DONIZETTI: Songs (Dennis O'Neill/ Ingrid Surgenor) (Naxos: 8.557780)
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'I shall have to writetwelve canzonette
as usual, to get twenty ducats for each, somethingthat in times past I used to do while the rice was cooking.' Thus Donizetti tohis brother-in-law, Antonio Vasselli, in 1837, the year of Pia de' Tolomei
, hardly suggesting a profound commitment to the genre. Fortunatelythe majority of his 'Liriche da camera
' tell a different story. Whetherissued in batches of six or more with fancy titles, a common practice of thetime, or written individually for some professional singer or wealthy amateur,they display a freshness of melodic invention, neat craftsmanship and, aboveall, that inexhaustible formal resource that marks the best of his operas.
In Donizetti's day vocalchamber music, as it was called in Italy, tended to run to fixed patterns:strophic with refrain, simple ternary with central episode and reprise,minor-to-major key 'romanza' also with episode, even the cantabile-cabalettascheme of an operatic aria with piano accompaniment that suggests an orchestralreduction. All are to be found in Donizetti's output, but always with subtlevariations and extensions that carry them well outside the norm. Some of his designsare wholly original, being dictated by the nature of the text. Clearly morethought was given to their composition than Donizetti was disposed to admit.
The earliest of his salonpieces date from his years in Naples, which would remain his base of operationsfor a good part of his career. Indeed, in Verdi's eyes he was more of aNeapolitan than Mercadante, who claimed (falsely) to have been born in thatcity; and the judgement was meant as a compliment.
The present recordingincludes items from a Collezione di canzonette
probably published duringthe 1820s and containing five solo songs, three duets and an unaccompaniedquintet. 'Giuro d'amore' [Track 9] , a simple heart-felt avowal of love,is remarkable in making a perfectly rounded musical statement with no elementof thematic recurrence. 'Su l'onda tremola' , an invitation to thehesitant beloved to take a trip on the Venetian lagoon, is laid out as a rondo,each reprise varied with light touches of fioritura.
Altogether more ambitiousare four songs from the set, 'Un hiver ?á Paris', also a Neapolitan publication reprintedin Paris in 1839. Their style approaches the operatic, with passages ofrecitative, inconclusive pauses in the accompaniment before the vocal entry andeven final cadenzas. 'La ninna-nanna'  opens with a recitative in adistant key before settling into a gentle, rocking refrain, its recurrencesextended by haunting melismata
on the word 'Ah!
'. The other threerequire vocal impersonations in the manner of Schubert's 'Der Erlkonig'. In 'Ilpescator'  the narration, the grief of the abandoned fisherman and theblandishments of the goddess of the lake are conveyed in a masterly blend ofrecitative, arioso and fully formed cantabile
that illustrates every detailof Schiller's poem. 'La sultana'  employs the traditional French 'couplet'form to tell the story of a cavalier who comes to serenade a sultan's wifedespite her warnings of danger, and on the next night arrives to find onlytraces of her murdered body.
'Le crepuscule'  is taken from Nuits d'ete?á Posillipo
, this last a resort north of Naples, famous for its hot springs (1836). Described as a 'romanza', it is in fact an 'aubade', the twilightbeing that of morning. Hugo's three verses are set to different melodic ideas, eachof which returns quite naturally to the same refrain for the lover who 'singsand weeps'.
Of the three 'ariette' fromSoirees d'automne ?á L'Infrascati
(now a Neapolitan suburb) 'Amore emorte'  sustains an elegiac mood throughout with only the faintesthint of consolation in its major-key conclusion; 'La lontananza' allows cheerfulness to break in towards the end; 'Amor marinaro'  isone of those joyous ditties in Neapolitan dialect in which Donizetti excelled -so much so that he was for a long time wrongly credited with the once popularfavourite, 'Te voglio bene assje', still occasionally heard today.
(1842), 'Il sospiro'  bears witness to the composer'senduring capacity for long-breathed cantilena in the Italian Romantic manner; while'?ê morta'  inscribed to Zelie de Coussy (future dedicatee of DonPasquale
and thought to have been more than a mere friend) features ahighly original distribution of minor and major modes. For her too Donizettiwrote, to a French text, the most poignant of all his salon pieces 'La m?¿re etl'enfant'  which remains centred in a minor key throughout.
Formal innovation marks 'Unalagrima'  from Matinee Musicale
(1841), a preghiera
whosebland surface is disturbed by moments of desperation. 'L'amor mio'  fromthe same collection has a text by Felice Romani, Donizetti's collaborator onseveral of his operas, notably L'elisir d'amore
. 'Ah, rammenta, o bella Irene' is unashamedly operatic: a two-movement aria on the plan of Arsace's 'Ah,quel giorno' from Rossini's Semiramide
. But if the style isRossinian canto fiorito
, the voice is Donizetti's. 'L'amor funesto' was intended for Napoleone Moriani, who had starred in the Viennese premi?¿re ofLinda di Chamounix
. Known as 'the tenor of the beautiful death', he wasuniquely qualified to do justice to this poetic, spaciously conceivedapostrophe of a lover to the femme fatale
who had ruined his life.
?® Julian Budden