listener to stand up and joyfully dance around the room.
The whole work is a joy to listen to, touching and moving at times, humorous, ironic and dramatic in other instances. It requires virtuosity, sensibility and an excellent understanding of the composer’s style. Marangoni demonstrates that he has all these qualities in abundance. He obviously delights both in the music and in the fabulous piano at his disposal – a Steinway from the collection of the famous Italian master technician, Angelo Fabbrini – and this delight comes across in his playing making it all the more attractive.
This CD set is undoubtedly an excellent recording of Rossini’s often neglected but wonderful piano music, finally being given the attention it deserves. I can hardly wait for the next volume in the series to be available.