At the core of the compilation is Rossini’s Serate musicali, a set of eight pieces, which the composer put forward for the study of Italian song, and Joan Sutherland offers a fine interpretation of the set, with her husband Richard Bonynge. These pieces set the tone, with exemplary phrasing. At times it is difficult not to think of Sutherland's operatic accomplishments while listening to her performances of more intimate literature from the nineteenth century. Some might hold that Sutherland’s voice is darker here than on recordings of similar literature that she made earlier in her career, it is nonetheless useful to hear the mature interpretations of these songs. More than that, the other Italian artsongs merit attention for the perspectives they offer on the genre, with rarely recorded works by Leoncavallo, Respighi, Ponchielli, and others.
The remarkable feature of the release is the breadth of styles that the pair execute. With the character pieces of the Serate musicali serving as a point of departure, the recording includes some moving songs by Bellini, which deserve attention for the concise expression the composer brings to such a piece as Dolente imagine di Fille mia and Maliconia, ninfa gentile. Bellini’s Vaga luna, che inargenti is another fine piece, which Sutherland and Bonynge offer seemingly effortlessly. The unique contribution by Verdi, Il poveretto, is charming for what it is, but those unfamiliar with the contributions of Donizetti will find some attractive pieces in this collection, which also demonstrates Sutherland’s command of the genre.
Of the French literature collected in this set, Sutherland’s interpretations of pieces by Massenet demonstrates the qualities in Massenet’s mélodies, as well as selected works by Bizet, Thomas, Adam, and Delibes. Cécile Chaminade is also represented here with her Berceuse, which Sutherland renders persuasively. The Iberian tones of some of the French pieces offer another aspect of literature, as found in Lalo’s L’esclave and Delibes’ Les filles de Cadix.
The studio recordings have a spacious sound, albeit with a somewhat dry acoustic. The voice is prominent, as it should be, with Bonynge supporting with fine style. Sutherland is clear and resonant, as evident in some of the elaborate melismas of the opening set of songs by Rossini. Her glissandi are clean and effective, never out of place or affected. For both performers, the dynamic ranges is appropriate to the music and captured well on the recordings. The well-produced set includes a detailed booklet with not only the full track listings, but also texts and translations of each piece, along with a short commentary on the works. This recording offers not only a different side of the contributions Sutherland and Bonynge made during their careers, but brings to life music that represents an outpouring the romanticism in the over forty pieces in this impressive set.