Friday 1 February 2013

CD Review - Italian Love Songs, Anna Leese & Stephen De Pledge

Italian songs from the 19th and early 20th century can sometimes seem a little disappointing, not up to the standard of the operas that the composers were writing and rather too close to salon music when compared to French and German song. Part of the problem is that we usually hear them as part of a mixed programme, which can cruelly cruelly show up the songs in relief either by including more complex art songs or by contrasting the songs with the same composer's operatic output.

Another problem is that, though written for commercial sale and presumably amateur performance, they do require a very fine technique; you just can't skimp when singing them. This new disc from Anna Leese and Stephen De Pledge seeks to redress this. The repertoire concentrates exclusively on Italian songs from the 19th and 20th centuries, by Bellini, Donizetti and Tosti, whilst Leese sings with total sincerity and enviable technique and style.

The surprise in the disc's repertoire is that Leese and De Pledge do not include any of Verdi's songs, they jump straight to Puccini by way of Tosti. Sir Francesco Paolo Tosti wasn't an operatic composer, instead he wrote a very large number of songs, lived in England, became Edward VII's favourite composer and was knighted.  His songs can veer dangerously close to the Victorian parlour ballad, but the best of them deserve the sort of attention that they receive here.

Leese and De Pledge open their disc with Bellini's Tre Ariette. Whilst these do not require the singer to dazzle with virtuoso skills, they do require a strong bel canto technique with a good legato line, fine dynamic shading and an ability to communicate the words. Leese sings them with a warmly vibrant sound, using her vibrato intelligently. She has a strong legato technique, giving us a finely focused and nicely shaded line. Much care has gone into the shaping of the music, with nice phrasing and some fine ornamentation. She can tell a story too, so that in Dolente immagine she draws you in. The final song of the group, Vaga luna could, in fact, be almost an operatic item.

Next a pair of stray Bellini items, La farfaletta and Mi rendi. These two are rather perkier and could almost be by Rossini. Mi rendi sounds as if it might be the cavatina from an opera, rather interestingly Mi rendi sets a text by the 18th century poet Metastasio. Here, and in one or two other judicious places on the disc, Leese displays another weapon in her armoury  the portamento. This technique is essential to 19th century singing, but can be wearisome if overdone. Leese judges it nicely and her use of it is telling and expressive.

From Bellini, we move to Puccini who wasn't a great writer of songs at all.  The songs on the disc are all from the early to middle period of Puccini's career; the most recent Terra e mare dating from 1902 (between Tosca and Madama Butterfly), the earliest is Storiella d'amore dating from 1883 (before his first opera Le Villi).  Terra e mare is still a song, but it is far more complex than the Bellini numbers, with Puccini's familiar modulations and hints of the operas. Similarly E L'Uccellino hints at the operas Puccini was writing. Storiella d'Amore is a simple strophic song, but is finely constructed and Leese gives a beautiful, poignant perfectly formed performance. Sole e Amore has definite links with the operas as some of its musical material re-surfaced in La Boheme

Leese and De Pledge take the Tosti songs entirely seriously, crafting the performances beautifully and performing each with fine musicality which is a world away from a 'con belto' performance of Tosti's Goodbye. They open with Sogno, (1886) which Tosti wrote to words by a long time collaborator Olindo Guerrini. It is a remarkably economic piece, and shows that Tosti was capable of finely subtle writing. Leese and De Pledge bring these qualities out in the other Tosti works  Non t'amo piuIdeale which was first published in 1882 and Luna d'estate which dates from 1911, the final year's of Tosti's life and showing that his melodic invention was just as fresh.

I have to confess that I was rather dubious about the Tosti songs before I put the disc on, but Leese converted me to their subtlety and beauty.

She and De Pledge finish with a pair of Donizetti songs; Donizetti was quite prolific in the genre. Sull'onda cheta e bruna is a delightful barcarolle dating from 1838, whilst Amiamo is closer to popular song but charming nonetheless. This pair make a lovely finale to the recital.

There is a 'bonus track', a duet by Mario Savioni (1608 - 1685) Fugga fugg'Amor sung with Thorsten Buttner. A duet allied to the arie antiche much beloved of Italian singers, it helps put the recital in context but does seem a slightly odd addition.

Leese is well supported by De Pledge; the songs rarely make taxing technical demands, but he plays them with subtlety and fine phrasing. This is a delightful recital, made special by the fine, vibrant quality of Leese's voice, her strong technique and the intelligent qualities she and De Pledge bring to the performances. If you love Italian song or if, like me, you have found yourself in two minds about the genre, then do try this disc.

Italian Love Songs
Vincenzo Bellini (1801 - 1835) - Tre Ariette
Vincenzo Bellini (1801 - 1835) - La Farfaletta
Vincenzo Bellini (1801 - 1835) - Ma rendi
Giacomo Puccini (1858 - 1924) - Terra e mare
Giacomo Puccini (1858 - 1924) - E L'uccellino
Giacomo Puccini (1858 - 1924) - Storiella d'amore
Giacomo Puccini (1858 - 1924) - Sole e amore
Sir Francesco Paolo Tosti (1846 - 1916) - Sogno
Sir Francesco Paolo Tosti (1846 - 1916) - Non t'amo piu
Sir Francesco Paolo Tosti (1846 - 1916) - Ideale
Sir Francesco Paolo Tosti (1846 - 1916) - Luna d'estata
Gaetano Donizetti (1797 - 1848) - Sull'onda cheta e bruna
Gaetano Donizetti (1797 - 1848) - Amiamo
Mario Savioni (1608 - 1685) Fugga fugg'amor (with Thorsten Buttner)

Anna Leese (soprano)
Stephen de Pledge (piano)
Recorded on 27 - 29 November 2010 in the Music Room, Champs Hill, West Sussex

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