Among the many composition assignments given students in conservatories in nineteenth-century Italy were songs and sacred pieces such as hymns and Mass movements. Young composers could then cut their teeth, so to speak, on setting texts for these more manageable works; the larger stage compositions would come later (were these young composers fortunate enough to survive in this profession).
Sixteen of Puccini’s songs and one hymn are presented on this fine album, sung exquisitely by soprano Krassimira Stoyanova with able accompaniment by pianist Maria Prinz. Both approach the songs with respect and integrity. In addition to enjoying Stoyanova’s interpretive style, there are the many delightful moments of recognition in the songs, for a young Puccini would later employ—recycle is too harsh a term—some of this materials for his operas. One may surprised, for instance, to hear the melody of “Canto d’anime” sung by a woman, for it prefigures Rinuccio’s “Firenze è come un albero fiorito” from Gianni Schicchi (with a much different text!). Other operas that appear in the midst of these songs include Manon Lescaut, Madama Butterfly, Tosca and La rondine. The earliest songs, according to their editor Michael Kaye, were composed when Puccini was in his late teens while the latest was written in Torre del Lago just five years before his death.
The songs range from the delicate miniature “Casa mia” to the formalistic “Mentìa l’avviso,” interesting since it has the composer setting recitative and aria in a much earlier style that listeners may expect from his pen. Elegant in its simplicity is the one piece of sacred music on the recording, “Salve Regina,” done both with the piano and as a bonus with organ (perhaps a far more satisfying track). Listeners should not be fooled by the song “Ave Maria Leopolda,” clearly addressed not to the Virgin but to a family friend who had obviously greeted the Puccinis as they returned from a voyage somewhere: ”We (Puccini, his wife Elvira and their daughter Fosca) greet you as a chorus as you greeted us on the deck of the ship!”.
All told, this recording will be a revelation for Puccini fans who do not know these pieces. Whether a fan of the composer’s or not, though, the soloist and accompanist together present a noteworthy selection of charming and wonderfully-performed songs.