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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Adagio in A major [2:46]
Piccolo Valzer (1894) [4:09]
Scossa Elettrica [2:06]
Foglio d’Album [1:58]
Piccolo Tango [2:31]
Pezzo per Pianoforte (1916) [1:45]
Da ‘Tosca’
Atto II, Cantata “Sale, ascende l’uman cantico” [3:01]
Atto II, Aria “Vissi d’arte” [3:12]
Da ‘Le Villi’
Atto I, Preludio [4:20]
Da ‘Suor Angelica’
Intermezzo [4:15]
Da ‘Madama Butterfly’
Atto II, Aria “Un bel di vedremo” [4:32]
Atto II, Coro a bocca chiusa [3:14]
Sandro Ivo Bartoli (piano)
rec. 2017, Steinway Haus Berlin

I sometimes feel like I learned as much about Italian music and Puccini when joining the roller-coaster ride around the ancient walls of Lucca in a hired Fiat 500 in 2013 as I did in years of tussling with a variety of opera LPs and CDs. With this ‘Special Edition for the 63rd Festival Puccini Torre del Lago’ and the festival’s artistic collaboration with Sandro Ivo Bartoli, we are given a sublime look into the great opera composer’s more intimate sound-world, with a collection of modest but superbly crafted pieces that were neglected and virtually unknown until very recent times.

Sandro Ivo Bartoli belongs in Tuscany, and no musician from the region would have escaped, nor sought to escape the towering reputation of its most famous operatic son: “I grew up in the shadow of Puccini: There was no talk of music unless it included Puccini in some form or other. Peasants would sing Puccini’s arias – usually quite well, I must admit! – while performing the plethora of chores that befit a rural neighbourhood.” With this music impregnating the air of his beloved Tuscan landscape, Bartoli’s interest inevitably fell on Puccini’s piano pieces, ironically while he was living in London during the 1990s and no doubt dreaming of tall trees and shimmering vistas. Audiences were unimpressed however, and it wasn’t until the Puccini Festival’s invitations to play in 2010 that the public seemed to wake up to the value of these works.

The earliest piece here is the charming Adagio that opens the set. This was arguably not written for the piano at all, but whatever the truth it sets the tone for music that is romantic in spirit and mood, but always subject to plenty of technical rigour. Piccolo Valzer was initially Puccini’s contribution to the special edition of a magazine in 1894, but the quality of the tune ensured that it wouldn’t remain contained between those pages, and Puccini recycled it later as ‘Musetta’s Waltz’ in La Bohème. Scossa Elettrica or ‘electric shock’ was written to celebrate for the centenary of the invention of Volta’s battery, and is a sprightly dance which brings Johann Strauss to mind. The Foglio d’Album is a sweet miniature in the salon style, and while Piccolo Tango is almost equally gentle at heart, the more you listen to both the more you realise how much harmonic complexity they contain.
At a mere 16 bars, you wouldn’t expect the Pezzo per pianoforte to be the gem of this collection, but to my ears this is one of the real discoveries of this recording. Composed for a publication in support of victims of WWI, this is a moment of introverted beauty that coveys the deepest sadness.
The rest of this programme is taken up with pieces transcribed from Puccini’s operas. These will be well known to anyone familiar with the originals, but Bartoli makes no attempt to recreate orchestral sonorities or overtly grand gestures, keeping things in proportion with the comparatively intimate atmosphere established by the previous pieces. Good music should sound good on virtually any instrument, and the case is proven here. If you are unmoved by the big tune of ‘Vissi d’arte’ from Tosca, supported by gorgeously established accompanying harmonies bathed with sustaining pedal, then your soul needs a recharge. Bartoli’s restraint here and elsewhere makes these classic melodies all the more affecting. He plays with emotional depth but avoids sentimentality, allowing the phrases to breathe without pulling the music around with excessive rubato. Echoes of Puccini’s expert orchestration shine through at times, for instance in the sonorities of those chord settings in the ‘Intermezzo’ from Suor Angelica, and the use of octaves of various kinds to add weight to melodies at crucial moments. The final ‘Humming Chorus’ from Madama Butterfly is transcendent.

Not presented in quite the lavish way of previous Solaire releases, this CD nevertheless has an attractive look, with a bright red disc to contrast with the blue of the case design; interesting notes by the pianist in English and Italian and an introduction by Alberto Veronesi, President of the Puccini Festival Foundation. Is there any criticism to be made of such a production? Dare we say that Sandro Ivo Bartoli is being a little too reverential with this kind of playing? That was one of my initial impressions but I am now entirely sold on every aspect of these loving performances. Sound quality is superb, the fairly small Steinway Haus Berlin acoustic not being of much influence on a perspective that takes us close to the instrument and allows us to sample every nuance of Sandro Ivo Bartoli’s playing as if it was the bouquet of a fine Tuscan wine.

Dominy Clements



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