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Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco VERDI (1813-1901)
Life and Works: Giuseppe Verdi

Audio-Original written and narrated by Jeremy Siepmann
With Freddie Jones as Verdi
Elaine Claxton as Strepponi, Barbieri-Nini, Stolz
David Timson as Reporter, Censor, Berlioz, Zannari
Steve Hodson as Bishop, Lessona, Critic, Mariani, Husband, Martinelli, Minister
Charles Simpson as Muzio, Cambiaggio, Boito
Musical extracts played by various orchestras and conductors all from Naxos discs
NAXOS 8.552111-14 [4:53:44]


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There are times when I feel like forming a ‘Music Liberation Front’ to campaign against the release of any more of ‘The Best of ………’ variety of discs where "bleeding chunks" of works are torn from their musical contexts and served up as a record purporting to represent the best of this or that composer. Worse still, if such a thing is possible, are those discs where a number of sound-bites from the pens of various composers are turned into themed discs such as ‘The most relaxing (passionate, exciting, inspirational, stress-busting, or simply, beautiful) Music in the World ever!’ These records, which are, (shame!) admittedly, hugely popular, are great money-spinners for the record companies, cheap to produce, but do no service to music whatsoever. They are a travesty and an abuse of composers and performers alike.

The new Naxos series ‘Life and Works’ makes a refreshing change from all this. These are 4 disc boxed sets each examining one composer at a time in great depth, with extended musical examples to illustrate the composer’s development. They are designed to help the listener explore a composer whose work they would like to know better and to appreciate the milieu and circumstances in which the works were created. Written and narrated by Jeremy Siepmann, they are presented in drama-documentary style in which actors play key roles within Mr Siepmann’s narration. They are punctuated by the musical examples. So far the series includes Beethoven, Chopin, Bach, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Liszt, Mozart and Verdi, the subject of this review.

CD number one tells us about Verdi’s birth and early years. We learn that the greatest opera composer who ever lived, apart from Mozart, was born in 1813, the son of an innkeeper; not a poor peasant as he seemed to like his public to believe. We are told that his father bought him an old spinet when he was seven, following his first music lessons at the age of four, and that he was engaged as organist at his local church aged 9! We discover how he came to have a benefactor, to move into his house, give his daughter lessons, and, eventually to marry her.

Verdi’s first great success, written when he was 26, was ‘Oberto’, and Merelli, who ran La Scala, immediately commissioned him to write three more. However, the first of them, the comic opera ‘Un Giorno di Regno’ was such a failure that it was withdrawn after only one performance and Verdi announced he was giving up composing. It is astonishing that Verdi should have been composing a comic opera at the same time as his wife was dying from encephalitis and when, in the previous two years, he had seen both his children die in infancy. Fortunately for music Merelli affirmed his confidence and support of Verdi by reviving ‘Oberto’ and virtually forcing him to examine the libretto of ‘Nabucco’ which he completed only a year after the debacle of ‘Un Giorno di Regno’. Several works followed in the next few years, including ‘Ernani’, ‘Atilla’ and ‘Macbeth’. This period from his birth to the age of 36 in 1849, covered by the first CD, is illustrated with extracts from Verdi’s diaries and letters read by the actor Freddie Jones, who gives a wonderfully colourful portrayal of the composer. The music includes extracts from ‘Oberto’, ‘Un Giorno di Regno’, ‘Nabucco’ and ‘Macbeth’ and, as with all the extracts in the set, come from discs available from the Naxos catalogue.

Disc 2 sees Verdi who is now living with Giuseppina Strepponi, a soprano who appeared in his ‘Nabucco’, and who had been Merelli’s mistress, spending much of his time in Paris where he composed ‘La battaglia di Legnano’. These were extremely turbulent times in Europe and, following the year 1848, known as "The Year of Revolutions" (in Paris, Vienna, Berlin, Milan, Venice, Rome, Parma and Prague!), the Italian authorities introduced draconian censorship laws which gave Verdi much trouble over the libretto for ‘Rigoletto’. It was eventually premiered in 1851 and became Verdi’s most successful opera to date. ‘Il Trovatore’, ‘La Traviata’ and ‘Il Vespri Siciliani’ followed soon after. This second disc is again amply illustrated with extracts lasting from two minutes to more than ten minutes from all four, and with dramatised readings from Freddie Jones and by Elaine Claxton as Strepponi. David Timson, Steve Hodson and Charles Simpson play various other roles.

Disc 3 describes Verdi’s middle age during which time he composed ‘Simon Boccanegra’, ‘Don Carlos’ and ‘Un Ballo in Maschera’, which also fell foul of the censors. At the age of 46, after 12 years living as man and wife Verdi married Strepponi, and it was in this period that Verdi became involved in politics by being elected to represent Bussetto, his home area, in the Assembly of Parma Provinces, and being made an honorary citizen of Turin.

Already a world famous composer he was contracted to write ‘La Forza del Destino’ for St Petersburg Opera in 1861, which had its premiere there the following year. This period was crowned by his Opera ‘Aida’, written for the Khedive of Cairo’s new Opera house. All these operas are amply represented be selections from Naxos recordings.

The fourth and final disc explains the background to Verdi’s composition of his ‘Requiem’ on the death of Alessandro Manzoni, a writer who Verdi revered above all others and who he had met thanks to his wife Strepponi. The sheer scale of the Requiem is such that it led some to mischievously describe it as Verdi’s "greatest opera"! It is represented here by the ‘Rex tremendae’ and the set ends with Part 7, the ‘Dies Irae’, Requiem Aeternam’ and ‘Libera Me’. During his last 20 years he composed ‘Otello’, ‘Falstaff’ the ‘Te Deum’ and ‘Stabat Mater’, among other works. Each was more successful than the last. Freddie Jones, making his voice sound older and increasingly feeble and reedy, gives an extremely convincing and sympathetic portrayal of the ageing composer, and when death finally comes at the age of 88, in 1901, I felt a genuine sense of loss. The balance between Siepmann’s thorough, well-written and clearly delivered commentary, the dramatically presented readings and the well chosen musical extracts, make for an absorbing experience and really make the listener want explore Verdi’s works further. This is the great strength of such an enterprise and Naxos are to be congratulated for having the desire to truly serve the composers and the faith that the public will respond. These sets would be invaluable in every secondary school, university and library. Hopefully the general music-loving public will also see the value of them. They are entertaining and enlightening. For me it was like a CD version of Radio Three’s excellent "Composer of the Week" series, and at just under 5 hours, of similar length. As with that programme I really felt that I knew Verdi by the end of the set, and that I wanted to know more of his music. What greater accolade could it receive!

It is true that not all the recordings used would be my first choice but Naxos prices mean you can dip your aural toe in without major expense. Also included is a 124 page booklet detailing full track listings, sources of the extracts with catalogue numbers and biographical notes on the cast. It also includes an historical overview of the 19th Century, articles on Verdi in his time, the major works and their significance, a graded listening plan, recommended reading with full ISBN numbers, thumbnail sketches of the major personalities in Verdi’s life, and a calendar of his life set against the Arts and Culture and historical events of the time for each and every year of his long life. All in all a real coup and I eagerly await further "lives" to explore. Thoroughly recommended!

Steve Arloff

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