Is this Italian-song release too niche for its own good? A Polish mezzo-soprano sings little-known settings by an obscure composer on a release with an unprepossessing blue cover. Nor is the album’s title much of a come-hither unless you’re drawn to the prospect of a winter evening. Yet the open-minded can dive into Sera d’inverno with confidence – because it’s a delight, beautifully rendered and loaded with appeal.
This needn’t be a great surprise. Not only has Hanna Hipp been a distinguished fixture within the UK opera scene for the past decade, but Ildebrando Pizzetti (1880-1968) featured on one of Hyperion’s most garlanded releases when Westminster Cathedral Choir paired his Missa di Requiem with the Mass for Double Choir by Frank Martin (CDA67017). Factor in the special insights of Emma Abbate, the pianist and project mastermind, wrap them in a vivid recording by Adam Binks, and here’s something that demands to be taken seriously.
Unfortunately, Pizzetti’s songs – and this Resonus release contains more than half his output for voice and piano – are predominantly slow and lyrical. The artists do what they can to mask this lack of variety through careful dynamic colouring, but there is no getting away from the fact that their recital is best consumed in short bursts rather than at one sitting.
Neither do all of the selections sound characteristically Italian. There are echoes of the Lied, the mélodie and even the English art-song. ‘I pastori’, the composer’s shepherd song from a text by d’Annunzio and to my ears the finest piece on this selection, is a long, languid stretch of poetic yearning that recalls Canteloube’s Chants d’Auvergne alongside tints of Benjamin Britten, all within a five-minute expanse of delicate mood-shifts and heart-stopping modulations.
For that elusive taste of Italy, both ‘La madre al figlio lontano’ (The mother to the son faraway) and the extended ‘Incontro di Marzo’ (March encounter) could have leapt from the pages of a verismo opera. Pizzetti, an arch-respecter of words (and therefore a good man in my book) navigates the texts with outstanding communicative expertise, and Hipp, who knows her way around such soundworlds, delivers them with an actor’s panache.
If the compositions are enhanced by their creator’s attention to detail, their interpretations are strengthened by the pianist’s assured command of his idiom. Abbate never puts a foot or finger wrong in her support of Hipp and Pizzetti. Such oddities that do occur are inherent in the music itself, as with the title number, whose spiralling melody and rocking last line seem so seductive you’d never guess it tells of a winter evening.
The longest song in this collection, ‘Passeggiata’, from the twentieth-century poet Papani, has immediate appeal even though Pizzetti makes it sound more like a hike than a stroll (which is the title’s meaning). But it’s in one of the shortest settings, of Victor Hugo’s moving ‘Épitaphe’ in the original French, that composer, singer and pianist pool their resources to create musical magic.
‘Canzone per ballo’ (Song for dancing), a carefree whirl around the forest, gives a rousing final flourish and makes one wish Pizzetti had given us more such upbeat pieces. Hipp and Abbate pitch its mood beautifully.
The accompanying booklet is not entirely satisfactory. Several texts are missing for copyright reasons and translations are placed underneath the original verses rather than next to them in a move guaranteed to frustrate eyes that are used to darting between the two. Still, at least they’re there, and thanks are due for that. The liner note by Mark Whatley is extracts from a longer study and only partially coincides with the selections.