'Delightful' (The Sunday Times)
'Top Ten of the Year' (The Guardian)
'Those in search of beautiful singing will find ample riches, graced above all by the beguiling tenor of Anthony Rolfe Johnson' (Classic FM Magazine)
'This fizzing multilingual Venetian 'Souvenir' slips down as gratefully as Prosecco on a hot day' (BBC Music Magazine)
'This is a good chance to hear one of the world's finest and most versatile tenors accompanied by one of the world's leading accompanists' (American Record Guide)
Sopra l'acqua indormenzada [3'14]
La barcheta [3'11]
La biondina in gondoleta [3'54]
Che pecà! [2'31]
In Thomas Mann’s novella Death in Venice, a celebrated writer who is failing in inspiration resolves to rejuvenate his waning creative energies by visiting Venice. Gustav von Aschenbach (as portrayed by Anthony Rolfe Johnson in an important production of the Benjamin Britten opera based on the book) surrenders to the lure of the south. The joyful abandon with which he embraces the idea of going to Venice is typical of the way in which refugees from the cold north have always welcomed the spiritual and aesthetic prizes available to the visitor who has the heart and the eye to find them. Venice is, and always has been, the visitors’ city – a place where countless artists and personalities have come to wonder at the marvels of this jewel set like a precious timepiece in a bracelet of shimmering water. The imaginative traveller can turn the clock back as far as he likes in a city which was an anachronism even in the eighteenth century and is an enduring miracle in the twentieth. He will still find the same Venice which has been mostly loved but also vociferously hated by the teeming touristic multitudes. Montaigne, Horace Walpole, Edward Gibbon, D H Lawrence, Virginia Woolf and Edward Lear are among those on record as despising the city. Lear, however, later changed his mind: ‘This city of palaces, pigeons, poodles and pumpkins (I am sorry to say also of pimps – to keep up the alliteration) is a wonder and a pleasure.’
A modern-day visitor to Florence, for example, is certain to come across the ghostly presences in that city of Italian celebrities: Boccaccio or Dante perhaps, or the Medici family in all its varied glory. But who is encountered in the same way in Venice? Certainly there are distinguished Venetians a-plenty in the history books but the famous tourist claims our attention more than many a doge or native Venetian grandee. It is true, of course, that great Italians have been drawn to Venice in large numbers: Dante, Petrarch, Galileo, Donatello and Monteverdi all approached Venice from the hinterland. But the lover of music and literature of the kind united on this recording will have reason to bow to visitors of other nationalities. For the lieder enthusiast the greatest of all visitors to Venice was Goethe on his marvellous Italian journey; his first view of the sea was from the Campanile. Venice was a resting place and retreat for Richard Wagner during his tempestuous career; he died there in 1883. His ally and enemy Nietzsche wrote a poem about the pigeons of the Piazzetta. Gabriel Fauré wrote his Cinq mélodies «de Venise» (Verlaine settings not related to Venice in subject matter) thanks to the Princesse de Polignac who made a Venetian holiday financially possible for him.
Quandri’s and Florian’s, those indispensable Venetian establishments (to call them cafés seems unworthy of them) have played host to Henry James, Baron Corvo and Marcel Proust. And the city is the last resting place of two very different men who fell out in life but are united in death as they are in the annals of twentieth-century art: Sergei Diaghilev and lgor Stravinsky are both buried in Venice’s island cemetery of San Michele. It is not surprising, then, that this recital of Venetian souvenirs contains music by German, Austrian, Russian, French, and even Venezuelan, composers; for countless artists Venice has been a floating embodiment in water and stone of their own aspirations and fantasies, which can take on as many colours and atmospheres in the changing light as the city itself.
The recording opens by way of a prologue with a duet by Gioacchino Rossini – Venatian music by a non-Venetian Italian living in Paris, and writing what he called ‘Sins of Old Age’ at the end of his life. La regata veneziana is sung by the soprano and mezzo members of The Songmakers’ Almanac. The regatta was a tremendous event in the Venetian calendar. The actor David Garrick commented in 1764: ‘I have seen here such sights I had no conception of but in Fairyland, and have seen the Visions of the Arabian Night realiz’d by the Venetian Regate … which plainly shewed, that the Contrivers were as little formidable in war and Politicks, as they were superiour to all the World as Managers of a Puppet-Show.’ The two ladies in Rossini’s duet are encouraging Tonio (appropriately named for this disc) to row to victory in this ‘puppet-show’ boat race. It is thus that Anthony Rolfe Johnson is introduced to centre stage for the remainder of the recital.
The Canzonetta veneziana is a folk-song arrangement with piano trio accompaniment by Ludwig van Beethoven. His arrangements of Scottish, Irish and Welsh tunes undertaken for Mr George Thomson of Edinburgh are better known today than his handful of tentative excursions into Polish, Spanish, and even Russian, folk-song. Like Beethoven, Franz Schubert never ventured outside German-speaking lands. Between the era of Napoleon and 1866 when the city was at last incorporated into Italy, Venice was shuttled about as a pawn in European power struggles. In Schubert’s time Venice was actually ruled by the Austrians – a fact also darkly referred to in the last verse of Alfred de Musset’s poem Venise set by Gounod. Schubert’s Gondelfahrer barcarolle is the last of many poems he set by his friend Johann Mayrhofer who worked as book censor for Metternich’s repressive Austrian regime. There is, by the way, another Schubert setting of this poem for unaccompanied four-part men’s chorus.
