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Gioacchino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Péchés de vieillesse: Complete Works for Solo Piano
Stefan Irmer (piano)
rec. 1997-2007
MDG 618 2098-6 [8 CDs: 568:52]

As part of the ongoing celebration of the one hundredth and fiftieth anniversary of the death of Gioacchino Rossini, which has been somewhat overshadowed by all the Debussy celebrations, MDG have gathered together their eight single discs of his piano music and combined them into a relatively slimline box. Some of these recordings have been discussed in these pages before, whilst others feature here for the first time; I will concentrate on those discs which have not been reviewed before. This set includes a booklet that gives a full track list as well as brief introductions to each of the disc, however, it also includes links to PDFs of the original artwork and booklet notes, which is extremely helpful and welcome.

People who know me find it difficult to believe that I chose this set to review. My friend and fellow reviewer, Stephen Greenbank, keeps reminding me that I do not like Rossini. However, it is the operas that I have problems with; I have tried repeatedly, but still, they just don’t do it for me. When it comes to his ‘sins of old age’, whether it be his religious choral music or, as here, his piano music, I find a lot to enjoy Maybe nine and a half hours might be too much for some, but each disc has something to rave about.

Volume one begins with a caricature of Jacques Offenbach, who himself had poked fun at Rossini in his operetta La belle Hélène, here Rossini gets his own back by lampooning Offenbach in his ‘Petite Caprice’. This is an ideal opening piece for this set as it not only displays Rossini’s wit, but also his ingenuity and skill; he was much more than a ‘fifth rate pianist’, the description he gave of himself, as this and the subsequent pieces clearly show. The disc includes some wonderful and contrasting music, as the following piece, ‘Memento Homo’, with its slow introduction, introduces us to the more contemplative side of Rossini, whilst this is followed by the dance-like ‘Assez de memento’. We also get some of the more prosaic aspects of the composer’s life with ‘Mon Prelude hygienique du matin’ depicting his morning ablutions. In ‘Marche et Réminiscences pour mon dernier voyage’ we not only get variations on music from his operas, but also Rossini’s musings on mortality and on his own march towards death.

The second volume points to the report that Rossini gave up composing to concentrate on his other love, food, and the preparation of it. The original note states that “The piano pieces brought together on this CD are good reason enough for speculation about the connections between culinary and musical delights and the manner of their production”. The disc opens with a dramatic flourish before the music of ‘Hachis Romantique’ gives way to the faster and rippling effect of the main section. We then move into his ‘Les Hors d’oeuvres’, with musical depictions of food stuffs including radishes, which gets a touch of an oriental flavour from the composer, then come anchovies, with the short suite of five pieces ending with a kind of homage to the simple pea. Here Rossini invokes the spirit of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words to depict these small legumes with a complex sweet flavour. The culinary theme continues with the ‘Les Quatres Mendiants’, in which he depicts figs, almonds, raisins, and hazelnuts. Even in the final track, ‘Petite valse l’Huile de Ricin’, there is a link to food, or should I say overeating, as here we have a sort of musical panacea. We get the sluggishness of overindulgence and the bellyache and constipation this can lead to, before Rossini gives us a sort of hymn of praise, in the form of a little waltz, to caster oil and its curative properties.

The third disc opens with yet another culinary piece, with ‘Un Sauté’ having a distorted waltz for a central section, something with is also present in the final piece on this disc, the ‘Valse Torturée’, which here extends into strange harmonic effects and rhythms, whilst the second piece on the disc, ‘Un Rêve’ is in the form of an overture to an imaginary opera, with all the dramatic twists and turns that that entails. ‘La Pesarese’ opens with a short walking tune before it goes headlong into the depiction of a person, or persons unknown. It is a piece which sets out to depict the character of the person and includes a short, more dramatic, theme to contrast with the gentler aspects of the music. The ‘Prélude religieux’ was composed as a stand-alone piece in which he “pays homage to the art of polyphony with its three-part fugue”. However, he later included elementss of the piece in the Offertorium of his Petite Messe Solennelle, with the booklet notes describing it as a composition that is filled with profound music that occupies a special place both in the piano pieces as well as the Petite Messe Solennelle.

