Thursday 30 November 2023

A distinctive voice & a richly rewarding sound-world: songs by Franco Alfano from Anna Pirozzi & Emma Abbate

Franco Alfano: Songs; Anna Pirozzi, Emma Abbate, Bozidar Vukotic; Resonus Classics
Franco Alfano: Songs; Anna Pirozzi, Emma Abbate, Bozidar Vukotic; Resonus Classics
Reviewed 28 November 2023

Alfano's rather dim reputation as a 20th century opera composer does not prepare you for the surprisingly rich and rewarding sound-world of his songs

You cannot help but feel that the Italian composer Franco Alfano (1876-1954) has received a poor deal from musical history. Despite his 1904 opera, Risurrezione, retaining a toe-hold in the repertoire, Alfano remains best known as the man who completed Puccini's Turandot, yet the completion of the opera that we commonly hear today was heavily revised by the conductor Arturo Toscanini, and Alfano's original rarely gets an outing.

This disc from soprano Anna Pirozzi and pianist Emma Abbate with cellist Bozidar Vukotic on Resonus Classics takes a different look at Alfano, featuring a programme of his songs, from his Cinq mélodies, written when he was a 21-year-old student at the Leipzig Conservatoire right through to Due liriche per canto, violoncello e pianoforte from 1949.

Emma Abbate seems to be making something of a project of reviving unjustly neglected 20th century Italian song and previous on Resonus she has released discs of Ildebrando Pizzetti's songs with Hanna Hipp [see my review] and Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco's settings of Shakespeare's sonnets with Ashley Riches [see my review]. This disc reveals another, rather striking Italian 20th-century voice.

Alfano's posthumous reputation suffered because of his willingness to be associated with the Fascist regime, but the same is true of other composers such as Mascagni. Alfano was a prolific composer, his output covers far more than just opera, including two symphonies, three string quartets, significant chamber music as well as songs. And the fascinating thing is that even when singers perform 20th century Italian song in recital, they never seem to venture into Alfano's catalogue.

This is puzzling because, judging by this disc, Alfano's song-writing is well worth exploring and his sound-world is a long way from what we might think of as the typical Italian song. These are real art songs with a significant role for the piano way beyond simply supporting the voice, a reflection perhaps of Alfano's own ambitions as a pianist.

Anna Pirozzi and Emma Abbate begin with four songs from Alfano's Sei liriche dating from the years 1919 to 1922. By now Alfano was established as an opera composer, Risurrezione having had numerous performances, whilst his subsequent operas show the influence of Debussy and Richard Strauss. The final song in the group sets an Italian translation of Rabindranath Tagore, a poet that Alfano would return to.

The songs all have a very distinctive voice, a confluence of 20th-century influences yet creating something distinct, richly complex piano parts complementing vocal lines that are almost expressionist at times. The writing is quasi-operatic at times, and all four songs here have striking dramatic qualities. Pirozzi has a lovely plangent tone to her voice, and makes a very affecting protagonist. Then comes È giunto il nostro ultimo autunno, a single song from 1943, which is layered with complex melancholy though here the focus is more on the voice.

Stepping back somewhat, we hear Alfano's Cinq mélodies, from 1896, and the songs were admired by Massenet.  The songs set poets such as Alfred de Musset and Victor Hugo, in the original French, rather interestingly. Here, we are in the world of a melodic vocal line supported by the piano, but the melodies are often lovely and the songs memorable. These are definitely not negligible when compared to Italian songs that commonly appear in recital

Then jumping to the end of his career, Due liriche per canto, violoncello e pianoforte date from 1949, and the second of which is again a setting of Tagore in translation. The cello definitely adds something extra to these songs, in the first the way the voice duets with the cello proves rather haunting whilst the second is dark and complex, Alfano's distinctive voice creating something powerful indeed. We also hear a work for cello and piano, Giorno per giorno, dating from 1928, and this is recognisably the same sound world.

Finally there are Tre nuovi poemi from 1939, the first powerful and intense with a substantial piano part, the second with a more melodic impulse yet still complex. The final song conjures a very particular mood, with the rather free text and the powerful sense of drama.

Whilst it could be argued that many of these songs explore a similar, quite narrow vein of expression , there is no doubting that Alfano is a powerful and distinctive voice. His music in these songs welds Italian melodic sensibilities with other influences to create a palate that is at once rich and strange yet strangely familiar. I wanted to hear more of the songs, and felt sad that we only got four of the Sei Liriche. But then Alfano wrote around 50 songs, so how about volume two?

The performances from Anna Pirozzi and Emma Abbate are richly affecting and the performers were clearly full engaged by this music. Pirozzi and Abbate make each song into a mini-drama, mining Alfano's complex sound world to the ultimate.

Franco Alfano (1876-1954) - songs from Sei liriche (1919-1922)
È giunto il nostro ultimo autunno (1943)
Cinq mélodies (1896)
Due liriche per canto, violoncello e pianoforte (1949)
Giorno per giorno (1928)
Tre nuovi poemi (1939)
Anna Pirozzi (soprano)
Emma Abbate (piano)
Bozidar Vukotic (cello)
Recorded in Menuhin Hall, Stoke d’Abernon, Surrey on 18–19 March 2023

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