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Souvenirs de Venise
Gioacchino ROSSINI La regata veneziana* [4’24"]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN Canzonetta veneziana Wo0158a No. 23** [1’22"]
Franz SCHUBERT Gondelfahrer D808 [1’42"]
Felix MENDELSSOHN Venezianisches Gondellied Op. 57 No. 5 [1’55"]
Adolf JENSEN Leis’ rudern hier, mein Gondolier Op. 50 No. 4 [2’24"]; Wenn durch die Piazzetta Op. 50 No. 3 [1’41"]
Mikhail GLINKA Venetsianskaya noch’ [2’21"]
Sergei TANEYEV Venetsiya noch’yu Op. 9, No. 1*** [1’43"]
Gioacchino ROSSINI I marinai**** [5’22"]
Charles GOUNOD Venise [4’04"]
Jules MASSENET Souvenir de Venise [1’33"]
Gabriel FAURÉ Barcarolle Op. 7 No. 3 [2’14"]
Reynaldo HAHN Venezia. Chansons en dialecte vénetien [16’45"]
The Songmakers’ Almanac: *Felicity Lott (soprano); Ann Murray (mezzo-soprano); Anthony Rolfe Johnson (tenor) with**Brian Brooks (violin & Justin Pearson (cello); ***Hugo Dalton (mandolin); **** Richard Jackson (baritone); Graham Johnson (piano)
rec. St. Barnabas’s Church, North Finchley, London, 12-13 September 1983. DDD

This must be one of the earliest recordings that The Songmakers’ Almanac made for Hyperion; the group was founded by Graham Johnson in 1976. Nowadays a running time of less than fifty minutes looks decidedly short measure but it must be remembered that the recital first appeared on LP. In the twenty years or so since its initial release we’ve grown used to Graham Johnson’s enterprising and wide-ranging programmes of which, with hindsight, this one proved to be typical. How does one man know so much about the song repertoire, especially its more recherché elements? We’ve also become accustomed to his informative and entertaining notes. By his standards this fairly early example is rather on the short side but it’s still elegantly and enthusiastically written and adds significantly to one’s enjoyment.

Though this is a Songmakers’ Almanac release the other three founder singing members have very little to do. The programme is a showcase for Anthony Rolfe Johnson, always welcome. The disc opens with a Rossini duet for Felicity Lott and Ann Murray. This is irresistibly introduced by Johnson at the piano and then his singers are red-blooded Italian ladies to a tee, singing to a gondolier who is participating in the annual Venetian regatta. In a typically lively passage in his notes Johnson writes thus: "The two ladies in Rossini’s duet are encouraging Tonio (appropriately named for this disc) to row to victory in this ‘puppet-show’ boat race. It is thus that Anthony Rolfe Johnson is introduced to centre-stage for the remainder of the recital." Some introduction! Some introducers!

Almost all the remaining items are ideally suited to Rolfe Johnson, heard here in his early vocal prime. Not all the material is of the standard of, say, Schubert’s Gondelfahrer but the rarities are always of interest. I’d never heard of Adolf Jensen and I’m afraid I can’t shed any more light on either him or on his music. Nowadays Johnson’s notes would surely include much useful information about Jensen but this is "early Johnson" and pretty much all that he vouchsafes is that Jensen was a disciple of Wagner and Schumann. No matter, the songs are charming if fairly slight and Rolfe Johnson sings them well. The song by Taneyev, also new to me, contains an important part for mandolin - in lieu of a balalaika - and the instrument adds a welcome and fascinatingly different extra colour.

The second Rossini item, I marinai, is a duet for tenor and baritone. It’s actually one of Les soirées musicales, though you have to hunt for that bit of information in the booklet. It is rather dramatic though I can’t pretend it was my favourite item on the disc. It’s dispatched with great relish by all three performers here though Rolfe Johnson does sound slightly strained by one or two very high, loud notes towards the end – but, after all, he’s never pretended to be an Italian opera singer!

He’s on much happier territory with the French items that provide the remainder of the programme. The pieces by Gounod and Massenet are charmingly done. The song by Fauré is an early one but even at the outset of his career he plumbed greater depths than either of his afore-mentioned countrymen.

The concluding selection is a cycle of six songs in Venetian dialect by Reynaldo Hahn. As Graham Johnson observes, these songs give us the Venice of the belle époque. Bizarrely, it seems that Hahn actually gave the first performance of this little cycle on the Venetian canals! He and his piano, on which he accompanied himself, were in one gondola (presumably a suitably large one) and the audience clustered round in other boats. Obviously on this occasion Anthony Rolfe Johnson and Graham Johnson were on terra firma. They give a winning reading of these songs. I was especially taken with the second one, La barcheta in which Rolfe Johnson catches beautifully the courtly ardour of the man singing to his beloved. At the end of each stanza there’s a lovely, long melismatic "Ah" which imparts a wonderful sense of longing. Rolfe Johnson is in splendid form for this song, singing with honeyed tone and just the right degree of gentle but open-throated passion. In the last of the set Felicity Lott and Richard Jackson make another fleeting but welcome appearance to sing with him.

Anthony Rolfe Johnson is a singer who I’ve long admired and here he’s on excellent form throughout. He gives intelligent, civilised performances and produces some most mellifluous sounds. As ever, Graham Johnson is a splendidly perceptive partner. The recorded sound is very pleasing and balances voice and piano very well, I think. The full texts of the songs are provided though only an English translation is supplied. The notes, however, are also in French and German.

This is a most enjoyable disc and its return to the catalogue, particularly at the Helios price is to be welcomed most warmly.

John Quinn



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