Italian song: Bellini (Dennis O'Neill/ Ingrid Surgenor) (Naxos: 8.557779)
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Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835)
In the dawn of Italian Romantic opera the strongestvoice was that of Bellini. Within a limited technicalresource he brought to the prevailing Rossinian idiom awealth of poignant melody enhanced by moments ofexpressive dissonance to which even Wagner paidtribute. His fame, of course, rests on his stage works,but, like all Italian opera composers of his day, heturned out a number of pieces for voice and piano thatvary from academic exercises to songs dedicated tosome noble dilettante or other. There is nothing here ofthe German Lied. The poems are conventional; theaccompaniments never exploit the possibilities of thekeyboard in the manner of Schubert or Schumann.
Sometimes they suggest an orchestral reduction, asthough the composer had his eye on the theatre.
Certainly the operatic world is rarely far away.
Bellini's so-called chamber compositions aredistributed throughout his career. La farfalletta (TheButterfly 2) is said to have been written at the age oftwelve for a childhood friend (and sweetheart, ofcourse) to words by her brother as part of a puppettheatre entertainment, she herself singing while her dollmimed the actions of one who tries to catch a butterflyto give to her boy-friend. It is a pleasant little ditty in thefashionable polonaise rhythm, only the minor-keyinflection of the third line presaging the Bellini to come.
Anecdote also surrounds the two pieces dating fromthe composer's years at the Naples Conservatory. Both,says his lifelong friend, Francesco Florimo, weresettings of poems by his pupil, Maddalena Fumaroli,with whom he was by now corresponding secretly,since her parents disapproved of their buddingrelationship. Alas for legend! The autograph of Dolenteimmagine di Fille mia (Sad Image of my Phyllis 5)bears the date 1821, the year before Bellini andMaddalena became acquainted, together with adedication to one Nicola Taur. But then theconcentrated sadness of the melody, already fullycharacteristic, lends itself all too easily to romanticassociations. As for the scena ed aria, Quando inciso suquel marmo (When inscribed on this marble 16), this isobviously one of those essays in dramatic writing thatall Italian conservatories required of their students. Inthe singer's discovery of his own name carved on ablock by his (supposedly) faithless beloved we maydiscern the plot that inspired Haydn's curiouslyexperimental L'isola disabitata (The Desert Island).
Here the influence of Rossini is apparent, notably in thecrescendo of the cabaletta.
By 1829 Bellini had settled in Milan, where thesuccess of Il pirata at La Scala had won himinternational fame. In that year the firm of Ricordiissued a set of 'sei ariette', alternating minor and majormodes. No. 1, Malinconia, ninfa gentile (Melancholy,gentle nymph 9), spins a long, continuous melodyevolved almost entirely from a single two-bar phrase. InNo. 2, Vanne, o rosa fortunata (Go, O fortunate rose10), the opening strain recurs, punctuated by two shortepisodes, to be rounded off by a coda whose line risesby sequences to a climax, from which it falls to the finalcadence, a specifically Bellinian trait, to be found againin No. 5, Per piet?á, bell'idol mio (For pity, fair idolmine 14) and, more strikingly, in No. 3, Bella Nice, ched'amore (Fair Nice, who of love 11), couched in theplain syllabic style of La straniera (The Stranger) of thesame year, where the high point is a semitonal clashextremely bold for its time. By contrast, No. 4, Almen senon poss'io (At least if I can not 13) nods in thedirection of bland Rossinian canto fiorito, ending with ashowy cadenza. No. 6. Ma rendi pur contento (Butmake happy 15) is the simplest of cantabili, showingBellini's ability to extend his final phrase in whatMilton called 'notes with many a winding bout of linkedsweetness long drawn out'.
Four more pieces appear to date from Bellini'syears in Milan. L'allegro marinaro 7 alternates twocontrasting movements, one boisterous, the other suave.
Il fervido desiderio (Fervent desire 4), written for theContessa Sofia Voina, has all the marks of an 'albumleaf', short and pithy, the lover's impatience conveyedby accompanimental fidgets. Vaga luna che inargenti(Lovely moon that sheds silver light 6) is a typicallong-breathed cantilena in strophic form, movingsmoothly by small intervals. Most remarkable of all isTorna, vezzosa Fillide (Return, fair Phyllis 8), whichfirst came to light in 1935. Although entitled Romanzait is in fact a three-movement aria of distinctly dramaticcut with an abundance of minor tonality and an unusualamount of dialogue between voice and piano. Anoperatic sketch, perhaps? Even, it might be thought, asurvival from Bellini's conservatory days, but theinvention is too bold for a mere student.
Three songs in this collection belong to thecomposer's final years in Paris. La ricordanza (Memory1), dated 1834, is a recently discovered setting of asonnet by Count Pepoli, librettist ofI Puritani, then in preparation at the The?ótre desItaliens. It will be recognised as an early, extendedversion of what would become Elvira's Qui la voce suasoave (Here his sweet voice) in the opera itself. Onlythe rather casual draping of text over music makes onesuspect that the latter was thought of first.
Next year saw two ariettas: Sogno d'infanzia(Dream of Childhood 3), a folk-like melody laid out ona large-scale, and L'abbandono (Abandonment 12),evidently the elaboration of a sketch intended for theunwritten Ernani that had been dropped in favour ofLa sonnambula in 1831. Bellini's influence on Chopin,taken for granted by Schumann, is nowadays disputedfor lack of documentary evidence, but a glance at theharp-like introduction to L'abbandono will surely callto mind the opening of Chopin's first Ballade,published the following year. Both approach the mainkey from the same distant tonal area. Such a parallel canhardly be due to pure coincidence. It is innovativetouches such as these, not to mention the curiouslyChopinesque transition to the reprise of La ricordanza,that bring home to us how much was lost to music fromBellini's early demise.Julian Budden