The fourth disc brings together the collection of twenty-four short pieces under the title ‘Quelques Riens pour Album’, or a collection of nothings. This title does not do justice to the music contained here, with its great variety and contrasts in colour and complexity, they are certainly anything but ‘nothings’. The pieces had a four-year gestation period, written between 1864 and 1868, the final year of Rossini’s life. They display different aspects of his compositional style, with some drawing upon earlier compositions whilst others bring Chopin to mind, ‘Un Rien No. 18’ for example; these are not just throwaway pieces, but display a complex approach to piano writing, with ‘Un Rien No. 6’, in its quick tempo and fugue-like writing, making more than a nod toward J S Bach, whilst No. 17 is quite dramatic.

Disc five offers the listener eight named Preludes, many of which have a distinct character, and a Bolero, which have been described in detail by Glyn Pursglove in an earlier review. Whilst the ‘Prélude Blagueur’ makes something of a dramatic entry, the following piece, the ‘Prélude soitdisant Dramatique’ starts more subdued, only becoming ‘dramatic’, as its title suggests, after three minutes or so, and then it is more like an operatic overture than a dramatic tone picture. The ‘Prélude Inoffensif ‘offers, as Stefan Irmer in his booklet notes states, “the most refined and amazing of all of Rossini’s piano compositions”. The ‘Prélude Baroque’ is anything-but, rather it is romantic with more than a bit of operatic swagger; if it is baroque inspired music you are looking for, then the it is the ‘Prélude Fugassé’, with its exposition of a Bachian fugue you need; this piece shows Rossini as a master of the form. However, it is the ‘Prélude Semipastorale’, which is the longest of all the Preludes and the second longest of all Rossini’s piano pieces, that steals the show here. It could easily be described as an overture rather that a prelude, with its dramatic shifts of tempo and varied thematic material; it’s a real winner which once again shows that Rossini was no mere composer of trifles, but a composer of pianistic gems.

Volume six opens with yet another prelude: the ‘Prélude italien’ is a celebration of all things Italian, the main theme of this disc, with references not only to Italian grand opera but also to Italian nationalistic and folk music and Neapolitan song, this despite all of Rossini’s piano music being composed in Paris. This dichotomy is tackled in the following piece ‘L’innocence italienne – La candeur française’ where Rossini pits the music of his homeland against that of his home. In ‘Une pensée à Florence’ we have a composer fondly remembering time spent in Florence, whilst in the apparent simplicity of the ‘Barcarole’ he reminisces about romantic concert music. It is suggested in the notes that ‘La Savoie aimante’ may refer to the ceding of Savoy to France during the war that ultimately led to Italian unification in 1870, with Stefan Irmer citing Rossini’s own heading of “Arrivée des Zouaves” for the second theme, a military like march, as evidence for this. One of the most charming of the pieces on this disc is the ‘Échantillon du chant de Noël à l´italienne’, in which the composer portrays the folk tradition of the pifferari, when shepherds from Calabria and the Abruzzi would visit Rome on Christmas eve to perform before the statue of the Virgin Mary.

The opening piece of disc seven is the ‘Petite promenade de Passy à Courbevoie’, which rather than being a stately walk is more like a sprint punctuated by occasional breaks for breath. This is followed by ‘Un cauchemar’, a piece in which Rossini states a kind of leitmotif, something unusual for the composer, in a four note tune in the left hand, this motif, which is played in differing fashions is what holds this piece together, and although it shifts in tempo and temperament, this mainly slow piece is hardly representative of the ‘nightmare’ of the title. This disc presents three ‘Spécimen’ pieces which Irmer points to as seemingly being the only pieces in all of Rossini’s piano oeuvre that are “interrelated”. Here the composer seems to be looking at the past in the ‘Spécimen de l`ancien regime’, his present situation and that of music in the ‘Spécimen de mon temps’, and in ‘Spécimen de l´avenir’, with its nod towards Liszt, we have his personal look towards the future. The ‘Gammes’ are interesting in the way that they ape other music, with the first of them, ‘Première montée et descente’, seemingly giving us a version of an old folk song, which to me seems like a variation of ‘For he’s a jolly good fellow’. It also, in ‘L´amour à Pekin’ gives us the only time that Irmer is joined by another musician, the alto Michaela Dobmeier, whose plummy tone lends itself well to the words; it is a shame therefore that the text is only given in the original French and a German translation.

