The excellence of research and performance in this enlightening series on the 19th-century musical salon – this is Volume 5 – is matched by the aptness of its timing. Even now I would say the repertoire finds only a somewhat marginal acceptance among musical people, but at very least an acceptance is there. Partly, we are learning that qualities generally found wanting are not so entirely absent – counterpoint, or perhaps more accurately the provision of genuinely independent parts, for instance, invigorates the writing of Michael Costa’s quartet, Ecco quel fiero istante. And yet I’m not sure that isn’t special pleading. More essentially, we learn to value what is on offer rather than let it be lost in what is not. An easeful stream of melody, a grace of movement, a beneficent harmony, a kindly range of emotion whether in sorrow or gladness: these are positives after all. There is also the virtue, none too common these days, of providing singers with music that is good for their voices.
That is not surprising when we realise that the original singers included as duettists such celebrities as the Marchisio sisters and Pasta and Viardot – these soirées were not (except in the literal sense) amateur occasions. The present-day successors, as represented on the recordings, are both gifted and accomplished. Most especially, they are good in ensemble, so that the trio Non è la vaga rosa, also by Costa, has the women’s voices exquisitely blended with the tenor’s. This is Antonio Siragusa, new to the series, light of tone in the Schipa tradition and making Bruce Ford sound almost heroic and baritonal when they sing together.
The other recruit is the mezzo Manuela Custer, distinguished in timbre and style, with a smile in the voice for Arditi’s petal-pulling polka, Fior di Margherita. Arditi is the composer who adds zest to this party, and his bolero, Leggero, invisibile, beloved of old by Ernestine Schumann-Heink, is given a sparkling performance by Jennifer Larmore: probably the highlight of the evening.
All do well – Majella Cullagh in her own Arditi song, the waltz Felicità, Ford in a charming love-song by Carlos Gomes, Russell Smythe brought in for his part in the quartet, and David Harper the sympathetic pianist throughout. The booklet has entertaining and informative notes by Erica Jeal and Patric Schmid (though I’m not convinced by the references to Ida Lupino and The Andrews Sisters), and is even more lavishly illustrated than usual.