Puccini Discoveries

Turandot: Finale Act III (completed by Luciano Berio); miscellaneous works
Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi
Riccardo Chailly (conductor)

DECCA 475 320-2
TPT: 1:20:47 

reviewed by Neville Cohn

The third in a series devoted to rescuing music from an undeserved obscurity – the first two focus on Rossini and Verdi respectively – this compilation of mainly, but not exclusively, music written by Puccini as a young man is fascinating fare for those seeking musical rarities.

Even the earliest material, written when the composer was a teenager, shows astonishing confidence and skill in the use of an orchestra, even if the ideas enshrined in these pieces are not in themselves particularly memorable. But these miniatures, way stations en route to creative greatness, provide fascinating listening. It’s treasure trove for collectors.

Consider the Cantata “Cessato il suon dell’armi”. It is very uneven with a trite rom-pom-pom quality but worth listening to for its virtuoso trumpeting and some wonderfully ardent singing by tenor Joseph Calleja. It wasn’t until as recently as 2003 that Puccini’s granddaughter Simonetta disclosed that she was in possession of some of the work’s performance parts, possibly in her grandfather’s hand.

There’s also a potpourri of themes from La Boheme played – most expressively and with a fine feel for tonal shadings – by a concert band. And a similar line-up tackles the noisy and trashy march-like Scossa elettrica with gusto. Trivia collectors would doubtless be interested to know that the latter was written for a convention of telegraphists in 1899. The title translates as ‘electric shock’!

Inno a Roma, just under three-and-a-half minutes long and the last piece Puccini completed before his death, is given a beautifully expressive reading. The composer didn’t care much for it, though, once dismissing it as “a fine mess”. Also recorded is Preludio a Orchestra, believed to be the composer’s earliest surviving composition, long believed lost but in 1999, the city of Lucca (where Puccini was born) purchased the original manuscript, now placed on disc for the first time. It shows astonishingly precocious handling of the orchestra.

Another curiosity is Salve Regina for soprano and organ, the latter played by Roberto de Thierry who provides a fine, understated accompaniment to soprano Chiara Taigi’s vocal line, which is somewhat marred by some wavering on sustained notes. (Puccini subsequently incorporated this into his first opera Le Villi.)

Organist de Thierry also features in Requiem for chorus, solo viola and organ ­ five-and-a-half minutes’ worth – although Gabriele Mugnai’s solo viola line is not always in tune.

Vexilla for men’s chorus and organ is trite tripe but certainly worth including in this compilation if only to show that the master was not always masterly. It was written at the time the young Puccini was playing in a dance band! And surely only for the very most dedicated collectors of trivia is Puccini’s Ecce sacerdos magnus for a cappella choir, all 25 seconds of it!

Far and away the most substantial offering – and worth having the disc if only for this – is Luciano Berio’s completion of Turandot. It’s a magnificent offering, the tragic splendour of the finale quite marvellously suggested; the brass is in superb form and does much to underscore the exotic nature of the episode, fine organ playing adding a fitting sense of grandeur. Eva Urbanova is beyond criticism in the eponymous role. This track is a world premiere recording as is much else on the disc such as Preludio a Orchestra, very much a prentice work, and the two pieces for concert band.

Motteto per San Paolino for baritone solo, chorus and orchestra was the first ever of Puccini’s works to be publicly performed; it’s worth paying attention to if only for that reason even if, despite a top performance, the music comes across as predictable, cliched and tedious.

Adagetto (which the young Puccini later recycled for use in his opera Edgar) is played in an appealingly expressive way, the hitherto unpublished manuscript transcribed for this world premiere recording by Riccardo Chailly who also added a closing chord.

Copyright 2004 Neville Cohn


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