The final disc opens with the ‘Prélude (from: Musique anodine)’, its rousing opening giving way to a more lyrical section before the opening theme returns. In the ‘Gymnastique d´écartement’ I think it would help to be a gymnast, as the gentle rippling of the opening soon gives way to a whirlwind of notes, something that points to Rossini’s prowess as a pianist, no ‘fifth rate pianist’ indeed! His treatment of the ‘Valse anti-dansante’ is quite different to any of his other waltzes, just compare it to his ‘Petite valse de boudoir’, here I cannot imagine any dancer, whatever their ability, being able to dance to this waltz with its pulsating rhythms and high tempo; this is surely a waltz to listen to and not to dance. It might seem odd to end a disc and therefore this wonderful series of eight with a fanfare, but in the ‘Petite valse de boudoir’ we have a fitting ending to the series. In this piece Stefan Irmer plays both parts in a performance that sums up the music and his performance well.

I have greatly enjoyed this set very much, so much so that the only volume of the Naxos series of Rossini’s Péchés de vieillesse that I own (8.570590-91) has already been relegated to second place and might even be destined for a charity shop. The playing of Stefan Irmer might be a little Germanic at times, but on the whole, this set offers the listener fine performances which have been captured in excellent sound. The accompanying booklet notes give a very good introduction to the man and his musical life as well as a brief introduction to each disc. However, Stefan Irmer’s original notes, which as stated above, are available online, are excellent and give a full and detailed survey of the music presented here, much better than those that come with that Naxos set. A most entertaining and infectious set, one which, whilst I would not recommend playing the discs back to back, I have, and I even played a couple of them four and five times.

