Puccini Discoveries – Chailly (Decca)

0 of 5 stars

Preludio a Orchestra *
Manon Lescaut – Prelude to Act II *
Cantata “Cessato il suon dell’armi” *
Scossa elettrica #
Corazzata Sicilia *
Inno a Roma
Ecce sacerdos magnus *
Salve Regina
Adagetto *
Vexilla #
Mottetto per San Paolino
Puccini completed Berio
Turandot – Act III *

Chiara Taigi (soprano)
Joseph Calleja (tenor)
Alberto Mastromarino (baritone)

Turandot – Eva Urbanova
Calaf – Dario Volonté
Timur – Mario Luperi
Liù – Maria Fontosh
Ping – Domenico Balzani
Pang – Bülent Bezdüz
Pong – Carlo Bosi

Roberto de Thierry (organ)

Orchestra Sinfonica e Coro di Milano Giuseppe Verdi
Riccardo Chailly

Recorded between 17-24 June 2003 in the Auditorium di Milano

World premiere recording *
World premiere recording of this version #

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: March 2004
CD No: DECCA 475 320-2

Having unearthed a number of rarities and juvenilia from the bottom drawers belonging to Rossini and Verdi – with some mixed results – Riccardo Chailly has undertaken a similar exercise with Puccini. On this occasion, however, the major ’discovery’ is the first audio recording of Luciano Berio’s completion of the third act of Turandot, which is the most substantial item on this disc and will, I suspect, be its main attraction. Although described by Decca as the “world premiere recording,” a DVD version with Vienna forces conducted by Gergiev at the 2002 Salzburg Festival is already available from TDK. Decca’s is the first studio recording, then.

Some of the pieces here are slight in character and, in the case of Ecce sacerdos magnus, in duration – a mere 20 seconds or so, its four bars having been penned for a newspaper edition marking the enthronement of Lucca’s new archbishop in 1905. The majority of the works are in arrangements or editions by hands other than those of the composer, including Chailly’s, who has prepared performing versions of the Scherzo and Adagetto (sic – perhaps a youthful misspelling on Puccini’s part?).

The CD starts with two orchestral pieces. The Preludio is Puccini’s earliest surviving work, dating from 1876, when the composer would have been eighteen. It is not unattractive, though, unsurprisingly, it fails to reveal any real characteristics that are associated with the mature composer. Its scoring is efficient, as is that of the Scherzo, from 1883 which displays some vigorous working out of thematic ideas and which was later partially included in Puccini’s first opera Le Villi.

With Manon Lescaut, we may think we have reached more familiar territory, but the prelude recorded here is from an earlier (unperformed) version of the opera, and it is fascinating to hear some of the opera’s melodic ideas in embryonic form.

The cantata “Cessato il suon dell’armi” has been subject to the most extensive editorial intervention, as it was only in the spring of 2003 that material hitherto thought to have been lost was discovered and, although incomplete, a partial reconstruction has been possible. The cantata was written for a competition held in Lucca in 1877, but neither Puccini nor the only other two contestants who entered, was a awarded a prize. In the circumstances it is difficult to assess the work fully, save that it falls into two distinct parts opening with a mellifluous tenor solo, affectingly sung in an authentic Italianate manner by Joseph Calleja, and concludes with a vigorous march-like section, which suggests that the young Puccini was more than familiar with the tub-thumping qualities of early- and middle-period Verdi.

1899 saw the centenary of the invention of the galvanic battery by Alessandro Volta, which was marked by the gathering of a convention of telegraphists in Como. Puccini was asked to supply some music, which he did in the form of a ’Marcetta brillante’ entitled Scossa elettrica – literally ’electric shock’. Dismissed by the composer as a “bit of rubbish.” it is nevertheless a bit of healthy fun. It’s recorded for the first time, as is the Corazzata Sicilia, which is a potpourri of themes from La Bohème. It’s quite amusing to hear Rodolfo’s elegant lines from Act One juxtaposed with the band music from the second act!

