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Messa per Rossini
Maria José Siri (soprano); Veronica Simeoni (mezzo-soprano); Giorgio Berrugi (tenor); Simone Piazzola (baritone); Riccardo Zanellato (bass)
Coro e Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala/Riccardo Chailly
rec. live 8-15 November, 2017, Teatro alla Scala, Milan
Latin texts, English, French & German translations included
DECCA 483 4084 [59:48 + 40:56]

This multi-composer setting of the Requiem Mass must be regarded as one of music’s most unusual and ambitious projects. When Rossini died in November 1868 his compatriot, Verdi determined that his passing should be marked by the cream of Italian composers. He wrote to Giulio Ricordi on 17 November, just four days after Rossini’s death, to propose that “the most distinguished Italian composers” should be invited to join forces to compose a Requiem which would be performed on the anniversary of Rossini’s death. Decca reproduce the letter in the booklet and it’s interesting to note two important suggestions/stipulations made by Verdi. One was that the composers – and likewise the performers - should be asked to donate their service and that the composers should also contribute towards the expenses of the project. The second was this: “The Mass should not be an object of curiosity or of speculation; as soon as it has been performed, it should be sealed and put in the archives of [Bologna’s] Liceo musicale and never removed again.” He did go on to suggest, though, that further performances might be given to mark Rossini’s anniversaries.

Inevitably, a committee was formed, with Ricordi as its secretary, and after no little deliberation – and wrangling – the choice of composers was made with Verdi, as he had requested, being allocated the last movement, the ‘Libera me’. The plan was to perform the work in Bologna’s Basilica San Petronio on 13 November 1869, the anniversary of Rossini’s death. However, despite lots of good intentions, although all the composers delivered their music, the performance never took place and the manuscripts slumbered undisturbed until, I believe, 1970 when a scholar named David Rosen – who was looking for something else in the Ricordi archives – found them. After some editing work, a performance was finally given in Stuttgart in September 1988, conducted by Helmuth Rilling. A recording was subsequently issued by Hänssler (98 949); I don’t know if that was a live recording of the first performance or a subsequent studio affair. I believe other performances followed. I think that Rilling recording remains in the catalogue and I have a feeling I may have heard it once but, if so, that was a long time ago and I don’t remember what it was like. 

Of course, Verdi went on to revise his ‘Libera me’ and include it in his celebrated setting of the full Requiem Mass. However, apart from those who have heard Rilling’s recording, the remaining music will be unknown to most people. Furthermore, the other twelve composers are likely to be, at best, names to many music lovers. At this point I should say a word about Decca’s documentation. In recent years my experience of releases by what were once known as the ‘major’ labels has been that all too often the documentation has been depressingly meagre with notes, such as they are, frequently confined to reflections on the music – of varying interest – by the artist(s) involved in the recording. Happily, this release proves an honourable exception. The booklet contains not only the sung texts with translations but also detailed notes by Michele Girardi which outline the background to the work. He also furnishes useful short biographies of all the composers apart from Verdi. Given the obscurity into which many of these once-notable figures have now fallen, that information is essential. Well done, Decca! From the booklet we learn that all of the composers had a background either in operatic or liturgical music – and, in several cases, in both

What can the listener expect? Well, perhaps the most obvious thing to say is that it’s vital to put as far from your mind as possible the Verdi Requiem – though there were one or two occasions when I found I couldn’t do that. The other thing is to recognise that while the text of the Mass for the Dead provides a structure, the involvement of no fewer than 13 compositional hands means that there’s no overall musical structure. Each composer wrote in his own fashion and, one presumes, in ignorance of what his colleagues were working to produce. Thus, when Verdi sets the words ‘Dies irae’ in the ‘Libera me’ we don’t hear a reprise of the music used in the Sequence itself. However, I don’t believe that stylistic unity is a huge issue: one takes the project for the one-off that it was

Antonio Buzzolla’s setting of the ‘Requiem aeternam’ Introit and the Kyrie is a fairly auspicious start. This is a movement for chorus and orchestra. In the Introit the music is sorrowful and solemn; it also has dignity. The vigorous fugal setting of the Kyrie is something of a let-down, I think, but overall the Messa per Rossini has got off to an impressive start.

The ‘Dies irae’ sequence is entrusted to no fewer than seven composers. First up is Antonio Bazzini who sets the ‘Dies irae’ itself for choir and orchestra. His music is forceful and dramatic though it lacks the blazing originality that Verdi would later bring to his setting. Bazzini indulges in quite a lot of off-beat writing for the chorus, no doubt intending to impart drama through the irregular accents but I find the effect is significantly overdone. Carlo Pedrotti’s Tuba mirum’ begins with an imposing orchestral introduction which leads to a bass solo with chorus. The performance is a powerfully projected one. though I don’t feel that the melodic material is all that memorable.

