Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924)
I Canti (arr. Johannes X. Schachtner)
Münchner Rundfunkorchester/Ivan Repušić
Charles Castronovo (tenor)
rec. 2023, BR Studio 1, Munich
Reviewed as download from press preview.
Sung texts not enclosed
BR Klassik 900349 
Giacomo Puccini passed away on 29 November 1924, leaving his last opera Turandot unfinished. This year is the 100th anniversary year of his death, and we can expect a stream of recordings to mark that. A couple of them have already arrived during the autumn: an opera recital with Jonathan Tetelman (DG) and a complete Tosca (Pentatone). Now, at the beginning of the anniversary year, come almost simultaneously two recordings of his songs, which are fairly seldom heard. They have been overshadowed by the operas, but if you listen to all sixteen in one go you will find that they have lived a secret life in the operas all the time. Puccini lovers will recognise melodies from his early operas Le villi, Edgar, Manon Lescaut and La bohème, but also from the rather late opera La rondine. The two issues are strictly speaking not direct competitors; rather, they are alternatives. Charles Castronovo sings them with newly written orchestral accompaniments by Johannes X. Schachtner, and as substantial ‘fillers’ there are three early orchestral works without connections to his operas. Angela Gheorghiu sings them with the original piano accompaniments and also adds a relatively recently found song, which here gets its first recording.
Charles Castronovo was born in New York to Italian émigré parents and has been on the international circuit of prominent singers for more than twenty years. I first encountered him at a gala concert at the Royal Stockholm Opera in 2011, celebrating the 100th anniversary of Jussi Björling. I was immediately attracted by his beautiful lyrical tenor voice, and his stylish, natural, and unexaggerated delivery. He also sang with commendable glow, something I noted with great satisfaction quite recently when I reviewed a recording of Mascagni’s L’amico Fritz, where he sang the title role (review). His discography also encompasses a recital with Italian songs, again, glowingly performed. It was a brilliant idea, considering his operatic background, to invite him to do this recording project. These songs – at least the majority of them – are basically operatic in style, and they cry out for Mediterranean warmth, in particular since Johannes X. Schachtner has provided them with Puccinian orchestral garments.
The songs are presented in chronological order – though some of the dates are uncertain – and the earliest ones are really early. A te (To you) was composed by a 16-year-old Puccini, but even so early he already had a personal melodic idiom. The four following that are from the early 1880s. Salve Regina was written with organ accompaniment and Schachtner cleverly arranged it for wind instruments, double bass and timpani. Mentia l’avviso, described as a melodrama, is truly operatic, and it was recycled ten years later and inserted in the first act of Manon Lescaut, which was Puccini’s first success. Sole e amore is another old friend; it returned in shape of the quartet in act III of La bohème. Two of the later songs, composed in the 1910th, Sogno d’or and Morire?, also returned in La rondine. The first as the lovely quartet with chorus in Act II, for me always the high spot in this far too long underrated work.
There are, however, also songs without direct references to future operas. E l’uccellino is a delicious little bird song, while the grandiose Inno a Diana (Hymn to Diana), surely was a personal tribute to the goddess of hunting from Puccini, who was an enthusiastic hunter. The other hymn, Inno a Roma, was his last song, a commission for the end of ‘the great war, which had destroyed so much and for ever changed the world. It is magnificent with fanfares and definitely more glorious than the piano version.
The orchestral works are also interesting. The first two: Preludio sinfonico, from 1882, and Capriccio sinfonico, from 1883, are student works, but they show that the young composer was already a talented orchestrator, although still a bit immature. In the Capriccio the listener, who hasn’t read this review, will suddenly sit up and shout, when he reaches the opening of the middle section of the work: “But that’s La bohème!” Yes, it is! The opening bars of the first act of the opera, written thirteen years before the opera was composed. It is a revelation.
The third piece, Crisantemi, is better known. Composed in 1890 as funeral music for a friend, it has long been a favourite encore for string quartets. Here, Lucas Drew has arranged it for string orchestra. The effect is slightly heavier in this version, but it is still a touching piece of music. This is also music that was reused a couple of years later for the intermezzo and the last act of Manon Lescaut. The playing under the experienced Ivan Repušić is first class and the two rarities are valuable documents of the young Puccini’s output.
I derived a lot of pleasure from this disc, the excellent singing of Charles Castronovo in the first place, but also the orchestral rarities. It is a disc that no Puccini admirer can dispense with.
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01 A te SC 8 Text: anonym 3:39
02 Salve Regina SC 39 Text: Antonio Ghislanzoni 4:27
03 Ad una morta! SC 41 Text: Antonio Ghislanzoni 3:17
04 Mentìa l’avviso SC 54 Text: Felice Romani 4:22
05 Storiella d’amore SC 40 Text: Antonio Ghislanzoni 5:02
06 Sole e amore SC 63 Text: anonym 1:54
07 Avanti, Urania! SC 68 Text: Renato Fucini 1:23
08 Inno a Diana SC 70 Text: Carlo Abeniacar 2:07
09 E l’uccellino SC 71 Text: Renato Fucini 1:15
10 Terra e mare SC 73 Text: Enrico Panzacchi 1:21
11 Canto d’anime SC 75 Text: Luigi Illica 1:30
12 Dios y Patria Text: Matías Calandrelli 2:38
13 Casa mia, casa mia SC 79 Text: nach einem alten Sprichwort 0:41
14 Sogno d’or SC 82 Text: Carlo Marsili 2:13
15 Inno a Roma SC 90 Text: Fausto Salvatori 3:20
16 Morire? SC 89 Text: Giuseppe Adami 2:34
17 Preludio sinfonico 8:28
18 Capriccio sinfonico 11:38
19 Crisantemi: Andante maestoso 6:38
Arrangement for String Orchestra: Lucas Drew