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Recordings

10 Feb 2005

Il primo dolce affanno… The first sweet pain

True to the intent of its series, Il Salotto, Opera Rara offers in this seventh volume a delightful sampling of art songs from the mid- to late-nineteenth-century repertory. Performing them are sopranos Elisabeth Vidal and Laura Claycomb, mezzo Manuele Custer, tenors Bruce Ford and Willliam Matteuzzi, baritone Roberto Servile, and bass Alastair Miles, accompanied on piano by David Harper.

Il primo dolce affanno... The first sweet pain

Elizabeth Vidal, soprano; Bruce Ford, tenor; Laura Claycomb, soprano; Manuela Custer, mezzo-soprano; William Matteuzzi, tenor; Roberto Servile, baritone; Alastair Miles, bass; David Harper, piano.
Opera Rara CD ORR230

True to the intent of its series, Il Salotto, Opera Rara offers in this seventh volume a delightful sampling of art songs from the mid- to late-nineteenth-century repertory. Performing them are sopranos Elisabeth Vidal and Laura Claycomb, mezzo Manuele Custer, tenors Bruce Ford and Willliam Matteuzzi, baritone Roberto Servile, and bass Alastair Miles, accompanied on piano by David Harper.

The obvious highlights of this recording are the three settings of Petrarch's sonnets by Franz Liszt. Originally sketched during his years in Italy, he revisited the pieces several times, leaving both vocal and solo piano versions. One is likely to hear Liszt the vocal composer in larger choral works, so these offerings add a refreshing new perspective for audiences. When performed in recital, the sonnets are generally done in order, but Patric Schmid, the producer and artistic director, explains that, because they are all in the same key, they were separated to avoid "the impression that one flows into another." While this is strange inasmuch as CD track technology generally provides a separation, they are nevertheless heard on tracks 1, 9, and 17, which listeners can play in order if they so desire.

Vidal sings exquisitely in all of her solo selections; among the most elegant are her interpretations of Saint-Saens' "Thème Varié" and "Pourquoi rester seulette." Inexplicable is her performance in the Meyerbeer duet "La Mère Grand" with Custer. It is as though Vidal simply could not hear her colleague. The result of what would otherwise be an enchanting duet is that, while Custer remains on key, Vidal's intonation is hit-or-miss. This problem does not occur in their duet of Ricci's "Mi vuo trasformar"; admittedly, there are far fewer vocal acrobatics in Vidal's melodic line. Unfortunately, the Meyerbeer duet is the weakest selection on the recording.

Although not for intonation woes, another troubling song is the Buzzolla barcarola, "Tace il vento." Paired with Ford and bass Miles, tenor Matteuzzi is positively outclassed. His voice is unsure and thin in contrast, affecting the overall balance and total effect of this charming song. This is unfortunate for one rarely hears Buzzolla, a man among those Verdi selected to represent contemporary Italian composers in the ill-fated Rossini requiem. Perhaps as a soloist Matteuzzi fares better; we get no chance to hear on this recording, however.

With a very different vocal color from Vidal, Laura Claycomb offers a splendid rendition of Józef Poniatowski's "Cantami, cantami," remarkable in its delicate tone and dynamic control. Equally compelling is her duet of the composer's "Le Rosier" with Ford. Servile offers a solid and powerful interpretation of Gomes' "Realtà," but in the end, the real stars of the recording are Ford, Custer and Claycomb. Throughout David Harper accompanies with precision and grace, always present but never intrusive. Especially noteworthy is his elegant accompaniment of Ford in the Petrarch settings.

A comment is necessary about Michael Quinn's liner notes. In his introduction to the Verdi mélodie "Prends pitié de sa jeunesse," he notes the suspicion that this song may actually have been an aria for Rigoletto's Maddalena. Patric Schmid discussed this issue in a 1978 article in the Verdi Newsletter. Bearing only the title "Mélodie" the range designation "Mezzo-Soprano," and Verdi's name, the number appeared in a mid-nineteenth century Escudier piano-vocal edition of selections from the opera. As Schmid explained, in reality, the piece is Verdi's song "Il poveretto" (1847) with a new French text. Other than his identification as the music's composer, however, there has been no proof that he himself intended this piece for the opera. Absence of any mention of it in the Verdi Critical Works edition of Rigoletto places the song even deeper in the shadows. It would have been helpful to include the piece's full history or, at the very least, cite Schmid's article for those who wished to locate the music.

Questionable are comments on Meyerbeer (see the notes for "Le ricordanze."). Quinn suggests that the composer's "late entry" into the Salotto series is justified; "how out of place and possibly vulgar might his penchant for what Wagner decried as 'a wearisome heaviness' [...] have seemed in the discrete confines of the drawing room. Yet," he continues, "how welcome he should be made, for his is salon music of a distinctly superior and appealing kind." Given Wagner's unabashed anti-Semitic attacks on Meyerbeer, why bother to cite his evaluation for listeners? Quinn further suggests "Few would argue that Verdi has no place in a collection of songs about love." In truth, most would argue, especially those now writing on the Italian art song, that Verdi most certainly belongs there. He spent a lifetime composing about love, and, as this fine recording demonstrates, the line between art song and aria is a very fine one indeed.

Denise Gallo

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