Antonio Cagnoni was allocated the Quid sum miser’. In the booklet Michele Girardi advances the view that Cagnoni “never got beyond the level of a respected musical craftsman”. That led me to expect a workmanlike setting but, actually, what we hear is rather better than that. In the opening section, mezzo Veronica Simeoni makes a very good case indeed for Cagnoni’s music, singing ardently. At ‘Salva me fons pietatis’ the piece opens up into an expressive duet in which Miss Simeoni is joined by the soprano, Maria José Siri. Federico Ricci’s ‘Recordare’ is for solo quartet and, frankly, it’s pretty conventional stuff, though the solo team do it very well. ‘Ingemisco’ is the work of Alessandro Nini and with the exception of Verdi’s contribution, this is the longest movement in the Mass. It’s an extended tenor solo with some occasional choral interpolations. Giorgio Berrugi really rises to the occasion, offering full-throated, idiomatic Italianate singing. Though Nini’s music isn’t as lyrical as Verdi’s future setting would be it’s still a good movement. Let’s put it this way: if it were an operatic aria – which, in truth, it is - it would bring the house down. Then we hear from Raimondo Boucheron, whose setting of the ‘Confutatis’ is for bass and chorus. I wasn’t too taken with the opening but at ‘Voca me cum benedictis’ the music takes on a lyrical and supplicatory air and becomes more attractive, though I can’t help feeling that the movement ratter overstays its welcome. That’s definitely true of Carlo Coccia ‘s setting of the Lacrimosa’. Actually, Coccia gets off to quite an original start, setting the two stanzas of text, rather effectively, for unaccompanied tenors and basses – in four parts, I think. Unfortunately, he then lets himself down by launching into a fugue for full choir with orchestra on the word ‘Amen’ (2:33). The fugue seems to have no musical connection with what has preceded it, not least because it’s jolly in tone – perhaps a throwback to Coccia’s days as a composer of comic operas. Some 4 ½ minutes of this fugue is way more than the started adult dose for any listener: it’s a disappointing and rather superficial way to end the great Sequence.

The Offertorio (‘Domine. Jesu Christe’) is the work of Gaetano Gaspari. Initially, the text is sung by the choir though the soprano soloist joins them at ‘Libera eas’. Frankly, I found this music to be a pretty feeble effort: it seems lightweight in expressive terms when one considers the words that are being set. Matters improve somewhat at ‘Hostias et preces’, which is for solo quartet, but, overall, I think this is a weak movement. As if to compensate, Pietro Platania’s Sanctus’ begins very grandly. The soloists and the chorus are all involved in this movement. The ‘Hosanna’ is an extended and vigorous fugal episode which shows considerable contrapuntal skill on the part of the composer. The ‘Agnus Dei’ is set by Lauro Rossi as a mezzo solo. I found this rather impressive, not least because Rossi adopts for the most part a restrained tone. The movement is very well sung by Veronica Simeoni. Rather unexpectedly, Teodulo Mabellini makes the Lux aeterna’ a trio for the male soloists. Apart from the novelty of finding it set in this fashion, the music seems to me to be pretty unremarkable.

And so, finally to Verdi and his ‘Libera me’. It’s fascinating to compare this first version with the revised piece that is so familiar from his Requiem. In truth, much of what we hear in this version made it into the later score with minimal or no change but it seems to me that the changes that Verdi made were wholly beneficial. In particular, one notices that the ‘Dies irae’ music differs from the revised version, at least initially, and crucially it lacks those famous off-beat bass drum strokes. Right at the end, the muttered words ‘Libera me, Domine, de morte aeterna’ are uttered not by the soprano soloist but by the bass section; here’s a classic case of Verdi’s second thoughts being infinitely better. On the other hand, the marvellous extended passage for unaccompanied soprano and chorus is here pretty much as we know it from the Requiem until the very last bars of the section. It must be tricky for singers – and players – to perform a different version of music that most of them probably know backwards but you wouldn’t suspect that from this fine performance. Maria José Siri is an impassioned soloist.

So, that’s the Messa per Rossini, a composite work of art if ever there was one. It has its weak spots – and the shadow of Verdi’s Requiem hovers over it, of course – but as I hope I’ve shown, there’s a good deal in it that is well worth hearing. It will never be more than a pièce d’occasion and, indeed, any attempt to make it a repertoire piece would fly in the face of Verdi’s intentions. In any case, that’s not likely to happen. So, a recording is invaluable as a way of becoming acquainted with it. I can’t comment on the Rilling recording but this new one by Riccardo Chailly and his La Scala forces strikes me as being ideal in every respect. All five soloists are excellent and the La Scala Chorus and Orchestra sing and play the music with terrific commitment. This is an ideally red-blooded Italian performance. Chailly conducts the piece with great conviction and presents the work as anything but a musical curiosity.

The live recording presents the performance in very good sound and, as I’ve already commented, the documentation, which is offered in English, French, German and Italian, is excellent.

John Quinn

Antonio Buzzolla (1815-1871) Requiem and Kyrie [9:04]
Antonio Bazzini (1818-1897) Dies irae [5:22]
Carlo Pedrotti (1817-1893) Tuba mirum [5:16]
Antonio Cagnoni (1828-1896) Quid sum miser [5:36]
Federico Ricci (1809-1877) Recordare [7:15]
Alessandro Nini (1805-1880) Ingemisco [10:48]
Raimondo Boucheron (1800-1876) Confutatis [9:25]
Carlo Coccia (1782-1873) Lacrimosa [7:02
Gaetano Gaspari (1807-1881) Offertorio [8:15]
Pietro Platania (1828-1907) Sanctus [7:28]
Lauro Rossi (1812-1885) Agnus Dei [5:01]
Teodulo Mabellini (1817-1897) Lux aeterna [7:38]
Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) Libera me [12:34]

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