Stuart Sillitoe

Volume 1 MDG 618 0654-2 [57:10]
Petite Caprice (Style Offenbach). Allegretto grotesco [2:24]
Memento Homo. Andantino maestoso [7:32]
Assez de memento: dansons. Allegro moderato [4:02]
Une caresse à ma femme. Andantino [3:37]
Un profond Sommeil. Allegretto molto moderato [4:16]
Un réveil en Sursaut. Allegro vivace [6:11]
Un enterrement en carnaval. /1 Andantino /2 Allegro moderato [8:49]
Mon Prelude hygienique du matin. Allegro vivace [5;12]
La Lagune de Vénise à l’expiration de l’année 1861!! Allegretto moderatissimo [6:27]
Marche et Réminiscences pour mon dernier voyage ... Andantino mosso [7:44]
Volume 2 MDG 618 0918-2 [58:41]
Hachis Romantique [3:46]
Les Hors d’oeuvres
Radis [7:31]
Thème et variations (Anchois) [5:01]
Introduction (Cornichons) [4:22]
Thème et variations (Beurre) [7:08]
Ouf! Les Petits Pois {3:57]
Les Quatres Mendiants
Me voilà - Bonjour Madame (Les Figues Sèches) [4:39]
Minuit sonne - Bon soir Madame (Les Amandes) [5:28]
A ma Petite Perruche (Les Raisins) [5:12]
A ma chère Nini (Les Noisettes) [5:12]
Petite valse l’Huile de Ricin [7:32]
Volume 3 MDG 618 1108-2 [59:21]
Un Sauté 4’12]
Un Rêve 9’01]
Etude Asthmatique [5:24]
Prélude prétentieux [6:06]
La Pesarese [5:19]
Prélude convulsif [4:38]
Un Petit Train de Plaisir [11:39]
Prélude religieux [6:54]
Valse Torturée [4:57]
Volume 4 MDG 618 1260-2 [78:30]
Un Rien No. 1. Allegretto [2:21]
Un Rien No. 2. Allegretto moderato [1:20]
Un Rien No. 3. Allegretto moderato [3:05]
Un Rien No. 4. Andante sostenuto – Allegretto [5:27]
Un Rien No. 5. Allegretto moderato [3:28]
Un Rien No. 6. Andante maestoso – Allegro brillante [4:16]
Un Rien No. 7. Andantino mosso [1:20]
Un Rien No. 8. Andantino sostenuto [2:37]
Un Rien No. 9. Allegretto moderato [1:57]
Un Rien No. 10. Andantino mosso [2:41]
Un Rien No. 11. Andantino mosso – Allegretto moderato [4:03]
Un Rien No. 12. Danse Siberienne. Allegretto moderato [2:22]
Un Rien No. 13. Allegretto brillante [1:03]
Un Rien No. 14. Allegro vivace [3:35]
Un Rien No. 15. Petite Galette Allemande. Allegro brillante [2:43]
Un Rien No. 16. Andantino – Allegretto brillante [3:02}
Douces Reminiscences offertes a mon ami Carafa pour le Nouvel An 1866 Oh fricaine !!!
Un Rien No. 17. A piacere – Andantino mosso, quasi Allegretto [4:01]
Un Rien No. 18. Andantino mosso – Allegro [5:08]
Un Rien No. 19. Allegretto moderato [1:58]
Un Rien No. 20. Allegro brillante [3:25]
Un Rien No. 21. Andantino sostenuto [4:38]
Un Rien No. 22. Thème et Variations sur le Mode Mineur. Andantino mosso [4:34]
Un Rien No. 23. Thème et Variations sur le Mode Majeur. Allegretto moderato [5:46]
Un Rien No. 24. Un Rien sur le Mode Enharmonique. Adagio – Andantino mosso [2:51]
Volume 5 MDG 618 1353-2 [77:01]
Prélude Blagueur – Allegro brillante [6:39]
Prélude soitdisant Dramatique – 1 Andante sostenuto /2 Andante /3 Allegretto agitato [12:00]
Prélude Pétulant Rococò – Allegretto vivace [7:28]
Prélude Inoffensif – Andantino [10:01]
Prélude Baroque – Allegro [6:22]
Prélude Semipastorale – 1 Andantino /2 Allegro vivace [14:44]
Prélude Fugassé – Andante Maestoso - Allegro [4:22]
Prélude Moresque – Allegretto moderato [4:31]
Bolero Tartare – Allegretto [9:46]
Volume 6 MDG 618 1386-2 [78:33]
Prélude italien [5:53]
/1 L’innocence italienne
/2 La candeur française [7:27]
La Venitienne – Canzonetta [5:56]
Une pensée à Florence [8:29]
Saltarello à l`italienne [4:13]
Barcarole [4:57]
Impromptu tarantellisé [5:29]
La Savoie aimante [6:09]
Marche (Marsch) [6:02]
Une bagatelle – In nomine patris (Mélodie italienne) [1:05]
Échantillon du chant de Noël à l´italienne [6:11]
Première Communion [4:48]
Tarantelle pur sang (avec traversée de la procession) [10:47]
Volume 7 MDG 618 1426-2 [79:34]
Petite promenade de Passy à Courbevoie, la percourant (homèopathiquement et à la pesarese)
dans tous les tons de la gamme chromatique – Allegro vivace molto [3:31]
Un cauchemar (Ein Alptraum) – Andante maestoso – Allegretto [11:52]
Tourniquet sur la gamme chromatique – Allegro moderato [5:24]
Spécimen de l`ancien régime Probestück des Ancien régime – Andante cantabile – Allegretto [18:07]
Gammes
Des montées et des descentes
Deux gammes chinoises, suivies d´une mélodie analogue
Première montée et descente – Allegretto moderato – Allegretto tenero [2:19]
Deuxième montée et descente – Allegretto moderato [0:55]
1re Gamme chinoise Montante et descendante [0:45]
2me Gamme chinoise Montante et descendante - Andantino mosso [0:39]
L´amour à Pekin, Petite mélodie sur la gamme chinoise – Andantino mosso [4:23]
Michaela Dobmeier, alto
Spécimen de mon temps Des tritons s’il vous plait – Andantino maestoso – Allegro vivace [10:42]
Montée – Descente Encore un peu de blague – Allegretto [1:24]
Montée – Descente – Moderato [2:55]
Spécimen de l´avenir – Allegro [11:42]
Ritournelle gothique – Moderato [3:42]
Volume 8 MDG 618 1448-2 [80:02]
Prélude (from: Musique anodine) – Allegretto moderato [1:46]
Thème naïf et variations idem – Andantino mosso [5:46]
Plein-chant chinois – Andante - Allegretto moderato [5:07]
Petite polka chinoise – Allegro brillante [4:21]
Chansonette – Allegretto [3:27]
Une Bagatelle – Andante mosso [1:14]
Gymnastique d´écartement – Allegro brillante [4:43]
Échantillon de blague mélodique sur les noires de la main droite – Andantino mosso - Allegretto moderato [6:28]
Impromptu anodin – Allegretto moderato [5:06]
Fausse couche de polka-mazurka – Allegretto [3:34]
Petite pensée – Largo - Allegretto moderato [2:18]
Valse anti-dansante – Vivace [6:50]
Mélodie candide Allegretto [4:09]
Valse boiteuse – Allegretto moderato [4:56]
Valse lugubre – Allegretto [3:43]
Petite valse de boudoir – Allegretto [3:18]
Une réjouissance – Allegretto moderato [2:27]
Un regret; Un espoir [4:03]
Petite fanfare à quatre mains – Allegretto [3:34]

 



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