Off the beaten track

If a new release of Verdi songs from Telos masquerades as a vanity project by Diana Damrau, the packaging takes the blame.  Despite a starring place on the slip cover and top billing, Damrau sings less than a third of the tracks.  It’s a pity, because she clearly found something of interest in the works she did sing.

Verdi’s song output is small, and negligible in importance next to his more famous works.  Sometimes we glimpse the sweeping vocal lines, and recognize a passage that would resurface in later operas, but they never match up to his skills in larger formats.  At best, the piano part sounds like an orchestral reduction, and at worst highlights his tendency towards thumping accompaniments.

Damrau gives full commitment, approaching the text with the detail required of art song.  She begins with “Stornello” which Verdi wrote around the same time as Don Carlos as a fundraiser for librettist Francesco Maria Piave.  The latest composition of the collection, Verdi shows the most control over the genre, and the result is light and charming, sounding like it was actually written for voice and piano. Damrau is bright and vivacious, and navigates the flightly vocal line while managing to dot her notes with a touch of color.

The same attention to detail is apparent in her other four tracks, which span earlier parts of Verdi’s career.  In the lyrical “Perduta ho la pace” we get some particularly honeyed phrases, even as the music foreshadows “È strano” without moving beyond the generic.  The “Brindisi” is also of particular interest not only in comparison to the more famous drinking songs, but because two versions are presented in this collection.  Damrau’s gives us perfect operatic drunkenness – crisp vocal whirls that stray daringly near the edge of combustion.

The two men who finish the rest of the collection, César Augusto Gutiérrez and Paul Armin Edelmann, do an able job if without the charisma and detail of Damrau.  The liner notes neglect to denote who sings what, nor does this information appear with any accuracy on iTunes or Amazon.  My guess is that Edelmann, a light baritone whose voice moves with incredible smoothness, sings after Damrau.  Gutiérrez, a tenor, also sounds light if slightly less velvety, and is mostly distinguishable from the heroic ring to his upper register.  They sing well enough, but never with as much attention to the text, and the result is not particularly exciting.

The “Brindisi” serves as an all too easy point of comparison.  Damrau’s male counterpart (Gutiérrez?) gives us long phrases and crisp turns, but I would never believe for a second that he’d drunk even a sip of wine.  The rest sounds equally pretty and bland, sometimes bordering on the point of crooning.

Friedrich Haider draws what he can from Verdi’s unpianistic writing; his reading is crisp and precise, supporting the singes ably.

In a collection primarily of interest for reference purposes, the lack of clear information is particularly frustrating.  The order is denoted by singer rather than by composition dates (Damrau begins the CD with apparently the last of the works), which are mentioned only casually in the liner notes.  These notes are written in dense, grammatically correct language, which aimlessly refuses to convince itself that these works are of any particular importance.

With a recording date of 2005 for her tracks, and the rest following in 2010, this reads as a careless way to release something in the archives after a star singer had signed with another label.  Too bad, as a more complete collection would have been able to compete with Scotto’s, not to mention a similar Naxos release.  Still, the first five tracks are quite fun, and rest will be worth a listen to anyone interested in hearing Verdi canzoni in the first place.