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Ruggiero LEONCAVALLO (1857-1919)
Complete Chamber Songs
see end of review for track details
 Barbara Meszáros (1, soprano), Hector Sandoval (2, tenor), Luis Ledesma (3, baritone)
Umberto Finazzi (piano)
rec. August-September 2007, Evangelic Church Ascona, Canton Ticino, Switzerland
includes notes in Eng, Fr, It, Sp, texts in original languages without translation
 DYNAMIC CDS570/1-2 [68:47 + 72:32]
Experience Classicsonline

Not so very long ago I reviewed a selection of 19 songs by Leoncavallo, sung by the Swiss tenor Fausto Tenzi. That recording was made in Lugano in 1993. The same producer, Danilo Prefumo, is now the artistic supervisor and booklet-note writer of this set of Leoncavallo's "Complete Chamber Songs". "Complete", that is to say, apart from the ones that are left out. The Tenzi disc had two - "Hymne ŕ la Lyre" and "Ne m'oubliez pas" - that do not appear here.
 
Things get off to a messy start. The booklet prints the French text of "La chanson de Don Juan" but Ledesma sings in Italian. It introduces us to a full, resonant voice and all goes well until he lets loose a bullish top note at the end. Why must so many singers insist on reaching for a note that is one higher than they've really got?
 
It's a pity this was the first impression. By and large Ledesma is the most satisfying singer here. Many of his songs do not call for high notes, and in those that do he manages them rather better. In "Suzon" we hear that he can sing French. The vowels are a little approximate and the style itself remains thoroughly Italian. Fausto Tenzi has better French - I see I criticised him in my review but that was before hearing this CD. In the songs that Ledesma sings that are also on the Tenzi disc I still prefer Tenzi in those in French but find them pretty well equal in those in Italian. A special case is "Qu'ŕ jamais le soleil se voile" which has greater impetus in the new version. This is because Roberto Negri, who is a sensitive and often imaginative accompanist - as is Finazzi here - has to yield to Finazzi in the very few cases where sure-fire technique is required. In "Ruit hora" somebody might have explained to Ledesma that "quai" is not a misprint for "quei" but a rather rare, poetic abbreviation of "quali".
 
Sandoval's first song is in French. He occasionally remembers the correct pronunciation of a word like "sombre" but before that we've heard "ombray" and that's his norm. I won't go into detail over Sandoval's French - it would be like listing every off-the-note intonation in a Florence Foster Jenkins performance. Fortunately his Italian is much better. However, it is an uncontrolled voice with painful top notes. In every song of his that is also on the Tenzi disc, the earlier version is an example of controlled phrasing and properly shaded dynamics. Tenzi hasn't the personality of a great tenor, but he knows his job. In "Lasciati amar" Sandoval changes some words and sings a top note that is not included by Tenzi. Without a score I cannot say whether this is an alternative sanctioned by Leoncavallo. I just wish he hadn't done it. Surprisingly, Sandoval is successful and enjoyable in the famous "Mattinata". I can only surmise that, since this was presumably a song he already had in his repertoire, he has had the time to master it fully. It is also the one song here where a number of distinguished recorded models exist that could be profitably studied. Towards the end Sandoval sings a couple of lines where Tenzi is silent, leaving the melody to the piano. Caruso did this, too, in the famous recording with Leoncavallo at the piano, so there is authority for it, whatever the score may say. I confessed I hadn't noted before that Tenzi comes a cropper at the end of an otherwise excellent disc. The penultimate line - "Ove non sei, la luce manca (where you are not, all is darkness)" - gets mangled as "Ove tu sei, la luce manca (wherever you are, all is darkness)". Not a very nice thing to say to the woman you love. In a concert these things can happen. In a studio there are things called retakes. So perhaps we can prefer Sandoval for once.
 
Meszáros's first song is in German. A slightly guttural lower register and free-flowing vibrato on the upper notes induces a certain fascination - almost a cabaret style - that is not maintained when she sings French. Her handling of the language is certainly better than the tenor's but we don't get the real "u". "Fuit" and "bruit" emerge as "fwee" and "bwee". Such attempt at French vowels as she makes, however, is enough to add a vinegarish tinge to her tone which fortunately disappears when she sings Italian. Her first Italian song, "Ninna-nanna", makes a reasonable impression, but she does not spin a real pianissimo line and the vibrato is loose in fortes.
 
Meszáros also sings the one English song, with words by the ubiquitous F.E. Weatherly - he of "Danny Boy", "The Holy City" and much else. Her English is fair, but someone could have explained to her that we don't sing the "r" in words like "forget" and "heart", that the "i" in "wither" is as in "mill" not as in "mile" and that the English "t" is hard. "My heart is beating" emerges as "my hard is beading". More seriously, the arching phrases of this attractive song get a rather bumpy ride.
 
For whatever reason, Meszáros makes a better impression on CD 2. Her other German song confirms that she can colour and inflect this language much better than the others she sings. It was only at this point that I read her CV in the booklet and was not surprised to see that all her singing studies were made in Germany. Her French continues to add vinegar to her tone, though she does well by the light charmer "Jeunesse et printemps". And some of her Italian songs are very good indeed. I noted that in "C'č nel tuo sguardo" and "Vieni, amor mio", both fine songs, I found her equal to the Tenzi version. This is even more surprisingly so in "Aprile" which opens Tenzi's disc and sounds there like the archetypal "tenor song". So, in spite of my initial not very positive impression, Meszáros, though uneven in her achievement, does emerge as a singer with some potential, maybe more "interesting" than the better schooled Ledesma.
 
