Friday, 1 November 2013

Francesco Meli in Britten and Liszt

Francesco Meli / Matteo Pais - OA CD9019 D
This new recital from Italian tenor Francesco Meli and pianist Matteo Pais for Rosenblatt Recitals on Ops Arte has been some time in the making, the original recordings were made in 2009. The disc combines live recordings from Meli's 2009 and 2007 Rosenblatt Recitals at St. Johns Smith Square, with studio recordings made in 2009. Meli's programme is quite adventurously appealing as alongside the requisite arias by Massenet, Gounod, Verdi and Donizetti, and songs by Paolo Tosti and Rossini, Meli performs Britten's Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, Op. 22 and Liszt's Tre sonetti di Petrarca (Three Sonnets of Petrarch).

Meli and Pais open with Britten's Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, Op. 22. Written in 1940 the cycle was the first set of songs which Britten composed specifically for Peter Pears and they were performed at the Wigmore Hall, their first public appearance in 1942 after their return from the USA. Britten sets seven of Michelangelo's sonnets all dealing with aspects of love. The songs were written whilst Britten was in the USA and they demonstrate the way he was freeing himself from the constraints of the English tradition, they are some of the most European of Britten's writings. Very focussed on the vocal line, the songs are in some way akin to  Liszt's Petrarch Sonnets with both composers reinterpreting the Italian bel canto tradition for their own purposes.

As might be expected Meli sounds nothing like Peter Pears in these songs. But then again listening to various different tenors performing them, you sense that each re-invents them for their own purposes. Britten's Michelangelo Sonnets crop up with non-Anglophone singers, giving them an opportunity to sing Brittten and not worry about the English language.

Meli sings with a fine virile tone and a very open, Italianate sound. In the first song Si come nella pnna there is the distinct impression that the words come second, that Meli puts line and tone first. His performance is very robust and, it must be admitted, took me a bit of getting used to. In the faster second song, A che piu debb'io we do get more of a sense of the words, but there is also a feeling that Meli's tone hardens somewhat in the upper register when pressed.

Veggio co'bei costri occhi is nicely mysterious with hints of Les Illuminations. Meli brings quite a dark tone to his voice and uses a lovely mezzo-voce which contrasts with the edge his voice acquires under pressure. Tu sa ch'io is vividly dramatic, a combination of robust tone and melting moments. Rendento agli occi miei is nicely declamatory, but another thing rather worried me, the lack of an erotic undertow to the performance. Michelangelo's sonnets are all about love and desire, and Meli's robust, virile performances are thrilling but don't always give me the impression he is erotically obsessed with someone.. S'un casto amor is vivid, with some nicely crisp enunciation. Finally Spirto ben nato which is thrillingly done, full of brilliant Italianate tone.

Meli's approach in all the songs is to give us a robustly burnished vocal line, but after my initial doubt I found that his approach to the words worked well. These are very different performances to what I am used to but sufficiently intriguing to go on the library shelves. My only real cavil, which I will come back to later in the review, is the sense that Meli is trying too hard, pushing his voice and letting hardness creep in.

Next come two live recordings of operatic arias, taken from Meli's 2007 recital, and here it is noticeable that the recording does give Meli's voice a bit more bloom. In En fermant les yeux from Jules Massenet's Manon, Meli gives us good French combined with a nicely virile sound and a good firm line. This is very much in the heroic style; Meli's tone is admirably firm, though at times he sounds a bit effortful. Gounod's Romeo is not a role that we associate with heroic voices nowadays, but it was sung by Jean de Reske in what must clearly have been an heroic manner. Here Meli sings Ah, leve-tori solei from Romeo et Juliette with open throated Italianate vigour. The result, despite some rather intrusive top notes, is surprisingly successful.

We go back to the studio for three songs by Tosti and two by Rossini. Paolo Tosti was born and died in Italy but much of his heydey was spent in England. His speciality was parlour songs, and here we get three little delights. L'ultima canzone, Tristezza and L'ultima bacio. Meli is nicely relaxed here, giving us some lovely mezzo-voce moments shaping the line finely, but adding drama too.

