Enrico Caruso His Songs Urania LDV14096

Enrico Caruso – His Songs
Mark Milhofer (tenor); Marco Scolastra (piano)
Recording dates and venues not supplied
Reviewed as download from press preview
Sung texts with English translations enclosed in 150-page book with comprehensive information about Enrico Caruso and the individual songs.
Urania LDV14096 [2 CDs: 141]

On 25 February 2023, the musical world celebrated the 150th anniversary of Enrico Caruso’s birth, and Urania fittingly issued the present two-CD-set with a total of 48 songs composed by him and for him. Caruso had a stellar career around the turn of the 20th century, thanks to the arrival of the technique to preserve the human voice on phonograph rolls and gramophone records. Mark Milhofer writes: ‘… he was certainly one of the most influential singers, and still is today, in the musical world. Note that I say “musical” world rather than just “operatic” because Caruso was really the first “cross-over” artist, the first international celebrity, bringing to a wider audience his stage roles alongside the Neapolitan songs of his homeland. His every move, his flamboyant dress sense, everything he sang and said was reported around the globe by the journalists of the day. He was either the first international operatic superstar to leave behind an extensive and fully representative aural legacy, or he was the first singer to be propelled to that status as a result of his recordings. Either way, he became a household name, his recordings reaching an audience beyond any previous singer’s dreams. This fame meant that he could also make or break a composer’s reputation, with at least ninety songs written for and dedicated to him.’

From this plethora Milhofer and his pianist Marco Scolastra have selected a good three dozen songs and added nine ascribed to the tenor himself. How much of this that is authentically from Caruso’s own hand is a moot point, since others assisted him. In an interview he said: ‘…I cannot write the notes! I can but sing them and play them. I do not understand the technique of the music writing.’ So he had to call a friend and then he sang or played the melody which his friend wrote down and arranged. His first attempt was Adorables tourments, which was written in 1907 and recorded on 10 January the following year. It was originally listed as composed by Caruso and Riccardo Barthélemy (his friend whom he consulted to write down his melodies), but in the latest CD-box with the complete Victor recordings Barthélemy is listed alone as composer. Be that as it may, the song is certainly a gem and the advertising blurb when it was first issued is not far off the mark: ‘A gypsy waltz whose dreamy, amorous strains have made it the greatest “hit” since The Merry Widow’. There is no doubt that Caruso had a gift for creating catchy melodies. Each of the nine (which represent his total oeuvre) has something to offer listeners with a sweet tooth. My favourite is Dreams of long ago (CD 1 tr. 4), which is exquisitely sung with fine nuances. Elsewhere, there are fine opportunities for singers who want to excel in brilliant high notes – and this is also the case with many of the other songs written with Caruso’s talents in mind. 

Browsing through the list of composers who hopefully dedicated songs to the great tenor, there are a few well-known names, but the majority are long forgotten – which in itself doesn’t mean they are substandard. Antonio Pini-Corsi, who wrote the glowing Tu non mi vuoi più bene, is best remembered as a leading buffo baritone; he was a friend of Caruso’s and they sang together on many occasions in Italy and the US, when Pini-Corsi was Happy at the world premiere of La fanciulla del West in 1910 and Caruso was Dick Johnson. Tosti was already an established composer and regarded as the greatest master of Neapolitan songs. He is represented by three songs here, of which the lyric Seconda Mattinata is one of his very best. Leoncavallo’s Mattinata is of course one of the most frequently heard in this repertoire, but the other song by him, Lasciate amar (CD 2 tr. 3) is also memorable. Luigi Denza had already been established for many years when in1905 he wrote Vieni a me (CD 1 tr. 13) for Caruso. As early as 1880, he composed his greatest hit, Funiculi, funiculà to celebrate the inauguration of the funicular at Vesuvius. Arturo Buzzi-Peccia had several great hits too –  the Spanish-influenced Lolita possibly the greatest. Caruso recorded it in 1908, but he wasn’t the first to do so. Torna, amore had to wait until 1926 for its first recording, when Gigli set it down. On CD 2, we are treated to another two songs by him: the restrained and inward Je te vois en rêve, which became a great favourite of mine, and the outward and joyful Povero Pulcinella – another favourite. The opening title on CD 2 is also a classic: Salvatore Cardillo’s Core ‘ngrato, also titled Catarì after the opening line. 

