Thursday, 6 June 2013

Tutti Verdi - complete songs at the London Song Festival

Verdi caricatured in 1860 by Delfico,
the dedicatee of Sgombra, o gentil
Having given us the complete Wagner songs (see my review), Nigel Foster and the London Song Festival also performed the same service for Giuseppe Verdi (1813 - 1901). On Wednesday 5 June 2013 at St. Paul's Covent Garden, soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn and tenor Nicholas Ransley, with bass-baritone Bozidar Smiljanic, accompanied by Nigel Foster performed all 26 of Verdi's songs.

Verdi wrote songs throughout his life, but the core of his output are the sets of songs he published in 1838 and 1845. After 1845 his output diminished, the songs being occasional single items often quite short. The joy of this recital was that Foster had tracked down all the songs including one which Verdi wrote on 1894. The puzzling thing seems to be that, despite all the advances in scholarship, there is not a single simple Verdi edition of all 26 songs. Some are tiny, occasional pieces written as thank-you presents, but all are worthwhile and many have interesting relations to the operas.


Verdi's Sei Romanze (Six Songs) of 1838 was his first published work, composed in 1836 before any of the operas. The songs don't form a cycle simply a set of songs on the themes of death and loss with piano parts which are rather simplistically basic.

Ransley gave a vibrant and dramatic performance of Non t'accostar all'urna ('Do not approach the urn'). It is not a complex song, but very expressive and dramatic.  Llewellyn captured the sad melancholy of More, Elisa, lo stanco poeta ('Here dies, Elisa, the tired poet') with its very Verdian cast to the melody.


In solitaria stanza ('In a solitary room') remarkably foreshadows Il Trovatore (written 16 years later). It was curious to hear the pre-echoes in the piece, and Ransley made the most of what is rather a meaty song. He continued with the dark and dramatic Nell 'orror di di note ascura ('In the horror of a dark night').

The final pair of songs, both sung by Llewellyn, were settings of Italian translations of Goethe, and in fact Wagner also set both texts. Perduta ho la pace, setting Gretchen am Spinnrade, concentrated on Gretchen's states of mind creating an almost scena and not a bit of spinning in sight. Finally, Llewellyn gave a beautifully formed performance of Deh, pietoso, oh Addolorata ('With mercy, Oh woman of griefs'). This was almost a fully developed aria, with the melody line extending into something rather elaborate.

Al tuo bambino ('Your baby') was written in 1850, after the premiere of Stiffelio and set words by the librettist Francesco Maria Piave. It was a present for Verdi's host in Trieste celebrating the birth of the host's son. It is a great delight, albeit rather short with a lovely schwung to the melody; Llewellyn gave the work charm. By contrast E la vita (also setting words by Piave) is rather backward looking in the way that the melody flows. Sung by Llewelyn, it was the most salon-ish of Verdi's songs so far.  Stornello ('Rhyme') written in 1869 has a real piano part. It is a delightful character piece, not at all what we generally expect of Verdi. Llewellyn gave a characterful performance which cased a laugh and smile in the audience.

The first half concluded with another trio of songs, all sung by Ransley. Il brigidino (a red and white rosette shaped biscuit) is in fact a patriotic song written in 1861 between sessions of the Italian parliament where Verdi was a deputy. The song comes in the gap between Un ballo in maschera and La forza del destino. It is rather wordy, with a funny little melody which comes to an abrupt end. Il Poveretto ('The poor man') was written in London in 1847 (where the premiere of I masnadieri took place). The song took on a second life when used (with new words) in a production of Rigoletto as an aria for Maddalena. Though the song has dramatic moments, Ransley caught the mood of lyric melancholy.

Finally L'Esule ('The exile') from 1839 (the year Oberto was premiered). It is the longest of Verdi's songs and effectively and aria with a very long piano introduction, recitative, cavatina and concluding with a brilliant cabaletta. Foster, in his programme notes, described the piano writing as overblown and very orchestra, but it was great fun too.

