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Il Mio Canto
Arias by Verdi, Puccini, Gounod, R. Strauss, Cilea, Donizetti, Massenet
Saimir Pirgu (tenor)
Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino/Speranza Scappucci
rec. 1-5 September 2015, Orchestra Hall, Teatro dell’Opera di Firenze, Florence. DDD
OPUS ARTE OACD9041D [62:51]

When an artist of the eminence of Plácido Domingo announces the arrival of a major new voice, it behoves us to pay attention. Caballé heralded the arrival of just such a singer in Dinara Alieva, so I hoped that Domingo had got it right regarding the young Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu, whose debut recital this is.

Unfortunately I must demur and ascribe Domingo’s enthusiasm to wishful thinking. The first thing I noticed was the pronounced beat in Pirgu’s vibrato, followed by a noticeable change of gear as his tenor works its way up past G flat, through the passaggio, into an edgy, more constricted zone of vocal production. Given that he is billed as a lyric tenor, I wondered why he had chosen to begin this recital with one of Verdi’s more strenuous and less melodious tenor arias from “Simon Boccangera”; it was only when I decided to test my disappointment by comparison with no fewer than six other tenors singing the same aria, that I was able to pinpoint Pirgu’s issues.

In the hands – or rather, vocal chords - of greater singers, this aria, with its declamatory introduction and concluding cantilena is a very testing piece and permits its singer to shine. Pirgu cannot rival Carreras for the beauty of tone or intensity of feeling which transforms it into something special; nor does Speranza Scappucci’s serviceable conducting work the kind of magic that Abbado and the La Scala orchestra weave in that famous complete recording from 1977. Turning to Martinelli in the classic, vintage live performance from 1939 made me realise how small-scale Pirgu’s singing sounds; despite the size of his voice, Martinelli scales down his vibrato and volume for “Cielo pietoso” in a way quite beyond Pirgu’s monochrome account. Domingo himself in 1973 also shows how it’s done, the warmth and evenness of his sound combined with the flexibility of Gavazzeni’s beat and the idiomatic plasticity of his phrasing again emphasising the ordinariness of what we hear from Pirgu and Scappucci. Giuseppe Zampieri live in 1961 is all baritonal heft and grandeur, Campora in the 1957 studio recording with Gobbi is far more authentically Italianate and impassioned and, finally, Bergonzi in 1951, shortly after his switch from baritone, is all patrician elegance, with an attractive, fast vibrato in his tonal production which never approaches the kind of bleat sometimes evinced by Pirgu and whose delivery of the text is so much more subtle and touching.

I have spent some time comparing versions of this one, opening aria, as it serves as a kind of paradigm for my response to virtually every subsequent item here. The cynical auditor might heave a bored sigh upon seeing that the second track is yet another “Che gelida manina” but that ennui will turn to a less forgiving reaction upon the realisation that Pirgu’s account is little better than what one might expect from a bawling B-list tenor. Comparison with Pavarotti’s matchless version for Karajan is telling: Pirgu’s bleat obtrudes, the top C is nasty and his tone loses quality as he goes both up and down; there is no magic at all in the concluding “Vi piaccia dir”, which should be sung in a melting mezza voce; he simply has not got the requisite control over his pianissimo and his Italian sounds stilted. Oh dear.

Fortunately, things look up once Pirgu moves into his true Fach, which is the lighter, lyric French genre typified by the Gounod arias. Unfortunately, his French suffers from the usual problem with vowels (he sings “Solut” for “Salut”), the inability to avoid sounding the nasal “n” in words such as “presence”, "resplendit” and “mon”, and solecisms like the unvoiced sounding of the “s” in “tes yeux” as “tes sieux”. However, he sings much more winningly here when under less pressure, providing a good top C for good measure. His top notes are inconsistent: we hear an excellent top B in both “La mia letizia” but the same note is uncomfortable in “È la solita storia”.

The latter aria is one of my touchstones for a great lyric tenor voice and Pirgu’s account lags far behind those by Björling, Schipa, Carreras, Villazón and Kaufmann; his tone is not full and sweet enough to do it justice. Anything which requires more heft immediately puts a strain on his voice, hence the Strauss aria from “Der Rosenkavalier”, briefly murderous as it is, exposes his weaknesses. His excursions into Verdian roles such as Alfredo and the Duke of Mantua are less successful than his French forays, because he lacks the weight and “ping” for Verdi. Similarly, his singing of the tenor’s showpiece aria from “Lucia di Lammermoor” again invites invidious comparison with Pavarotti; he sounds at times to be labouring where he should soar.

I do not think we are hearing a fully formed artist here, nor one whose technique is reliably solid.

The recording is rather too close to convey the ambience of a stage and tends to emphasise flaws which might go unnoticed there. A full libretto with English translations of the Italian and French texts is most welcome, but I cannot in all honesty say that I am likely to turn to this recital when I want to hear these arias again.

Ralph Moore

CILEA È la solita storia 'Lamento di Federico' (L'Arlesiana)
DONIZETTI Tombe degl'avi miei … Fra poco a me ricovero ...Tu che a Dio spiegasti l'ali (Lucia di Lammermoor)
GOUNOD L'amour, l'amour ... Ah, lève-toi soleil (Roméo et Juliette)
Salut! Demeure chaste et pure (Faust)
MASSENET Pourquoi me reveiller (Werther)
PUCCINI Che gelida manina (La Bohème)
STRAUSS Di rigori armato il seno (Der Rosenkavalier)
VERDI O inferno! ... Sento avvampar nell'anima (Simon Boccanegra)
La mia letizia infondere (I Lombardi)
Lunge da lei … De’ miei bollenti spiriti (La Traviata)
Ella mi fu rapita! (Rigoletto)
O figli … Ah, la paterna mano (Macbeth)
Oh! fede negar potessi (Luisa Miller)
Quando le sere al placido (Luisa Miller)
La donna è mobile (Rigoletto)


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