Interlude at the side of the road: Luigi Cherubini

When Beethoven was asked to name the greatest living composer, his answer was Luigi Cherubini. When asked to name his favorite composer of operas, Beethoven’s answer was the same: Cherubini. Rarely performed, perhaps Cerubini’s music is due for reevaluation?

Before diving into his music, a few words about the man are needed. Cherubini was blessed with long life: Only four years younger than Mozart, Cherubini died 15 years after Beethoven. As his name suggests, Cherubini was Italian by birth, but lived most of his adult life in France. Ironically, Napoleon objected to his music as being “too French” as the Emperor preferred the Italian School. Nonetheless, Cherubini was installed in Vienna by Napoleon, where he met Beethoven. In later years, Cherubini was the headmaster of the Paris Conservatoire, where he was reknowned for his strict rules and dour demeanor, clashing with young Romantics such as Hector Berlioz.

Cherubini’s best known work is his opera Mèdeè (or Medea in its Italian version). The opera became a vehicle for the great Maria Callas and few have sought to follow in her footsteps, given the huge demands made of the lead soprano role. This fall, Medea makes its premiere at the leading opera house in the United States–the Metropolitan–225 years after its French premiere. Sondra Radvonovsky’s turn as the crazed sorceress is simply breathtaking–her performance alone, and the chance to see Medea live, make it THE must see opera event of the season.

Two orchestral parts, the overture and the prelude to the third act, reveal a bit about what Beethoven prized in Cherubini’s compositional technique–Dramatic orchestration, and repetitive motifs stand out, but fall well short of Beethoven’s mark in my estimation. Where Cherubini excells, however, is in vocal composition, which seems far more natural, while just as demanding as Beethoven’s. The best example of Cherubini’s talent for vocal composition is his Requiem in C. Not surprisingly, it featured at Beethoven’s funeral. Here is a brief playlist of some of these highlights:

If you can look beyond the mono recording, Maria Callas’ 1953 recording of Medea remains the benchmark. I, for one, will confess that the joys of old recordings are simply lost on me. Maybe on the right system, on vinyl with tube amplification–maybe. But certainly not streamed. Record companies take note: Radvonovsky (and her excellent Jason (Matthew Polenzani) and Neris (Ekaterian Gubanova)) would define the opera for the digital age.