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Giuseppe VERDI (1813 - 1901) Songs: Ave Maria (1880); In solitaria stanza; Nell’orror di notte oscura; More Elisa, lo stanco poeta; Non t’accostare all’urna from Sei Romanze (1838); Stornello (1868); Il tramonto; Ad una stella; Il mistero; Lo spazzacamino; Brindisi (2 versions) from Sei Romanze (1845); Il poveretto (1847); La seduzione (1839); Chi I bei di m’adduce ancora (1842); L’Esule (1839)
Dennis O’Neill (tenor)
Ingrid Surgenor (piano)
rec. St. Silas’s Church, London, 27-29 October 1997
First issued in 1998 by Collins Classics
NAXOS 8.557778 [57.24]

Verdi wrote songs throughout his life. In fact before he had written his first opera he had a set of songs published. The Sei Romanze for voice and piano were printed in Milan when Verdi was 25. They are charming salon pieces, liriche da camera, written for the extensive amateur market. In them we can detect Verdi testing his powers at setting dramatic verse. Throughout his life, his songs would stick to this format: highly developed salon pieces where the composer would try out ideas. We can often detect echoes or pre-echoes of the operas contemporaneous with the songs.

Collins Classics originally issued this recital by Dennis O’Neill in 1998 and the songs selected range from the Sei Romanze through to Stornello, written in 1868, and Ave Maria, written in the late 1870s and published in 1880. As such we get a good overview of Verdi’s song output.

I must confess to feelings of dissatisfaction with Verdi’s songs, not so much for what they are as for what they are not. Apart from Stornello, which evokes the world of Wolf’s Italienisches Liederbuch, these pieces remain firmly in the salon and do little to stretch the genre; the world of the German lied and the art-song is a long way away. The songs never really approach the level of his operatic masterpieces. Verdi seems to have been content to regard them as exercises and sketches.

But if we can get away from this longing for what the songs might have been, there is much to enjoy. All are charming and effective and many are much more than this. One of the chief delights is to relate the songs to the operas that were being written at the time. L’esule and La seduzione belong to the period when Verdi was writing Oberto; L’esule is virtually a miniature operatic aria.

Following the triumph of Nabucco in Milan in 1845, Verdi gained a number of aristocratic supporters and Chi I bei di m’adduce ancora was written for one of them. A setting of Goethe’s Erster Verlust it was written for the album of Marchesa Sophie de Medici. The song contains interesting pre-echoes of future operatic masterpieces.

In 1847 he published a further set of six romances. Though lighter in style than the 1838 set, these are altogether more sophisticated. The concluding Brindisi exists in two versions, the autograph score and the published version; the autograph is brasher and more exuberant. Luckily O’Neill gives us both versions.

Il Poveretto dates from 1847 when Verdi was in London for I Masnadieri; the song’s text being supplied by Manfredo Maggioni, the resident librettist at His Majesty’s Theatre. In 1851 the aria was adapted for a French performance of Rigoletto in Brussels when it was given to Maddalena as she pleads with her brother for the Duke’s life.

Stornello was written as part of a song-album that was assembled for the librettist Piave. In it Verdi sets a long eleven-syllable verse, a metre which he typically used for some of the finest lyrical gems in Aida, Otello and Falstaff. The same verse structure is used in the final song in the sequence, Ave Maria. It is an operatic romanza despite its spiritual character.

Dennis O’Neill is an experienced Verdi singer and this experience tells in his performance of these songs. All are performed with a gorgeous Italianate tone and a good feeling for the phrasing of the songs. Unfortunately this experience tells in other ways. When the voice is put under pressure it develops a notable beat and, supported only by piano rather than orchestra, this can become intrusive. Also, it must be added, that O’Neill’s mature voice is no longer quite up to the fioriture required in some of the songs and the results can sound effortful. But this must be balanced by his insights into the songs themselves and by his gorgeous singing in the quieter moments, of which there are many.

Running time is only 57 minutes so it is a shame that neither of the sets of Romances are performed complete. Four songs are taken from the 1838 set and five from the 1845 set (plus the alternative version of the Brindisi).

I can’t quite recommend this disc unreservedly but it has many strengths. O’Neill is one of our finest Verdi interpreters and as such, this recital has much to commend it.

Robert Hugill

see also reviews by Christopher Howell and Jonathan Rohr

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