But here the list of celebs ends. This doesn’t imply that the rest of the songs are uninteresting. On the contrary, there are lots of attractions here. If I pick them in chronological order, Enrico Leboffe stands out for several reasons. His four Madrigale d’aprile are a kind of mini song cycle, harmonically more advanced than the majority of the songs, rather impressionistic, less showpieces and more true art songs. There was some correspondence between Caruso and the composer, but there is no indication that Caruso ever sang them. That is also true of several other songs in this album, but Mark Milhofer has some reservations. Caruso might well have sung some of them as encores, and then there is no printed evidence in the programmes which have been preserved.  I could think that Tirindelli’s O Primavera might have been a suitable extra, not to mention Ferrarese’s sad and touching Portami via, which rounds of CD 1. On CD 2 Juan Gay’s atmospheric Spanish song is another candidate. When we approach the war years, we are reminded of those gloomy times by songs by Leopold Mugnone and Luigi Carvelli. Mugnone’s contribution Carso maledetto speaks of machine-guns and the thunder of the grenade and Carvelli’s song is titled The soldier’s departure. Pedro Guetary’s charming habanera Clemencia is a further favourite and Pier Adolfo Tirindelli, whose O Primavera I mentioned on CD 1, is back for the concluding trio of songs rounding off the album with Inno all’amore (Hymn to Love). The book that accompanies this issue is a goldmine of information about Caruso (not least his amorous escapades), the composers, poets and other circumstances surrounding this issue. There must be an enormous amount of research behind this, for which we owe Mark Milhofer a lot of gratitude. He should also be hailed for his deeply satisfying readings of the songs, many of which here get the first recording. I was already familiar with his capacity as a singer, since some years ago I reviewed Brilliant Classics’ magnum issue of Tosti’s songs on 18 CDs, in which he played an important part. These readings are throughout characterized by deep insight, sensitive phrasing, lots of nuances with exquisite pianissimos – and there is no lack ping in the high notes that often adorn the showpieces here. Marco Scolastra  is a lenient co-operator at the concert grand. Readers who are partial to the lighter Italian vocal repertoire should not miss this opportunity.

Göran Forsling

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CD 1
Enrico Caruso:
1. Adorables Tourments [5:05]
2. No! Nun di ca so stato I [4:53]
3. Feneste abbandunata [4:14]
4. Dreams of long ago [3:51]
5. Canzona a dispietto [2:36]
6. Tiempo antico [3:49]
7. Per sempre libertà [3:08]
8. Campane a sera [3:39]
9. Serenata (Souvenirs d’un Concert [3:49]
Antonio Pini-Corsi
10. Tu non mi vuoi più bene [2:37]
Francesco Paolo Tosti
11. Seconda Mattinata [3:38]
Ruggero Leoncavallo
12. Mattinata [2:09]
Luigi Denza
13. Vieni a me [2:30]
Arturo Buzzi-Peccia
14. Lolita (Spanish Serenade) [2:48]
15. Torna, amore [3:33]
Enrico Leboffe ”Madrigale d’aprile”
16. I. Seduta al telaretto [1:30]
17. II. Bella, tu senti [2:12]
18. III. O cuore del cuor mio [2:10]
19. IV. Tutti i miri sogni [2:22]
Pier Adolfo Tirindelli
20. O primavera! (O Spring!) [2:29]
Francesco Paolo Tosti
21. Io ti sento! [1:42]
Mario Ferrarese
22. Spes ultima dea [2:04]
Francesco Paolo Tosti
23. Chitarrata abruzzese [3:08]
Mario Ferrarese
24. Portami via [3:50]

CD 2
Salvatore Cardillo
1. Core ’ngrato [4:31]
Renato Brogi
2. Serenata al convento [2:35]
Ruggero Leoncavallo
3. Lasciate amar [2:43]
Mary Brown
4. Thoughts of You [2:30]
Juan Gay
5. Tierra bendita [2:55]
Angelo Bettinelli
6. Serenata d’inverno [4:15]
Gaetano Calamani
7. Fiore gentile [2:40]
Raoul Gunsbourg
8. Le moment qui passe [3:35]
Arturo Buzzi-Peccia
9. Je te vois en rêve [3:19]
10. Povero Pulcinella [2:19]
Leo Strockoff
11. O se potessi dimenticar [3:22]
Leopold Mugnone
12. Carso maledetto [2:38]
Luigi Carvelli
13. Partenza del soldato [2:40]
Gabriele Sibella
14. Sotto il ciel [2:42]
Pedro Guetary
15. Clemencia (Habanera) [2:40]
Natalie Townsend
16. Vous! … Toi! [2:22]
Adriana Holmes Edwards
17. The Spells [2:30]
Albano Seismit-Doda
18. Dream [2:04]
Josephine Uterhart
19. Nous n’irons plus au bois [2:24]
Albano Seismit-Doda
20. Le livre de la vie [1:40]
Luis Mendoza López
21. A Ella [3:23]
Pier AdolfoTirindelli
22. Amore e fede [2:04]
23. Eterna ebrezza [1:49]
24. Inno all’amore [2:51]