For no readily apparent reason, 20th-century Italian song is a bit of a wasteland on disc. Perhaps it’s been eclipsed by the late-verismo school of opera, but it seems like only now that we are exhuming the interesting composers from the group who were born around 1880 (the so-called ‘generazione dell’ottanta’ generation of 80) who rebelled against Italy’s traditional focus on all things operatic. Respighi has enjoyed a bit of a monopoly to date, but Alfano, Malipiero and Casella have received attention, and now it’s the turn of the interesting Ildebrando Pizzetti (1880–1968).
This enterprising album of songs reveals a fine compositional hand and a most un-Italian interest in the text. Pizzetti, whose music looks both forward and back, was a textual obsessive, firmly believing that too many of his predecessors had put up with four-square, substandard lyrics, preferring instead to concentrate their attention on the traditional area of melody and a good hummable tune. Not that Pizzetti wasn’t tuneful, as these 17 of his 33 extant songs prove. But by choosing lyrics by quality poets like Gabriele d’Annunzio and non-Italians like Victor Hugo he guaranteed himself a string of texts worth the setting and in the process invented a new kind of song, which he dubbed liriche.
If that sounds unduly dry or academic, fear not. Pizzetti’s sound world is more akin in some ways to the late French mélodies of Debussy or Chausson, but with a greater use of flexible polyrhythms to fit voice to word and a tendency to look to Renaissance antecedents in his quest for harmonic modes (not unlike the new-Elizabethans in England). And there’s more than a hint of Puccini in his ability to illuminate a memorable musical phrase.
Polish mezzo Hanna Hipp proves as comfortable in Italian song as she is in French opera (pace her excellent Anna to Joyce DiDonato’s Dido in Les Troyens) while pianist Emma Abbate is a true partner, wonderfully flexible and entirely inside Pizzetti’s tricky, densely populated accompaniments.
This repertoire will be unfamiliar to most, but a gem like the gently waltzing Sera d’inverno would grace any mezzo’s recital program. And while there’s an aching wistfulness to songs like d’Annunzio’s I Pastori, perfectly caught by Hipp’s inward, reflective tone, she can blossom into full refulgence in a love song like Giovanni Papini’s erotically-charged Passeggiata.
Hers is a substantial instrument, warm and resonant, and just occasionally it might have been nice to break up the 55-minute program with an alternate voice, but that’s a quibble as Hipp clearly identifies strongly with this particular composer and is well-equipped to bring out the voluptuous and velvety in his songs. Moody food indeed!