Anna Pirozzi and Emma Abbate in songs by Franco Alfano

A magnificent disc: Pirozzi is all-commanding, while Abbate exudes complete command

Anna Pirozzi and Emma Abbate in songs by Franco Alfano

Naples-born Franco Alfano (1875-1954) is more than just the person who completed Puccini's Turandot; but for a long time, that's what he was. Two companies so far have done much to change that perception: Naxos and cpo. No surprise for either - and each gives a nice "in" to different aspects of Alfano's output, Naxos for the string quartets (my review appeared in Fanfare - this is an over 82-,minute single disc!), cpo for the symphonies.

Enter a third record company: the enterprising Resonus Classics, and a miraculous disc of songs, a succession of mini-masterpieces performed by two major artists. Anna Pirozzi is superb here (I was less taken by her Elisabetta Don Carlo in Modena last year - my review appears online at Opera Now, and the stream is available here, all four hours of it!) As for pianist Emma Abbate, we met her live in Schumann's Piano Quintet in E flat,Op. 44 at the Thaxted Festival in July last year.

The combination of Pirozzi and Abbate is faultless; rarely have I heard two artists so attuned to each there.Franco Alfano can have asked for no more (although I imagine, were he alive, he might be grateful just to have the songs on disc!). The more one listens, the more immersed into this fragrant, Italianate world one becomes; the more the "composer spotting" (this bit could be post-Puccini, that bit sounds like Alban Berg) becomes redundant, and the more Alfano's own voice shines through.

Alfano's operas have fared better than his songs in the catalogue. Plácido Domingo helped a lot by taking on the title role of Cyrano in Cyrano de Bergerac (available on a Naxos DVD with no less a singer than Sondra Rodvanovsky as Roxane). Alfano’s opera Madonna Imperia was performed at the Met in 1928; previously, his Tolstoy-based opera Risurrezione (1896) found success in Turin.

First up, we hear the four of the Sei Liriche (1919-22). Fist up is actually the fourth of the set, “Perché piangi?” (Why do you cry?), a song to lyrics by F. De Lupis, decidedly darkly-coloured (and Pirozzi shades her voice accordingly):

No. 3 next, “Al chiarone della mattina” (At morning light), the piano part fluid and overflowing with trills. Yes, there is something decidedly Puccinian about the harmonies, but they are heard through a somewhat Impressionist veil. The piano glissando at the climax come as something of a surprise, too:

The song “Malinconia” (I don't ned to translate that one) is short but unsweet in its despair, its pregnant, anguished silenced, the text now by Lilla Lipparini, 1902-64; she cedes to the great Rabindranath Tagore for “Non partite, amor mio” (Do not leave, my love) . Tagore was a poet who meant much to Alfano, and whose poetry the composer set on many occasions. There seems to be a cracking up of intensity for this song, the vocal line full of verismo cries from the heart:

Anna Pirozzi, photo © Charles Marais

The sadness of Miranda Bona's poetry for the stand-alone song È giunto il nostro ultimo autunno is perfectly mirrored in Alfano’s 1943 setting. Composed at a time when Alfano's wife was ailing and near death and when they both left Rome, the song centres on the transition of life to death, and a perceived reunion of two people in love in the Elysian Fields. Cast nominally in G-Minor, Alfano's harmonic mastery is never in doubt; this is also a perfect example of the equality between voice and piano, two equal “voices”; the final line is unbearable poignant, both poetically and in Alfano's setting:

Arrivederci nell'eterna Primavera
Goodbye until we meet again in the eternal Spring

The Cinq Mélodies, Op. 1 date from 1896 while Alfano was a student in Leipzig, Described by no less a figure than Jules Massenet as “inspirational and worthy of praise,” there is an easy melodic flow here in the first, “Sonnet” (to words by Alfred de Musset), the harmonies as fragrant as de Musset's verse; the second is a waltz to Alpohnse de Lamatine's “Pourquoi?” (Why?), in which Pirozzi soars beautifully at times and Abbate shines in the trickier moments:

The next two songs contrast maximally, the out-and-out passion of “Rondeau” (Victor Hugo), with its angular piano part, against the delicacy reflecting the roses and butterflies in the first line of Victor Hugo's “Envoi à ***”:

Is there anything as fragrantly Gallic (from an Italian's pen!) than the final song, another Sonnet by Musset)?:

Emma Abbate, piano

The Op. 1 is a World Premiere recording; so is the Due Liriche per canto, violoncello e pianoforte of 1949, wherein Pirozzi and Abbate are joined by the fine cellist Bozidar Vokotic, the founder member of the Tippett Quartet (the ensemble that joined Abbate in that Schumann in Thaxted) and ex-Principal Cellist of the Oxford Philharmonic. The extra line adds an extra layer of yearning, especially when as expressively played as this, as harmonies extend to breaking point - in the first song, leaving the cello in a spiralling whirl before it's own soliloquy in the more extended second song, “Il giorno non è più” (The day is over: Tagore, again):

An interlude, to celebrate the arrival of the cellist: Vukotic and Abbate play the beautiful piece of chamber music, Giorno per giorno (1928). Just listen to the folkish 'singing' of Vukotic's stopping and harmonics, encrusted by high piano figures from Abbate. This is described as an “arietta” for cello and piano:

Bozidar Vukotic, photo © Thurstan Redding

Finally for this maximally interesting treasure trove of a disc, the Tre nuovi poemi of 1939. The weight of the world seems to be on the first, “Ninna Nanna di mezzanotte” (text Cesare Meano), a nocturnal meditation on the bonds between two people. Pirozzi lets fly in this song like nowhere else on the disc:

Incidentally don't confuse this with another Alfano song recorded by Emma Abbate (this time with Kamelia Kader), “Antica ninna-nanna partenopea” from Tre Liriche on a 2014 Urania disc:

The central “Melodia” of the Tre nuovi poemi is fascinating, its lovely melody taking unexpected inward turns. Finally, but definitely by no means least, the “Preghiera alla Madonna” (Prayer to the Virgin Mary) its text now by Luigi Orsini. Basically an operatic scene for voice and piano, it does exude a Puccinian aura but, dare I say it, with slightly more sophisticated harmonies. Sorry, Giacomo - see if you agree:

A magnificent disc: Pirozzi is all-commanding, and Abbate exudes complete command. Surely this release is destined for multiple awards?

This Resonus Classics disc is available via Amazon here, currently at a whopping 3% off; the BluRay of Cyrano with Domingo can be bought here, slightly strangely some £6.41 cheaper than the DVD (here), while the Kader/Abbate L’Infinito disc is available here. Links on Spotify are below; I have added a sound-only live performance of Alfano's Cyrano from Kiel for the curious to sample. Here is the cpo symphonies link,