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Giuseppe VERDI (1813–1901) Infelice e tu credevi (Ernani) (1); Tu sul labbro dei veggenti (Nabucco) (1); Son lo Spirito che nega (Mefistofele) (1); O tu Palermo (I Vespri Siciliani) (1); Ella giammai m'amo (Don Carlo) (1)
Amilcare PONCHIELLI (1834–1886) Si, morir ella de (La Gioconda) (1)
Vincenzo BELLINI (1801–1835) Vi ravviso O luoghi ameni (La Sonnambula) (2)
Gioacchino ROSSINI (1792–1868) Le femmine d'Italia (L'Italiana in Algeri) (3); La Calumnia (Il Barbiere di Siviglia) (2)
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756–1791) Deh vieni (Don Giovanni) (2)
Sir Paolo TOSTI (1846-1916) L'ultima canzone; Non t'amo piu; Malia
Luigi DENZA (1846-1922) Occhi di fata
Sir Paolo TOSTI (1846-1916) Serenata
Augusto ROTOLI (1847-1904) Mi sposa sara la mia bandiera
BROGEI Visione Veneziana
Vincenzo BILLI (1869-1938) E canta il grillo
Cesare Siepi (bass)
Orchestra Sinfonica Radio Italiana/ Arturo Basile (1); Orchestra Sinfonica Radio Italiana (2); Orchestra Sinfonica Radio Italiana/ Simonetto (3)
rec. 1948
NIMBUS NI 7942 [72.59]

Cesare Siepi attended the Milan Conservatoire, but only for a short time. By the time he was 18 he had made his stage debut as Sparafucile in Rigoletto, a remarkably achievement for someone who was substantially self-taught. His career was interrupted by the 2nd World War; a critic of the Fascist regime in Italy he fled to Switzerland and was interned there. He found time to take further singing lessons. His post-war career was extensive and long: he was still singing while in his 60s.

Siepi's discography is substantial, with many recordings of complete operas. For this recital disc, Nimbus have concentrated on Siepi's first recordings, made for Cetra when he was 24. These sound like the recordings of a far older singer, the voice has the depth and weight which we associate with older basses. The distinctive dark colour and sonority of his voice are present.

The singer’s youth can perhaps be detected in the flexibility of line, even at the top and when under pressure. This is no baritone voice though, the lower range is impressive as well.

Here we get a selection of arias from roles in operas that we can associate with the singer., Mozart's Don Giovanni is a role that would be much associated with Siepi and we could wish that he had recorded more from it. This, and the other tracks, all show him to possess a wonderfully elegant line, with superb legato. This elegance and a sense that he never forces, make me think of the tenor Alfredo Kraus - they were virtually contemporaries Siepi being born in 1923 and Kraus in 1927. Another quality which distinguishes many of the Verdi roles on the disc is gravitas, the young Siepi seems to have had no trouble at playing older than his years. His Philippo in Don Carlos is beautifully world-weary without ever sounding stagy. And in O tu Palermo from I Vespri Siciliani, he finds a fine nobility in the character.

In Satan's summoning of evil spirits from Mefistofile his rendition is truly high-spirited with some wonderful whistling; evidently Satan traditionally summons his spirits via ear-piercing whistles! The two Rossini pieces both display a neat sense of humour and Siepi has little trouble moving his dark voice around Rossini's vocal lines.

The ten operatic arias are accompanied by a group of eight popular songs by Tosti, Denza, Rotoli and Billi. These are usually associated with tenors or sopranos but Siepi's flexibility and elegance of line stand him in good stead. He manages to sound suitably passionate and charming without being overly heavy or over-dramatic. I could have done with slightly fewer of these and more arias - for me a little Tosti goes a long way. An interesting note is how static the repertoire seems have become. Whilst Siepi did appear in new operas, this recorded repertoire is very firmly based around dead composers; whereas a singer of an earlier generation, such as Caruso, was recording many items by living composers.

The disc is in Nimbus's Prima Voce series, which means that the 78s have been transferred by playing the original discs back on a custom-built horn gramophone. I rather like this process, finding the results warm and realistic, though not everyone does. I have not been able to hear these discs in alternative pressings but I can see no reason not to be entirely satisfied with Nimbus's transfers. The recordings rather favour the voice over the orchestra, but the orchestral accompaniment is generally adequate and sometimes rather more so. The CD booklet includes an extensive biographical article with a short introduction to the arias, but there are no song texts.

This is an excellent introduction to the work of an outstanding Italian bass, heard in his impressively youthful prime.

Robert Hugill

see also review by Goran Forsling


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