VERDI: Songs (Dennis O'Neill/ Ingrid Surgenor) (Naxos: 8.557778)
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Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)
It may seem odd that Italy's greatest opera composershould have first come before the Milanese public with aset of salon pieces, but in fact the 'liriche da camera'which punctuate his long career would often serve as aforging ground for his treatment of dramatic verse. Hewas 25 and pursuing the humble calling of municipalmusic master in Busseto when, doubtless as a result ofuseful contacts made during his student years at Milan,the firm of Canti brought out his Sei Romanze for voiceand piano. Within their modest scope fingerprints of themature master can already be discerned. The heavilycharged harmonies that introduce Non t'accostareall'urna 5 set a mood of high tragedy, while at midpointthe lyrical flow gives way to forceful declamatorygestures and a convulsive urgency as the singer inveighsagainst his faithless beloved. Simpler and more tranquil,More, Elisa, lo stanco poeta 4 is notable for its almostBellinian phrase-lengths and its epigrammatic approachto the final cadence of each verse. The melody of Insolitaria stanza 2 is encrusted with weary chromaticinflections amid which there surfaces a phrase that willrecur at a crucial point of Leonora's 'Tacea la notte' (I1trovatore). Nell'orror di notte oscura 3 returns to thesubject of the jilted lover with a piano accompanimentof, at times, almost Schubertian intimacy, but at thewords 'Maledetta la memoria di colei che lo trad?¼' thedramatic claws are once more unsheathed.
Two songs belong to 1839, the year of Verdi's firstopera, Oberto, conte di San Bonifacio. L'esule 15, towords by its librettist, opens with a long, pianisticintroduction, but soon reveals its true colours as aminiature operatic aria in two contrasted movementslinked by a 'tempo di mezzo' and preceded by arecitative. The concluding cabaletta 'Oh, che allor lepatrie sponde' foretells the energetic style of Ernani. InLa seduzione 12 a design of plain, lilting melody isworked out so as to reflect every detail of the text,whether by unexpected harmonic shifts or by variety ofaccentuation.
Chi i bei d?¼ m'adduce ancora 14, a setting intranslation of Goethe's 'Erster Verlust' dating from1842, was clearly an outcome of the triumph ofNabucco, which won Verdi a number of admirers amongthe Milanese aristocracy. Written for the album of theMarchesa Sophie de Medici, it too is stalked by theghost of opera with pre-echoes of Azucena's 'Giornipoveri vivea' (Il trovatore) and Alfredo's 'Diquell'amor' (La traviata).
Another set of six romances followed in 1845, oftenlighter and generally more sophisticated in style thanthose of 1838. Il tramonto 7, to words by Verdi's friendAndrea Maffei, has an almost classical regularity ofdesign embellished by a rich-textured pianoaccompaniment; and, as so often in Verdi's arias, themain melodic weight falls on the final phrase, a traitdeveloped still further in Ad una stella 8, anotherMaffei setting, in which Verdi for the first, but by nomeans the last time foreshortens his melodic period byrunning the last two lines of a quatrain into a singleclimactic strain (but for an operatic example we shallhave to wait until 'Parmi veder le lagrime' fromRigoletto). Nor is the anticipation of Alvaro's 'Or muoiotranquillo' (La forza del destino) likely to go unnoticed.
Lo spazzacamino 10 is of course, universally familiar asan encore piece at song recitals, for which it might seemto have been designed. So much more cheerful thanBritten's, Verdi's Little Sweep can be guaranteed to sendthe audience away in a good mood. A subtlety of wordpaintingmarks Il mistero 9, from the ambivalent chordwith which it opens to the illustration of Romani'ssimile of a lake unruffled on the surface but turbid in itsdepths (a plagiarism here of a motif from Les Preludescan be safely ruled out, since Liszt's tone-poem had yetto be composed). The concluding Brindisi exists in twoversions: the autograph score 13 brasher and moreexuberant, and the published edition 16, narrower in itscompass and harmonically more varied.
The year 1847 found Verdi in London for theproduction of I masnadieri. Among the dependants ofHer Majesty's Theatre was the librettist ManfredoMaggioni (probably not the author of Lo spazzacamino),who supplied him with the poem of Il poveretto 11, along-breathed essay in musical pathos, which with analtered text ('Prends pitie de sa jeunesse') would serveas an insert-aria for Maddalena, in a French performanceof Rigoletto at Brussels in 1851 (she is, of course,pleading with her brother to spare the Duke's life).
In 1868 Verdi's librettist of long standing,Francesco Maria Plave, was laid low with a stroke. Tohelp his family, Verdi proposed a song-album to whichleading composers of the day would be invited tocontribute (including Wagner, who, needless to say,would have been horrified at the suggestion). His ownoffering, entitled Stornello 6 (though Rispetto would bethe more technically correct term) takes us straight to theworld of Hugo Wolf's Italienisches Liederbuch. Thefaithless beloved is mockingly reminded that infidelityis a game at which two can play. The setting is witty andpointed; while the long, eleven-syllable verse, normallyconfined with rare exceptions to recitative, willhenceforth inspire some of the finest lyrical gems ofAida, Othello and Falstaff. The same metre underlies theAve Maria 1, published in 1880 but, according to thecomposer, written several years before, probably as aby-product of his Requiem. The design is an elaborationof the operatic minor-to-major romanza, but one that iswholly devotional in spirit, the singer moving fromsubdued declamation to broad cantilena. Towards theend the clouds descend once more; and it is left to thepiano (originally a string orchestra) to shed the final rayof light. Nothing shows more clearly how even in hissmaller compositions Verdi's invention kept pace withthat of his large-scale masterworks.?® 1997 Julian Budden