The young Serbian bass-baritone Bozidar Smiljanic opened the second half with Verdi's only song in the bass clef, La preghiera del poeta (the poet's prayer) written in 1858 (the year after Simon Boccanegra and Aroldo). The piano imitated the harp with Smiljanic's richly fluent declamation over the top.

Verdi's final song, Pieta Signor (Lord have mercy) set words adapted by Arrigo Boito. Verdi wrote it in 1894 (when he was 81) in support of earthquake victims. It is hardly a song, sounding more like an excerpt from the Requiem. Fascinating nonetheless, and Ransley brought real pathos to the vocal line. Llewellyn sang Sgombra o gentil ('Remove, Oh gentle one'), a setting of words by Alessandro Manzoni written in 1858. It is a short piece, just a recit followed by a tiny, but dramatic aria. Ransley sang Cupe e il sepolcro ('Gloomy is the tomb') which dates from 1873 (two year's after Aida). It opens with a very chromatic recitative before developing into a strong, dark and dramatic aria.

La Seduzione ('The seduction') dates from 1839. Verdi set a melodramatic tale in a restrained manner with a lovely flexible melody over a simple piano part. Llewellyn nicely brought out the drama of the words. L'Abandonee is Verdi's only song in French, written in 1849 (the year of Luisa Miller) and dedicated to Giuseppina Strepponi, the singer who became first his mistress and then his second wife. Again it used a flexible melody over a simple piano part, with the melody getting progressively more elaborate in a way not normally associated with Verdi. Llewellyn realised the fioriture nicely, capturing the rather period, salon-ish style of the piece. Written just two months after the premiere of Nabucco in 1842, Chi i bei di m'adduce ancora ('Who will bring back to me again') was darkly melancholic with Llewellyn expressive in the elaborate vocal line.

Verdi's Sei Romanze of 1845 were published in Lucca. This set has rather more complex, more pianistic writing for the piano though the subject matter is rather lighter than the 1838 songs. Il Tramonto ('Sunset') gave us a minor lyric drama rather than mere mood painting and was nicely realised by Ransley.

Llewellyn gave a characterful performance of the delightful bolero La Zingara (The Gypsy Woman) complete with brilliantly elaborate vocal decorations. Even here, Verdi showed his skill as the work is in rondo form but he withholds the final rondo theme and gives us new material.

Llewellyn brought out the lyric melancholy of Ad una stella (To a Star), one of Verdi's finest and most sophisticated songs. It has elements in common with La Forza del Destino written 16 years later. Lo Spazzacamino ('The Chimneysweep') was a complete delight. Llewellyn brought great charm and skill to the elaborate vocals and clearly head great fun with the song (as did we in the audience). Though it is a simple strophic piece with a repeated chorus, Verdi gives each verse different musical material.

The final song in the set Mistero ('The Mystery') sets words by the librettist Felice Romani. A complex cavatina-like piece in which Verdi does some lovely work painting, most beautifully caught by Ransley. he also sang the final song in the group, Brindisi ('Drinking song'), a tricky and complex piece despite the apparent simplicity of its form.

As a finale Foster and all three singers were joined by flautist Anna Stokes for a performance of Guarda che Bianca luna ('Look at the White Moon') written for soprano, tenor and baritone soloists plus a solo flute in 1839. A very Rossini-like piece, especially in the solo flute part, for much of the piece the vocal lines were all homophonic, playing second place to the elaborate flute part. A piece of great charm, we got to hear it twice. The second time it was performed with a more elaborate flute part not by Verdi.

It was a great treat to hear all of Verdi's songs especially in such find and engaging performances, with both Llewellyn and Ransley singing all but the final item from memory. As ever, Foster provided sympathetic accompaniment.

I am puzzled why we do not hear these works more often and applaud Foster's enterprise in creating the opportunity to do so.

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