Puccini canti 900349

Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924)
I Canti – Orchestral Songs & Works
Orchestral Songs (orchestrated by Johannes X. Schachtner)
Preludio sinfonico (arr. Lucas Drew for string orchestra)
Capriccio sinfonico (arr. Lucas Drew for string orchestra)
Crisantemi (Chrysanthemums) (arr. Lucas Drew for string orchestra)
Charles Castronovo (tenor)
Münchner Rundfunkorchester/Ivan Repušić
rec. 2023, Studio 1, Bayerischer Rundfunk, Munich
No sung texts
BR Klassik 900349 [68]

This new Puccini album features orchestrations of piano songs sung by tenor Charles Castronovo. Also included are accounts of the composer’s orchestral works Preludio sinfonico, Capriccio sinfonico and Crisantemi

Such a widely known composer Puccini is defined by his operas, viewed by many as the peak of late-Romantic opera tradition. As we inch closer to 2024, the centenary anniversary of Puccini’s death, issues of recordings and performances of his music have been evident for some months. Just a few weeks ago, I reported on a performance of La rondine. With regard to recordings, those standing out include a new Turandot with Sondra Radvanovsky and Jonas Kaufmann on Warner, a recent Tosca with Melody Moore and Lester Lynch on Pentatone and an opera aria collection, The Great Puccini, sung by tenor Jonathan Tetelman on Deutsche Grammophon. 

Albums of Puccini songs are certainly not new. Of those I know, the earliest is by soprano Marcella Reale singing Puccini Arias and Songs, a 1973 release on EMI, another sung by soprano Roberta Alexander titled Puccini – Songs and Rare Pieces from 1987 on Etcetera, and Placido Domingo with his 1989 album of Puccini songs titled The Unknown Puccini. More recently, in 2017 Krassimira Stoyanova released the album PucciniThe Complete Songs for Soprano and Piano on Naxos. On Signum Classics, renowned soprano Angela Gheorghiu is releasing a recital album of piano songs named A Te, Puccini. Included on her album is Melanconia a setting recently found at Villa Puccini, Torre del Lago.

Puccini didn’t write many piano songs; they are seldom heard but they cover the length of his career. Evidently eleven were published in his lifetime. The exact number of extant songs often differs depending on the source consulted and some may be lost. In the first critical edition (2010) of Puccini works, sixteen songs are included. On this release Charles Castronovo sings sixteen of Puccini’s piano songs all in versions orchestrated by Johannes X. Schachtner, the multi-talented Bavarian composer, pianist and conductor.

Typically, Puccini focuses on the bel canto tradition. In these piano songs he creates many beautiful melodies. They were written mainly as occasional pieces, based on a range of subjects, at various intervals throughout his life and may help to provide an understanding of his developing compositional style. Several are emotionally restrained; a contrasting few are passionate and dramatic in the manner of his opera arias. He started composing them during his time at the Istituto Musicale Pacini, Lucca; most notably, A te (To you) from around 1875 is probably his first song. At the other end of his life when Puccini was in his early sixties, the setting Inno a Roma (Hymn to Rome) from 1919 was the last song he wrote. Enrico Panzacchi’s text honours late Italian successes in World War One. On Stoyanova’s album there is another early song La primavera (Spring) and a pair of early duets the Latin hymns Vexilla Regis prodeunt (c.1878) and Beata Viscera (c.1875), neither of which is included on this album. 

New York-born lyric tenor Charles Castronovo is an admired and experienced Puccini performer; one of his signature works is Rodolfo from Puccini’s La bohème (1896). He first collaborated with the Münchner Rundfunkorchester in 2006 with a concert staging of Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito and this 2023/24 season he has been working as artist in residence. He has nurtured his love of languages; from an early age he would hear his father talk in Sicilian, while his mother was a Spanish speaker. He has already released a successful album of Neapolitan songs and here in these Puccini songs his voice takes on an Italianate quality. He is a singer who takes his text seriously and displays a pleasing range of expression. Although he is Impressive in lyrical passages his voice isn’t too light or over-bright and his timbre has an appealing sweetness, while his dusky lower register has a baritonal quality and a pleasing heft.

I especially savour four of the songs here. First, based on an anonymous poem A te (To you) is a striking setting about love. To me, the piano writing sounds rather spring-like with the vocal part having a more edgy quality as if mirroring the anxious protagonist who desires a kiss from his beloved to help him forget his worries. Splendid and sincere, Castronovo responds in a serious manner that suits this early song.

Written in 1883, Mentia l’avviso (The Warning Was False) is a setting of text from the Felice Romani melodrama La Solitaria Delle Asturie o sia la Spagna Ricuperata. The text is based on the tale concerning Gusmano, a Moorish army leader who meets with a mystic named the Solitary One and discovers she is Florinda, his lost daughter. Puccini wrote this song while at the Conservatorio di Milano and reworked it into the great tenor aria Donna non vidi mai from Manon Lescaut (1893). It’s impassioned, bursting with drama, and Castronovo demonstrates that he is up to the challenges of the vocal range and dynamics.

