Sandro Ivo Bartoli: Giacomo Puccini: Complete Piano Works and Selected Opera Transcriptions
Solaire Records

Usually when a recording presents a composer's complete piano works, one expects something on the order of an exhaustive box set containing multiple CDs or vinyl discs. In the case of Puccini (1858-1924), however, the sum-total of his original piano music amounts to a modest six pieces, with the authorship of two of them still up for debate (“Foglio d'Album” and “Piccolo Tango” surfaced during the second World War but with autographs absent from their manuscripts). Complementing that piano repertoire are transcriptions of opera arias, preludes, and intermezzos that were made by Carlo Carignani (1857-1919), a childhood friend of Puccini's; it's these that form the bulk of Sandro Ivo Bartoli's forty-seven-minute set, recorded in Berlin over two days in July 2017.

He's an ideal candidate to interpret these works, given that as a native of Vecchiano the pianist not only grew up near to the area where Puccini lived but also was surrounded by the composer's music day in and day out. Peasants in the rural village would sing his arias as they performed their daily tasks, harvesting grain, washing clothes along the riverbanks, and so on.

Bartoli's an acclaimed virtuoso whose artistry already has been thoroughly documented on Solaire releases of music by Bach and Jeffrey Roden. This Puccini recording isn't, however, concerned with showcasing the pianist's considerable technique; instead, he plays the pieces in a manner befitting the material with a refreshing lack of adornment that amplifies the feeling that's so fundamental to Puccini's music. In doing so, Bartoli's faithful to the concept Carignani adhered to when creating the transcriptions; as the pianist states in the liner notes, “These ‘reductions' were not intended for the grand concert stage; they were destined for the salons of music lovers and amateurs who would have delighted in playing ‘Vissi d'arte' from Tosca or ‘Un bel dì vedremi' from Madama Butterfly.” That the general spirit of Bartoli's recording is intimate is all the more appropriate given such background.

Even when its three-minute length likens it to a miniature, the opening “Adagio in A major” still makes a strong impression when Bartoli imbues the delicate material with such heartfelt expression, and much the same cam be said of the pensive “Pezzo per pianoforte.” High-spirited by comparison is the lively march “Scossa Elettrica” (electric shock), which Puccini wrote as a celebratory piece commemorating the centenary of the battery's invention.

Of the fourteen selections, four will be the most familiar to Puccini devotees, “Vissi d'arte,” “Un bel di vedremi,” “Coro a boccia chiusa” (the well-known "Humming Chorus" from Madama Butterfly), and “Piccolo Valzer,” an early piano setting that eventually became “Musetta's Waltz” from La bohème. The latter serves as a representative illustration of the recording in the elegance with which Bartoli voices its tender melodies, and how expertly he effects the tempo modulations and realizes the song's entrancing lilt. Lovely too are the renderings of “Vissi d'arte” and “Un bel dì vedremi,” which capture the sorrow and longing so famously conveyed by sopranos in their performances of the arias. Preludes and intermezzos from Le Villi, Edgar, Suor Angelica, and Manon Lescaut also appear, but, as lovely as they are, to these ears it's that aforementioned four that stand out most of all. I'll confess I would have loved to have seen a selection or two from Turandot appear, but there's no denying Bartoli's connection to the material chosen for the release resonates powerfully.

January 2018