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Music review: Salieri and Puccini, sung by the North London Chorus

27 July 2018

Garry Humphreys hears sacred choral works by the maligned composer Salieri, and Puccini



POOR old Salieri! He is destined to be remembered as the villain supposedly responsible for Mozart’s early demise — and probably not much of a composer, to boot — thanks to Miloš Forman’s highly entertaining film, released in 1984, of Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus.

The poison theory has never been proved, and Salieri, though undoubtedly sometimes irascible, was never the ogre portrayed in Forman’s film. The Irish singer Michael Kelly, in his Reminiscences (1826), even tells us that Salieri “would make a joke of anything”. Furthermore, Salieri was Mozart’s senior by only six years, and among his pupils were Beethoven, Schubert, and Liszt. He often promoted and conducted Mozart’s music.

As for Salieri’s own music, he may not have quite scaled Mozart’s heights, but much of it is very good indeed.

His Requiem in C minor formed the first half of a concert on 14 July by the North London Chorus in St James’s, Muswell Hill, in north London, which his work shared with Puccini’s Messa di Gloria. It is an enterprising group, under the direction of Murray Hipkin, whose long experience as an opera répétiteur was evident in the drama that he brought to the music and to the choir’s singing, particularly in the Puccini.

But there is a great deal of drama in Salieri, too. One might expect his music to sound vaguely like Mozart, and there are, indeed, certain conventions that tie it to the same period, but, strangely, Salieri sounds much more advanced, particularly in his use of the orchestra, foretelling Schubert — and even Weber (Der Freischütz came to mind more than once).

His Achilles’ heel is, if anything, the paucity of polyphony, where one voice leads and others follow in turn. So much of the music is homophonic, each section moving chord by chord and coming to an end, followed by a break before the next section begins. On a hot summer evening in an over-warm church, this stop-start regime began to take its toll on this listener and his companion.

The main polyphonic moment was the “Osanna”, in which there was a palpable feeling of release and freedom after so much homophonic formality. Here, perhaps, the choir was less secure in the exposed leads, and the sopranos, in particular, were taxed by the high Gs and As, vocal tension visible among some of them, thus inhibiting tone and agility. This was less apparent in the Puccini, owing, perhaps, to the warmer and less formalised style of the music.

Salieri includes a quartet of soloists who always sing together in contrast to the full choir — the effect of the chanted “Requiem aeternam” in the Libera Me was particularly magical — but the soprano soloist (Yvette Bonner) was too loud, and, consequently, the others were overwhelmed, and the mezzo (Martha Jones) was virtually inaudible. (This may have been affected by my position in the north aisle with the orchestra between me and the soloists and the soprano the nearest in the distant line of four.)

That said, this was a valuable outing for an intriguing work, and clearly both singers and players enjoyed performing it — the choir is adventurous in its programming — and was rewarded with enthusiastic applause at the end. Incidentally, Salieri instructed that this Requiem was not to be performed until after his death, which occurred more than 20 years after he wrote it.

Puccini’s Messa di Gloria is another work forgotten by performers until its rehabilitation in 1951 by Fr Dante del Fiorentino, but it was never lost and rediscovered, as Fr Dante wished to claim: the manuscript had always been known and available to scholars. Fr Dante may, however, take credit for its actual publication in the early 1950s. He was also responsible for the inauthentic title, Messa di Gloria: Puccini called it, simply, Messa a quattro voci.

The Mass was seen as the summation of Puccini’s early career as a church composer, as his family had been for four generations, in the Italian city of Lucca, in Tuscany. His sights were already firmly set on opera; so the Mass was his final word, as it were, before moving on.

But operatic conventions are already apparent in the Mass, leading to some of its most delightful moments, not least the tenor/bass duet at the end, sung by Christopher Turner (authentically Italianate) and James Cleverton, guaranteed to bring a smile to the faces of all hearers.

The orchestra, the Meridian Sinfonia, played idiomatically in two contrasted styles, and the woodwind were a particular pleasure to hear; but the orchestra was often too loud for the choir, owing, perhaps, to the church’s rather unforgiving acoustic, which also blunted the articulation of the singers’ words throughout.

Notwithstanding some of these criticisms, this was an enjoyable concert. The North London Chorus is to be congratulated on its enterprise, now and in the past and future. It has an enviably large and devoted following.

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