This setting of Renato Fucini’s text Avanti, Urania! (Forward Urania!) was written in 1896 to commemorate Marchese Ginori-Lisci’s purchase of a screw steamship, renamed as Urania, signifying heaven and the goddess of astronomy and stars, subjects vital in marine navigation. There is a forthright manner to the song, representing the valour of the ship, Castronovo revels in such upbeat and spirited writing and adroitly accomplishes the high notes concluding the work.

A late song, Morire? (To Die?) was written around 1917. It formed part of an album of music sold to raise wartime relief funds for the Italian Red Cross and dedicated to the Italian Queen Elena di Savoia who was the first Inspector of the voluntary nurses and a nurse herself. It is his setting of Giuseppe Adami text that he reused with alterations in the aria Parigi è la città for his revised version of his opera La Rondine. Adami’s text questions making sense of life, declaring that only those who have died can provide any answers. The setting is emotive and Castronovo’s dark tone intensifies its poignancy. Again, his ability to sustain top notes is praiseworthy.

Virtually all of Puccini’s orchestral music and chamber works are products of his student years at the Conservatorio di Milano, when he experienced the impact of Wagner’s music. Furthermore, the influences of his teacher Ponchielli, his student friend Mascagni, and other contemporaries would have rubbed off on him. Nevertheless, in the 1880s Puccini’s own voice is increasingly emerging in his music.

In 1882, Puccini’s final examination work, the Preludio sinfonico, attracted the attention of the Milanese music circles. Not surprisingly, comparisons have been made to Wagner’s Vorspiel to Lohengrin (1850). It is a highly appealing and colourful score, and I especially enjoy the gathering emotion and drama of the writing, and the elegant waltz section. Some melodic material from the score was reused by Puccini in his early opera, Edgar (1889). 

Scored for large orchestra, the Capriccio sinfonico was performed at his graduation ceremony to considerable acclaim. Written in 1883, Puccini uses themes that he developed in his operas Le villi (1884), Edgar (1889), La bohème (1896) and Tosca (1900). Opening on a dramatic note, it is a melodic and pleasing score that concludes in tranquillity.  

Written rapidly in 1890, Crisantemi (Chrysanthemums) is a glorious Andante maestoso movement that Puccini originally wrote for string quartet. Here it is performed using Lucas Drew’s adept arrangement for string orchestra. Puccini wrote this profound lament as a memorial in response to the sudden death in Turin of his friend the Duke of Aosta, the former King Amadeo I of Spain. The title refers to the flowers associated with mourning in Italy, often accompanying funerals. Themes from it are re-used in Manon Lescaut (1893).

With this orchestral song collection, it feels that tenor Charles Castronovo and conductor Ivan Repušić and his Munich orchestra are all on the same page. Everything is splendidly managed by Repušić, who supports Castronovo attentively and adopts well-paced tempi. Throughout the album, the impressive playing of the Münchner Rundfunkorchester is marked by an abundance of verve and dedication. This studio recording is of satisfying sound quality. My only disappointment with this album is the absence of sung texts and translations. In the booklet there are helpful essays by Johannes X. Schachtner, the orchestrator here, and Florian Heurich. 

Castronovo and Repušić breathe new life into Puccini’s piano songs, which are beautifully sung and played with the utmost sincerity, and the three Puccini orchestral works are certainly more than mere novelties. 

Michael Cookson

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Orchestral songs
1. A te, SC 8 (c. 1875) text anon
2. Salve Regina, SC 39 (c. 1882) text Antonio Ghislanzoni
3. Ad una morta! SC 41 (1883) text Antonio Ghislanzoni
4. Mentìa l’avviso, SC 54 (c.1883) text Felice Romani
5. Storiella d’amore (Melodia), SC 40 (1883) text Antonio Ghislanzoni
6. Sole e amore, SC 63 (1888) text anon
7. Avanti Urania! SC 68 (1896) text Renato Fucini
8. Inno a Diana, SC 70 (1897) text Carlo Abeniacar
9. E l’uccellino, SC 71 (1899) text Renato Fucini
10. Terra e mare, SC 73 (1902) text Enrico Panzacchi
11. Canto d’anime, SC 75 (1904) text Luigi Illica
12. Dios y Patria (God and homeland) (1905) text Matías Calandrelli
13. Casa mia, casa mia, SC 79 (1908) text anon
14. Sogno d’or, SC 82 (1912) text Carlo Marsili
15. Inno a Roma, SC 90 (1919) text Fausto Salvatori
16. Morire? SC 89 (1917) text Giuseppe Adami