He follows these with Rossini's La danza (from Soirees Musicales and Le sylvain from Peches de vieillesse vol.3 no.9. In La danza Meli captures the spirit of the song well, giving an upbeat extrovert performance. His voice proves remarkably agile in the faster moving passages, the only problem is that I don't actually like the sound he makes when his voice moves fast through the notes. (What I think of as the Cecilia Bartoli problem). In Le sylvain he gives a nicely shaped performance, but I felt that it veered a bit to close to the heroic for the song.

There follows a pair of arias from the live 2009 recital. La mia letizia infondere from Verdi's I Lombardi is short but perfectly formed and for once left me feeling that Meli's approach and voice were perfectly in tune with the song. He follows this Angel casto e bel from Donizetti's Le Duc d'Albe. Donizetti left the opera incomplete, because the Paris Opera changed its mind and the piece was completed 40 years later by his pupil Matteo Salvi.

Finally we have Liszt's Tre Sonnetti di Petrarca written in full enthusiasm for Italian culture, the songs are Bellini's cavatinas heard through Liszt's own particular genius. One of the best recordings of them, alas apparently unavailable is that by Luciano Pavarotti. Meli is not, perhaps, in Pavarotti's class and does rather try too hard; there were plenty of moments when I wanted to tell him to relax a little and not push so hard.

He sings Pace non trovo with vivid passion and a vibrant line. We get some lovely burnished tone at times and the aria flows along nicely. In Benedetto sia 'I giorno Meli displays a vibrant, flexible line but hardness does creep into the tone. This is frustrating as we also get some lovely mezzo-voce. I'vidi in terra angelici costumi is performed with a lovely flowing line and nicely virile tone..

Throughout Meli is beautifully supported by Matteo Pais, who is demonstrates his mettle in the accompaniments to the Britten and Liszt songs.

The Cd booklet includes a short article about the music, full artist biographies and texts and translations.

This is a slightly frustrating disc. The programme is intelligent and nicely put together, but I kept being frustrated by the way Meli's vocal performance varied with hardness creeping into the tone at peak moments. Perhaps it is my taste in tenors, but given that we have some lovely moments here I did wonder whether the recording captures him at his best. This is a disc which it would be best to try before you buy.

Benjamin Britten (1913 - 1976) - Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo Op.22 (1940) [17.21]
Jules Massenet (1842 - 1912) - En fermant les yeux - Manon (1884) [4.09]
Charles Gounod (1818 -  1893) - Ah, leve-toir, soleil - Romeo et Juliette (1867) [4.25]
Paolo Tosti (1846 - 1916) - L'ultima canzone (1905) [4.05]
Paolo Tosti (1846 - 1916) - Tristezza (1908) [3.53]
Paolo Tosti (1846 - 1916) - L'ultimo bacio [2.15]
Gioachino Rossini (1792 - 1868) - La danza (1835) [2.53]
Gioachino Rossini (1792 - 1868) - Le sylvain (1857-1868) [6.22]
Giuseppe Verdi (1813 - 1901) - La mia letizia infondere - I Lombardi (1843) [1.56]
Gaetano Donizetti (1787 - 1848) / Matteo Salvi (1816 - 1887) - Angelo casto e bel - Le Duc d'Albe (1839) [4.53]
Franz Liszt (1811 - 1886) - Tre sonnetti del Petrarca (1843-45) [19.56]
Recorded 1-7, 1-14, 17-19, 21-24 February 2009, St Johns Smith Square London
9 March 2009, St Paul's Church, New Southgate, London
Live recordings 6 June 2007 and 11 March 2009, St Johns Smith Square.
OPUS ARTE OA CD9019 D 1Cd [72.15]

Francesco Meli in Britten and Liszt - Rosenblatt Recital
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Nov 1 2013
Rating: 3.0
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