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Recordings

Gian Carlo Menotti: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra / Cantilena e Scherzo / Canti Della Lontanza / Five Songs
23 Jul 2006

MENOTTI : Concerto for Violin and Orchestra / Cantilena e Scherzo / Canti Della Lontanza / Five Songs

Most Opera Today readers are probably familiar with Gian Carlo Menotti largely through his operas (The Medium, The Consul, Amahl and the Night Visitors, The Telephone, and others), and, if they teach or coach voice, may be more familiar than they’d like to be with pieces like “This is my box” and “Monica’s Waltz”, which have long been mainstays of the “American aria” branch of repertoire for young singers.

Gian Carlo Menotti: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra / Cantilena e Scherzo / Canti Della Lontanza / Five Songs

Concerto for Violin: Ittai Shapira, violin; Russian Philharmonic Orchestra, Thomas Sanderling
Cantilena e scherzo for harp and string quartet: Vanbrugh Quartet; Gillian Tingay, harp
Five Songs; Canti della Lontananza:

ASV CDDCA1156 [CD]

$14.99  Click to buy

But his instrumental music, and even his songs, are likely to be unfamiliar territory. At least they were for me, and would have remained so, if this CD had not shown up on my radar screen because the final 30 minutes or so of the 71-minute program comprise two sets of Menotti’s songs, performed beautifully by Christine Brewer and Roger Vignoles.

Both of these artists bring their considerable talents to presenting these songs, and the resulting performance certainly makes a case for the songs to be better known. Unfortunately, the listener is given little help in this area because the texts (written by Menotti himself) are not included in the booklet. We find out that Elisabeth Schwarzkopf commissioned the Canti della lontananza and are told that the songs are said to have been written in response to the departure of Menotti’s partner, Samuel Barber, from their life together. And, since Brewer’s English diction is quite good, a determined listener (e.g. one who has to write a review) can catch about 90% of the words to the Five Songs, enough to get the sense of what the songs are about. And perhaps a fluent Italian speaker can do the same with the Canti della lontananza, but I had to go through a network of colleagues to find a copy of the Italian texts, and work out my own translations from that—again, enough to know what the songs are about. But how many listeners are going to work that hard? Whether attributable (charitably) to copyright difficulties or (uncharitably) to a producer whose background may be so firmly in instrumental music as to be unaware of the importance of text in vocal performance, this is a grievous omission.

These songs have been likened to operatic scenas, and in some spots they do sound that way, particularly at the end of “La Lettera”, when Brewer brings her full vocal and emotional force to express a phrase that calls for it. But I hear a great deal of intimacy in these pieces, and the piano line is as important as the voice in many places. I would not say the texts are truly poems so much as an attempt by a sensitive and observant mind to make sense of one’s feelings (or, at some points, one’s curious lack of feelings) in the course of letting go of a relationship (which is why it is easy to believe that they could have been written in response to such an experience). Consistent with Menotti’s musical work, the pieces are tonal, and the 1983 Five Songs in particular are quite melodic. The Canti della Lontananza, while certainly not completely declamatory or unmusical, sound more melodic in this performance than perhaps they really are: one of the strengths that Brewer brings to this music is the ability to sing a rather unlikely vocal line with expressive phrasing and consistency between registers so that the line flows very naturally. While there is a general sense of melancholy and loss pervading both sets, songs like “My Ghost” and “Il settimo bicchiere di vino” have a light enough touch to keep the keep the mood from being too much of a downer.

Fans of Christine Brewer will not be disappointed in her performance of these songs. Listeners whose main interest is in the songs themselves should know that there is another recording of them available on Chandos, which I have not heard, but it’s possible that the texts are included, which would be a big plus. Those primarily interested in vocal music might also prefer the other disc because it includes Menotti’s opera Martin’s Lie, which may be even more of a rarity than the passionately lyrical 1952 violin concerto, which receives a masterly performance on this disc by Ittai Shapira and the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra under Thomas Sanderling, and the charming 1977 Cantilena e Scherzo for harp and string quartet, equally well served by the Vanbrugh Quartet and harpist Gillian Tingay.

Barbara Miller

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