Gioachino Rossini (1792 – 1868) is universally and rightly celebrated for his dozens of operas. But not everything Rossini wrote required massive forces; several recent recordings act as a guide to his works for small ensembles.
Most of these chamber pieces were written after 1830, when Rossini’s career underwent a sea change that kept him permanently out of the theater. That situation resulted from the accumulated effects of both governmental meddling and the stress and grief brought on by a series of family tragedies. Given how popular Rossini’s operas were when he “retired,” his absence came to be known as the Rossinian Silence. But he was not at all silent, rather writing a fair amount of smaller-scale works, not to mention his glorious sacred music, including the much-performed Stabat Mater.
Rossini’s chamber music output may not be as extravagant as the operas or as stirring as the oratorios, but it’s well worth exploring.
Of course, this master of writing for the voice composed some solo songs with piano accompaniment. Although Rossini was Italian, the texts are in French, largely because he was living in Paris during the second half of his life. Many of the French songs are included on Ariettes à l’anciennes, a recording for the Klarthe label by Melody Louledjian, with piano accompaniment by Giulio Zappa.
It's more accurate to call most of these songs duets between voice and piano. Indeed, in the liner notes, Zappa describes Rossini’s piano writing as sometimes “overabundant and uncomfortable” for the pianist. But Zappa has a confident handle on the tricky keyboard parts, never letting them overshadow Louledjian’s rich, resonant voice. Needless to say, the vocal line in each song is a perfectly controlled dramatic gem. In “L’âme délaissée” (The Abandoned Soul), for example, Louledjian embraces the composer’s musical intent as naturally as speaking. She is helped by Rossini’s willingness to stretch the conventions of song form to suit the rhythms and changing emotions of the words.
A skilled keyboard player himself, Rossini seems to have been determined to create music for that instrument, even if what he wrote lay awkwardly under other pianists’ hands. In his later years, he wrote several volumes of short pieces for solo piano, many of them published under the title Péchés de vieillesse, or Sins of Old Age. Swedish pianist Helge Antoni undertakes nine of these works on his CD Rossini – Piano Music on the Etcetera label.
Rossini had no illusions about cutting a fresh course for piano music. These are conventional miniatures in the early Romantic style, often borrowing well-known forms like the barcarolle and the waltz. The album opens with his “Siberian Dance,” a nod to the Russian folk music trickling into Paris thanks to the frequent travel between that city and St. Petersburg. Pianist Antoni attacks each phrase as if he’s doing the deep knee bends of a Cossack dance himself.
In an entirely different emotional sphere are the “Marches et Réminiscences pour mon dernier voyage” (Marches and Memories for My Last Trip). This music has moments of beautiful melody, but mainly it’s strange and often percussive, yet intriguing. Each brief section seems to tell a story, like paragraphs in a diary; we’re privileged to travel in Rossini’s pocket as he sees the sights. Some are mysterious, some stirring or sentimental, some witty. Antoni is a trustworthy and detailed tour guide. If you listen long enough, you’ll hear a short quote from the William Tell overture!
Not all of Rossini’s chamber works were written in his dotage. He composed his String Sonatas when he was only 12 years old. The instrumentation is two violins, cello, and double bass, a classic case of writing for whoever is around to play one’s music. Agostino Triossi, one of young Rossini’s closest friends (and presumably tall for his age) was the bassist. The composer himself played the second violin parts, and two other school friends were on first violin and cello. Later, Rossini would claim to be horrified by his childish efforts, but they are pleasant little pieces that give a fascinating insight into the early musical years of one of history’s most famous composers.
In a recent recording on Brilliant Classics, four Italian musicians – Francesco Manara (violin), Daniele Pascoletti (violin), Massimo Polidori (cello) and Francesco Siragusa (double bass) – bring this vestige of Rossini’s childhood to life. With poignant expression and a finely-tuned ensemble, the players show the works in their best-possible light. While little Gioachino might not have quite been a Mozart-level prodigy, he was a spectacularly talented 12-year-old with a genuine ear for the interplay of instruments within the same family.
While at the height of his success as an opera composer, Rossini took the time to compose a delightful Duet for Cello and Double Bass in D major. It’s worth hearing if only for the unusual combination of timbres of those two low instruments. Polidori and Siragusa have included it with the Sonatas, and it’s a gift that they did so.
The three-movement work opens with a hilariously bickering Allegro in which the cello and bass chase and mimic each other, occasionally settling down for a few phrases before getting snarky with each other again.
In 1828, when Rossini was 34, a new version of the four of the six String Sonatas was published, this time arranged for flute, violin, viola, and cello. It is not known whether Rossini himself did the arrangement, but he likely approved it, since it was from one of his usual publishers. Tactus recently released them as Quartetti per flauto e archi, featuring flutist Nicola Guidetti, violinist Demetrio Comuzzi, violist Alessandro Simoncini, and cellist Luca Simoncini.
The altered instrumentation changes the pieces to the point where they’re barely recognizable. The balance has shifted, turning the spotlight on the flute as soloist in a way that is not true for the first violin in the original version. The result is an addition to the repertoire of flashy 19th-century flute music that one can imagine would appeal to young artists on the lookout for something light but challenging to play. Guidetti is certainly up to the feat, taking a relaxed, sprightly approach to the virtuosic runs required of his instrument. These are far from chamber-music masterpieces, but they are fun musical baubles, very much of their time, and have their place in the repertoire.
Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/public domain.