Many of the earthly joys denied to Schubert were granted to Felix Mendelssohn – and a visit in 1830 to Italy, including Venice, was one of them. He fell in love with the work of Titian and Giorgione but thoroughly disliked the crude music-making he heard in the Church of SS Giovanni e Paulo. Although he did compose a gondola song at the time as part of his Lieder ohne Worte (Op 19, No 6), it was only twelve years later that he set Freiligrath’s translation of a Venetian poem by Thomas Moore, a great friend of Byron. The two tearaway poets shared a love of Venice – ‘The greenest island of my imagination’, Byron wrote to Moore, and he also called the city ‘my head, or rather my heart quarters’. Byron was as much a man for the ladies in Venice as everywhere else. As Clough wrote later on a Venetian visit: ‘What now? the Lido shall it be? / That none may say we didn’t see / The ground that Byron used to ride on. / And do I don’t know what beside on.’ Mendelssohn’s Venezianisches Gondellied (‘Wenn durch die Piazzetta’) has a quieter seductive allure than the Byronic pranks suggested by Clough; in its watery ebb and flow it is quite different from Schumann’s perky setting of the same poem in 1840.
In the same spirit as Schumann’s Venetian songs with Moore texts are settings of the same two poems by Adolf Jensen. He was a song-composer of considerable skill, underrated today, who was a devoted Schumann and Wagner disciple. He set more English and Scottish poetry and ballads in German translation than any other lieder composer.
Mikhail Glinka arrived in Venice in 1833 – three years after Mendelssohn (the two composers had met in Milan earlier without taking to each other). Glinka’s Venetian stay was not a happy one; he became violently ill and as a result his voice changed to that of a high tenor! Soon afterwards he quit Italy for good and resolved to find a truly Russian way of composing. Venetsianskaya noch’ (‘Venetian night’) was written before this fateful Venetian excursion, and is unashamedly Italianate.
Like his teacher and mentor Tchaikovsky, Sergei Taneyev was attracted to the south and the diversities of other cultures. He must be among the few composers to number Esperanto settings among his vocal works. Venetsiya noch’yu (‘Venice at night’) however, is a Russian evocation of Venice where the resonance of the balalaika has been replaced by a mandolin. The song is related to Tchaikovsky’s enchanting Pimpinella, which is a Florentine serenade as much as Taneyev’s is Venetian.
The Rossini duet I marinai is a reminder that Venice was a great seafaring empire, famed for the steadfast bravery and tenacity of its guardian navy. The Venice of mighty political power and the Venice evoked by Rossini are rather different cities, however. The stormy dangers whipped up by Rossini’s music are caused by the sea’s tantrums rather than the navies of the Ottoman Empire.
Charles Gounod and Jules Massenet were winners of the Prix de Rome (twenty-five years apart), and thus both visited Italy as young men. Gounod wrote a number of songs in Italian (including a whole song-cycle, La biondina) but the mélodie Venise is probably his most famous song tribute to the south. It is in a simple strophic form but manages to convey an atmosphere of nocturnal intrigue in an occupied city shorn of political power and given over to dissolute pleasure. By contrast Massenet’s Souvenir de Venise has the gentle grace of a holiday memory where love is light-hearted and, of necessity, short-lived. Even in this miniature, Massenet can evoke the nostalgia of a faded photograph – an ability all his own.
The portrait of a gondolier in Barcarolle by Gabriel Fauré bn is a more redoubtable one, with those mysterious, even sinister, overtones that have always been a part of these highly independent and cavalier bus drivers of Venice. As Shelley wrote of gondolas: ‘I can only compare them to moths of which a coffin might have been the chrysalis.’ But together with the occasional truculence of the gondolier there is charm (when he wants to show it), his dialect and his famed singing voice. It is these things which have been immortalized in the cycle Venezia by Reynaldo Hahn. Reynaldo was an habitué of the city – often setting off from the Danieli Hotel by gondola to explore every church and every palazzo with his companion Marcel Proust. His is the Venice of the belle époque, the elegant playground of the rich and famous. He wrote, tongue-in-cheek: ‘Venice does have its drawbacks … this morning having found a scorpion in her bath, the Princesse de Polignac is thinking of selling her palace and retiring to Scotland.’ In reality very few of those inveterate aesthetes retired from Venice, for the city continued to exert its extraordinary fascination. Here Reynaldo describes the first performance of his Venezia cycle: ‘Madame de Béarn asked me to sing – just me and a piano – on the Piccoli Canale. Just a few gondolas – one or two friends hastily gathered together … I was in one boat, lit up for the occasion, with my piano and a couple of oarsmen. The other gondolas were grouped around us. We found a place where three canals met beneath three charming bridges, and I sang all my Venetian songs. Gradually passers-by gathered on the bridges: an audience of ordinary people, pressing forward to listen. The Venetian songs surprised and delighted this little crowd, which made me very happy. “Ancora, ancora”, they called from above. These songs both light and melancholy sounded well beneath the starry skies and I felt that emotion which reverberates in the composer’s heart when it has truly been shared and understood by those around him.’
There is for the visitor to Venice a feeling of belonging to the city, of having the right to belong to it despite all the contradictions of nationality. Nothing as petty as citizenship and language can stand in the way of a relationship between ‘La serenissima’ (as the Venetians call their city) and the person who knows unique beauty when he or she sees it. Marcel Proust summed it up in what was for him an unusually short sentence: ‘When I went to Venice, my dream became my address.’
Graham Johnson © 1984