Incidentally, a number of Meszáros's songs have texts that are clearly for a man to sing. I am not particularly dogmatic about this. As far as I am concerned a woman can sing even "Die Winterreise" if she has something to bring to it. In a disc of rare songs by one singer it is more than reasonable to include the composer's best whatever "gender" is implied by the words. Tenzi sang at least one "woman's song", but he altered the pronouns and adjectival endings to make it a "man's song", something Meszáros doesn't do. I should have thought that the object of assembling three singers would have been to farm the songs out to singers of the right sex. On the other hand, this would have meant more contributions from Sandoval and I'm glad we were spared that.
 
But what of the music? The songs are unfailingly melodious. They don't stick in the mind but they always fall gratefully on the ear. The piano accompaniments are more inventive and fully worked than might have been expected. Only very rarely do they fall back on non-pianistic, orchestral devices like tremolandos. Leoncavallo would seem as deserving of a place in the recital room as he is in the opera house. 15 of the texts are by Leoncavallo himself, including the well-known "Mattinata". No great poet - a sort of Italian F.E. Weatherly - but adept at giving himself what he needed. Incidentally, the "other" "Mattinata", sung immediately before the famous one, has a text by the major Italian poet Giosuč Carducci. A number of distinguished poets crop up in the French texts.
 
There are really two ways of presenting these "romanze". Readers will know that singers like Gigli recorded a wide range of lightish songs by Tosti, Denza and other names that we hardly remember even if we like the song. In a way the composer was not the point. He simply provided the raw material for the singer who made it his own. Whatever the song might be intrinsically worth, what the audience heard was a work of art. Strangely, singers like Gigli do not appear to have investigated Leoncavallo particularly, with the obvious exception of "Mattinata". I don't see why most of these songs should not be "completed", as it were, or elevated, made memorable, by an essentially personal approach. It is perhaps a pity that Pavarotti, who could elevate lighter fare this way, did not dedicate a little more time to promoting Leoncavallo and such Italian repertoire generally, and a little less to duetting with Laura Pausini, Zucchero et al. I really don't know if there's a present-day singer who could do this.
 
The alternative is to treat the songs with the same respect you give to great music. To sing Italian "romanze", that is to say, the way Gérard Souzay sang French "mélodies". Possibly this would produce higher rewards still, but so far no singer has come forward able and willing to do it.
 
As things stand, I would say that the 19 songs set down by Fausto Tenzi to reasonably good effect are enough to remind us that this is a repertoire worth conserving. Those who want the songs "complete" - apart from the ones that are missing - will get general satisfaction from the baritone, inconsistent pleasure from the soprano and a tenor to put in the dustbin. They will also find Prefumo's introduction helpful but slightly less informative than that of Mirella Castiglioni in the earlier disc. Whichever they choose they will get the original texts without translations, and several cases of carelessness on the new booklet. "Mandolinata", "Will nicht wissen" and "Invocation ŕ la Muse" each have a further stanza that is sung but not printed. Conversely, stanzas of "Prenez bien garde ŕ mon oiseau" and "Délivrance" are printed that are not sung. Misprints abound and the sung text does not always correspond to what is printed. In the last line of "Pensiero", for instance, Mezáros sings "sussurrň" instead of "rantolň".
 
Christopher Howell

Track listing
CD 1
Le chanson de Don Juan (3) [03:14]
Déclaration (2) [02:04]
Die Allmacht der Liebe (1) [04:13]
Si c'est aimer (1) [02:59]
Ninna-nanna (1) [04:17]
Prenez bien garde ŕ mon oiseau (1) [02:40]
Imploration éperdue (2) [02:15]
Sérénade Napolitaine (2) [03:49]
Tonight and Tomorrow (1) [03:20]
Barcarola - Notturno (1) [02:46]
October (3) [03:20]
Suzon (3) [02:17]
Ruit hora (3) [02:54]
Chitarretta (3) [02:45]
A Ninon (2) [03:16]
Meriggiata (2) [02:14]
La victoire est ŕ nous (2) [03:07]
Se! (1) [01:45]
Canzone d'amore (1) [02:36]
Pensiero (1) [03:06]
Serenatella (1) [02:15]
L'addio (3) [02:26]
Qu'ŕ jamais le soleil se voile (3) [02:41]
Délivrance - Hymne ŕ la France (1, 2, 3) [02:26]
CD 2
Lasciati amar (2) [02:47]
Mai fleuri (1) [03:49]
Un organetto suona per la via (1) [02:50]
Jeunesse et printemps (1) [03:15]
Je n'ai rien su (3) [02:18]
Sérénade française (3) [03:17]
La canzone della nonna (3) [05:24]
Madame, avisez-y (3) [02:18]
Mandolinata (2) [01:56]
C'č nel tuo sguardo (1) [02:11]
Will nicht wissen (1) [02:24]
L'Andalouse (2) [02:05]
Veux-tu (1) [02:14]
C'est le renouveau, ma Suzon (1) [02:44]
C'est bien toi (1) [02:14]
Vieni, amor mio (1) [02:33]
La chanson des yeux (3) [02:22]
Donna vorrei morir (3) [02:17]
Amore (3) [02:02]
Hua! Dia! Mon grison (2) [01:21]
Foglie d'autunno (1) [04:01]
Nuit de décembre (1) [03:10]
Aprile (1) [01:22]
C'était un ręve (3) [02:23]
Invocation ŕ la Muse (3) [04:01]
Mattinata (3) [03:05]
Mattinata (2) [02:07]


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