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Ruggero LEONCAVALLO (1857-1919)
Melodies and Songs: Aprile [01:52], L’Addio [02:40], Se… [02:11], C’è nel tuo sguardo [02:25], Déclaration [02:19], La Chanson des Yeux [02:34], Hymne à la Lyre [03:09], Qu’à jamais le soleil [03:34], Lasciati amar [03:13], Vieni amor mio [02:47], Canzone d’amore [03:14], Donna, vorrei morir [02:36], Ne m’oubliez pas [02:42], Invocation à la Muse [03:54], Nuit de décembre [03:27], Pensiero [03:11], Serenata francese [03:40], Mandolinata [02:11], Mattinata [02:39]
Fausto Tenzi (tenor), Roberto Negri (piano)
rec. 8 May 1993, RSI Studio Auditorio of Lugano. DDD
ARTS 47509-2 [54:26]

Though only the Mattinata remains common currency, Leoncavallo was a prolific writer of romanze for voice and piano. As Mirella Castiglioni’s notes tell us, during his difficult Paris years they often bought him his next meal. Songs by opera composers have a way of sounding like opera arias manqué, but Leoncavallo instead follows the romanza manner of Tosti, with results that seem to me, in their pleasantly unoriginal way, at least as good. He has an unfailing stock of spontaneous melody and the piano writing is satisfyingly full. Several of the songs in Italian set poems of his own – including Mattinata – and the remainder are by very minor poets. The French songs include several texts by Armand Silvestre and Alfred de Musset, names that will be familiar to lovers of French mélodie. Indeed, a group of these French songs could very agreeably share half a programme with some mélodies by actual French composers.

So, given that they are well worth singing, how to sing them? Roberto Tenzi, though Swiss, comes from the Canton Ticino, the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, and he has clearly trained as a thorough-going Italian tenor, with a bright, forwardly-produced voice, squillante as the Italians say ("ringing" is a fair translation), with plenty of heft in the top notes - and occasionally a sense of strain, more noticeable through the loudspeakers than on headphones for some reason. Honeyed pianissimos are out – for better or worse this style rejects the use of the "head" voice but the line is caressed with generous portamenti. When singing French, only a very token nod in the direction of French vowels is made.

It’s one way to do it, and excellently done from its own of view. Since Leoncavallo was Italian it may be the way he wanted. But I must say I should like to hear the effect of singing the French ones in the French manner, with the piquant vowel sounds, a gently reedy tone ("nasal", some call it) and sweet "falsetto" high notes, just as one would sing Hahn. I should also like to hear the effect of not trying to make it sound "like" anything but "nobilitating" it by treating it as great music - whether you think it is or not - in other words just singing it with sincerity, respect and a sense of line. But all this is rather academic until somebody makes available alternative versions along these lines for comparison, and as I say, Tenzi’s way is certainly one of the possible ones. Mind you, if the Caruso recording of Mattinata with Leoncavallo at the piano is anything to go by, this music requires an agogic freedom which nobody has approached in the last fifty years, but how on earth could you reproduce that if you don’t have it in your blood, especially in all the songs where there isn’t a Caruso/Leoncavallo version to copy? I tried out the Gigli version of Mattinata and already it is much straighter rhythmically; this may be because there was an orchestral accompaniment. However it is much lighter on its feet than the present one and Gigli has an ease of emission and a familiarity with the words - as well as one or two bad emoting habits: the famous sob/gulp - which explain just why he was so special. But I repeat, Tenzi will give pleasure on his own terms.

The recording is not new (it is licensed from Nuova Era) and I found it a little overbearing. In the end I listened with the volume rather low, though turning down the volume of a closely recorded singer is not quite the same as listening to him from a more comfortable distance. I also found it rather disconcerting that the piano emerges well to the left and the voice well to the right. Strangely, on headphones I didn’t find this left-right separation, but I felt as if my head was inside the piano and the singer was right behind my shoulder. Pianists who have had the experience of accompanying a powerful operatic voice standing just above his right ear because there is only one copy of the music will know how powerful they are up close, but I don’t expect a disc to give me this impression. In the end I enjoyed this most on a smaller CD player.

In spite of my reservations, on balance this is to be recommended for the rare and worthwhile repertoire. I should like to point out, in conclusion, that, while discs of songs by Italian composers of opera appear from time to time - this same label offers another by Tenzi dedicated to Mascagni and two recitals of Verdi’s arie da camera have come my way recently - those composers who rejected the opera house, led by Martucci, Sgambati and Bossi, while not so prolific as in the instrumental field, did make an interesting and often successful attempt to write songs that behave like lieder while still sounding Italian. It would be nice to hear something of them.

Christopher Howell

 

 



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