Musicweb International
Ralph Moore

Dolce Vita
It is hardly surprising with Christmas on the way that the world’s premier tenor should release a crowd-pleasing album bursting with winter sunshine. The Vespa-blue themed digipackaging is handsomely produced with the full Italian texts translated into three languages, far too many brooding photographs of our dreamy, handsome, photogenic singer and an inside spread of the Trevi Fountain to put us in the mood for an anthology of favourite Italian songs dating back to 1881 (Gastaldon’s “Musica proibita”), through the great era of Neapolitan ballads to crossover hits of the post-war decades up to “Il canto”, written for Pavarotti in 2003. For good measure, we have - in German, and English and French but, interestingly and ironically, not in Italian - a thoroughly irritating and self-consciously jokey essay, which is short on actual information and very long on whimsy, by one “Bodo Rossi”, which looks suspiciously like a pseudonym to me – although I am open to correction on that one. The author never spoke a truer word than when he concludes his notes with the sentence, “And I’m already in irritatingly high spirits.”

Whatever I say, this CD will sell well – and I talk as a great Kaufmann fan, but when he is in the right Fach. No great tenor ever scorned these songs; indeed Caruso’s gramophone sales were enormously bolstered by them. Gigli, Di Stefano, Corelli, Del Monaco, Pavarotti, Carreras in his brief, youthful prime and, very recently, Juan Diego Flórez all recorded and sang them in concert con gusto and con amore, but you notice what they have in common? Yes; they are all Latin tenors with bright, sunny voices capable of a pure, honeyed tone, and none of them sang Tristan, as Kaufmann is about to do. His big, burly, baritonal tenor is hardly the right vehicle for this repertoire; the sound is often quite raw and rough, nearly always with a suggestion of break between the registers, as in the repeated top As of “l’ebrezza dell’amor” in “Musica proibita”, where Kaufmann is too effortful in comparison with Caruso or Carreras. He also employs a constant “coup de glotte” attack which breaks the line and legato, and throwing in concluding B flats is not always the most musical option. Corelli is guilty of the same excess; Di Stefano and Del Monaco prefer the less showy but more apt top A as the climax to “Torna a Surriento”, but if you are going to conclude with a top B flourish, then Corelli’s is actually more sensuous and thrilling, while Di Stefano is brings more rhythmic impulse to the song, where Kaufmann is rather staid and detached.

It does not help that the orchestral arrangements are really overblown and played coarsely by a less than refined Palermo band. “Core ‘ngrato” is murdered both in terms of the stentorian singing and the instrumentational embellishments. Corelli’s album, recorded in the early 60’s, is similarly blighted – or enhanced, depending on your taste – with swooning, Mantovani strings, but at least there we are spared the souping up effect of glissandi horns, flutes and violins, which really do constitute overkill. Surely a gentler, simpler more seductive approach of the kind Caruso, Di Stefano and Corelli provide is required for this gorgeous lament. Interestingly, Kaufmann is one of the few to sing the complete four-stanza version including the advice from the Father Confessor to steer well clear of Catari. Caruso also sings a fuller version but with a more sanitised text.

Not every song here has pretensions to being an “art song”, nor need it have. Nonetheless, the more recent numbers surely benefit from a sweeter, cleaner tone of the kind Pavarotti brought to them; this listener is often conscious of hearing a big, Wagnerian tenor crooning to rather charmless effect and, for all Kaufmann’s proficiency in the language, an absence of real Italianità.

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