The Inno a Roma, from 1919, is Puccini’s last completed composition and, in his self-deprecating manner, he described it as “a fine mess”. It was written at the request of the Mayor of Rome, and exists in several transcriptions. Chailly has opted for the one for chorus, organ and orchestra and it emerges as a slice of jingoism – an Italian Pomp and Circumstance March.

Music which again found its way into Le Villi may be heard in the rather touching Salve Regina, for soprano with organ accompaniment. The melodic line is more like those we usually associate with the composer, but its effect here is rather less than it might be, given Chiara Taigi’s somewhat tremulous delivery which also finds her singing under the note at several points.

Most likely dating from Puccini’s time at the Milan Conservatory, the Adagetto is an expressive piece of orchestral writing and, never one to lose a good idea, Puccini incorporated it into his second opera, Edgar. The Requiem is not, as might be thought, a monumental vision of Judgement Day, but a quiet, devotional and rather dark setting of part of the ’Requiem aeternam’, for chorus accompanied by organ and, quite unusually, solo viola – the latter beautifully played and phrased by Gabriele Mugnai. It was written in 1905 for the fourth anniversary of Verdi’s death, the creepy chromaticism being a hallmark of the experienced composer, although his personal response to his deceased and distinguished compatriot is known to have been ambivalent.

Like the other sacred choral pieces here, it is securely performed, but would perhaps have benefited from a more resonant acoustic and less reticent organ sound. The setting of the first two strophes of the Latin hymn Vexilla Regis, which receives its first recording in its original version for men’s chorus and organ, is another student offering, not especially noteworthy and is most unlikely to have been resurrected and recorded had it not been by Puccini.

The same might be also said of the Mottetto per San Paolino, Puccini’s second surviving work, and likely to have been his first publicly performed composition, in 1877. The enthusiasm and exuberance of a youthful composer flexing his creative muscles certainly comes across, even if the style is largely wedded firmly to the conventional Italian tradition which, in the main, was to be eschewed by the older Puccini. Baritone Alberto Mastromarino gives a characterful rendering of the solo part, Chailly directs energetically, and chorus and orchestra respond accordingly.

But full appreciation of this motet, and the other vocal works, is impeded by the absence of texts and translations. Although the booklet advises that these are available on Decca’s website, a notice there states that “copyright restrictions” have prevented these being published. One would have thought that a major label could have solved these difficulties.

Turning now to Berio’s completion of the third act of Turandot, which concludes the disc, this is almost certain to raise a few eyebrows and perhaps provoke further debate about the opera that Puccini was unable to finish. Those who think that Franco Alfano’s efforts are inadequate are unlikely to find Berio’s solution any more convincing. One of the problems with the Alfano ending is that it is invariably heard in a cut version – now might be the right time to re-instate these excisions and give Alfano his full due.

Berio consulted Puccini’s sketches but has produced not so much a realisation of them but rather his own interpretation which, in large part, is interesting and effective, but inevitably incongruous at times. His harmonic writing is sometimes stylistically out of keeping with that of Puccini’s and his orchestration often quite notably different. His use of a vibraphone introduces an instrumental colour not envisaged by Puccini, though he has clearly modelled some of the orchestral writing on Puccini’s aggressive scoring of passages from Act One. The sections that really work are those which recall themes from earlier in the opera. Elsewhere, there is a divergence of style that, ultimately, is not a terribly convincing solution to the intractable problem of how to finish Turandot. Perhaps Toscanini had it right at the first performance when he stopped at the point where Puccini left off – with Liù’s funeral cortège.

Certainly Berio’s quiet ending does seem more in keeping than the chorus’s hail and hearty recapitulation of “Nessun Dorma” usually heard, but I doubt whether Berio’s completion will ultimately supplant Alfano’s. It is well performed by a strong cast, with Dario Volonté proving to be a particularly convincing Calaf. It is a pity, though inevitable given the nature of the disc, that the whole third act was not included. We start with Liù’s aria “Tu che di gel sei cinta”, somewhat forcefully sung by Maria Fontosh. Riccardo Chailly conducts with conviction, as he does throughout, and ultimately makes this collection worth much more than mere curiosity value.

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