3. “Spitfire Prelude & Fugue” by William Walton

We start the week with a man that left no important legacy, being considered more often than not as old-fashioned in his style: Sir William Turner Walton. Why are we doing this? Because I have a soft spot for wartime music, which is precisely what Spitfire Prelude & Fugue is: the score of the film The First of the Few, directed by Lesley Howard. It portrays the biography of R.J. Martin, the man who designed the Supermarine Spitfire, the fighting plane used by the British and Allied forces in the second world war. This is one of the two works that William Walton did not dismiss as unimportant and low quality music, in a time when his job was to compose scores for wartime propaganda movies. The other one is the score for Henry V, starring and directed by Laurence Olivier. The work is rather simple, but infused with a nostalgic British sound and an imposing fanfare start and march which I love.

IDAGIO and Amazon for: dir. Sir Neville Marriner, Academy of St. Martin in the Fields

“Spitfire Prelude & Fugue” by William Walton| dir. Paul Daniel, English Northern Philharmonia | Amazon

2. “Piano Concert no. 2 in F major, op. 102” by Dmitri Shostakovich

Opening with just a few light winds and piano droplets, intensifying into a rush accompanied by drums in order to develop a crescent exciting march, then falling back into a calm breeze mingled with playful moments: all this in just the first three minutes of the piano concerto. The whole first movement, especially the march and the drums towards the end, is a terrific mood boost, but in a somewhat playful and serene manner, inducing a composed, focused and determined state of mind.

This is followed by a lyrical and nostalgic second movement. One minute in, after an orchestra introduction, the piano takes the lead with a gentle solo. The orchestra (particularly the strings) is just a setting to further highlight the lyricism of the piano.

The finale is just an explosion of galloping rhythms, incorporating a polka, a march and a variation of some Hanon studies (a set of 60 piano exercises written in the 19th century by Charles Louis Hanon, aimed to help pianists improve their technique by developing their speed, precision, strength and endurance). This is indeed very fitting, as the work was composed as a birthday gift for his 19-year-old son, which he premiered it during his graduation at the Moscow Conservatory.

IDAGIO and Amazon for: New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein (Piano)

“Piano Concert no. 2 in F major, op. 102” by Dmitri Shostakovich | Leonard Bernstein (Piano)

1. “Una furtiva lagrima” from “L’elisir d’amore” by Gaetano Donizetti

We conclude the week with one the most famous romanzas from opera, Una furtiva lagrima, sung in act 2 by Nemorino (tenor), our protagonist who is in love with a girl that isn’t responding to his feelings, and in his naiveté, he believes a love potion will make her love him back. Of course the potion is a scam, but nevertheless, in this moment he is certain that the elixir has worked.

Although the focus here is on the sung part, selecting some favourite performances (which is no easy task considering the multitude of options available to choose from), do not make the mistake of ignoring the beginning notes of the orchestra. You would miss one of the most beautiful lyrical introduction to an aria.  

Una furtiva lagrima
negli occhi suoi spuntò:
Quelle festose giovani
invidiar sembrò.

Che più cercando io vo?
Che più cercando io vo?
M’ama! Sì, m’ama,
lo vedo, lo vedo.

Un solo istante i palpiti
del suo bel cor sentir!
I miei sospir confondere
per poco a’ suoi sospir!
I palpiti, i palpiti sentir,
confondere i miei co’ suoi sospir.

Cielo, si può morir;
di più non chiedo, non chiedo.
Ah, cielo! Si può! Si può morir!
Di più non chiedo, non chiedo.
Si può morir! Si può morir d’amor

Literal translation
A furtive tear
in her eyes appeared:
Those festive young girls
she seemed to envy.

What more need I look for?
What more need I look for?
She loves me! Yes, she loves me,
I see it, I see it.

For a single instant the beats
of her beautiful heart to hear!
My sighs to blend
for a while with her sighs!
Her heartbeats, her heartbeats to hear,
my sighs with hers to merge.

Heavens! One could die!
More I cannot ask, I cannot ask.
Oh, heavens! One could, one could die!
More I cannot ask, I cannot ask.
One could die! One could die of love!

Luciano Pavarotti’s version has only one small fault in my eyes: it could have been more emotional, the performance seems a bit cold. But everything else is faultless. IDAGIO

Luciano Pavarotti

Enrico Caruso is a better fit as Nemorino in my opinion (Pavarotti can be too overpowering for this character), he’s softer and more sensitive. But I do have one criticism: he doesn’t have Pavarotti’s diction and I don’t particularly enjoy how he ends the aria, it sounds a bit messy to my ears.

Enrico Caruso

Although I like Caruso’s voice better, I prefer Tito Schipa’s version, as he has more clarity and the ending sounds cleaner. However, it’s hard to really enjoy it because of the quality of the recording and the cut right in the middle of the aria.

Tito Schipa

Rolando Villazon is one of the most believable Nemorinos on stage, as a character. Since this is how I first discovered the aria, his performance is rather nostalgic to me and I often come back to it.

Rolando Villazon

Jussi Bjorling is perfection! He has diction and clarity, all the notes are warm and round, I even enjoy the “M’ama! Si, m’ama” verse (which is by far the one I least like from the entire aria), his performance is genuinely emotional, you can feel at the end that it’s truly enough for him, that he would embrace death because feeling her love is enough for him. IDAGIO

Jussi Bjorling

Giuseppe di Stefano is right there along Jussi Bjorling, with the small caveat that I preffer Jussi’s ending, especially the last “non chiedo”, which again is not my favourite part of the aria so it’s rather hard to make it enjoyable for my ears.

Giuseppe di Stefano

Other performances I found and liked:

Luigi Alva: I hear him as a softer Jussi Bjorling. He’s over prolonging the notes at times, which makes the aria sound more sombre than it is.

Luigi Alva

Cesare Valletti: not a big fan of the second half, but I really enjoy the first part.

Cesare Valletti

Mario Lanza: I love his timbre, although I don’t think it fits very well with Nemorino’s character. Not a big fan of how he’s singing the ending either, he’s overdramatizing things.

Mario Lanza

Disclaimer: this is not an exhaustive list of all the works curated by Clemency Burton-Hill in the book “Year of wonder: classical music for every day”. To enjoy the full catalogue of pieces proposed by the author along with her comments on the composers and the music itself, feel free to pick up her awesome book here (not affiliated, nor sponsored).

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