The human voice is one of the most powerfully expressive of our means of communications, and one which may arouse all kinds of feelings through the flexibility of its range, timbre, colour and tone. When it sings, it may conjure up an entire world of suggestions and fascinating overtones.
The purpose of many musical instruments, of many instrumental performers and of many composers who wrote for them is to evoke some of the qualities of the human voice; not simply to mimic the voice, but rather to shed a different light (the light of the instrument’s own timbre) on something reminiscent of the voice. The flute and the cello are both, each in its own way, among the instruments which resemble the voice more closely. The flute, being a wind instrument, is bound to the necessity of breathing (and thus of shaping the musical phrases in a “human” fashion) similarly to the singing voice; it makes the air vibrate, as does the voice, thus suggesting the iridescent and transparent quality of an invisible sound medium. On the other hand, its range is much more extended than those of most human voices, and thus it may enrich the voice’s expressive quality by enlarging the expressive intervals in the melody.
The cello, being a bowed string instrument, may seem less close to the voice. However, bowing needs shape the cello’s phrases similar to what breathing does to the voice and the flute; moreover, the intense, mellow and deep sound of the cello is considered by many as one of the closest and more expressive instrumental symbols for the human voice.
Taken side by side with the cello and the flute, the piano can certainly advance no comparable claim to such an expressivity. The piano sound is produced by striking the strings with tiny hammers; no vibrato is possible here, and the sound cannot be sustained after it has been produced. In spite of this, there is no piano teacher who has not recommended to his pupils to “make the piano sing”; and, of course, the piano has a richness of timbre and a polyphonic attitude which amply compensate for its shortcomings as a surrogate of the human voice.
Thus, by gathering together a small ensemble of just four musicians (voice, flute, cello and piano), a composer has almost the entire palette of timbre and sound of an orchestra at his or her disposal. There are the piano’s fullness and the variety of sound, along with its possibility for thick and complex harmonies; there are the warmth of the string instrument and the diverse timbres it can produce through the many techniques of sound production it possesses; there are the flexibility, clearness and lightness of the flute; and there is the human voice, with everything it stands for, and with its capability to utter words which may in turn suggest infinite images and atmospheres.
It is therefore rather surprising that such an ensemble has been employed only occasionally in the history of music, and the best-known example is doubtless represented by Maurice Ravel’s Chansons Madécasses. Even more surprising is the fact that such a magician of the sound and timbre combinations as was Ravel (perhaps matched only by Rimskij-Korsakov) did not come up with the idea for this ensemble himself. Indeed, the proposal came from the patroness who commissioned this song cycle, i.e. Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. A fundamental figure in the history of early twentieth-century music, Sprague Coolidge supported many of the greatest artists of the era, by commissioning them works, by promoting performances and by encouraging their musical studies, among the many activities she undertook in favour of music. One of the musicians who benefited from her generosity was the Italian composer Alfredo Casella, whose experiences in America were by and large owed to Sprague Coolidge’s initiatives. Being an accomplished piano player, Casella participated in the premiere of Ravel’s Chansons, along with other great artists of the era.
Ravel chose three songs from a collection of “Madagascar songs” published by Evariste de Parny. The clear exoticism and eroticism of the lyrics inspired the composer to draw from his inexhaustible palette a wealth of previously unheard effects; the pronounced characterization of the three movements (with their love-poetry, polemical vein, gaiety and love for life) is increased by the musical rendition; the atmospheres are continuously changing, while maintaining a strong coherence and consistency. The exotic-sounding names and poetical style allow the composer to explore new avenues in the compositional technique; though there are rather scanty “African” elements in these pieces, they work as Gauguin’s Far-Eastern inspirations in giving scope to the artist’s creativity outside the normal boundaries of academic stylization.
The enchanting possibilities offered by this ensemble are explored also by James Francis Brown, a contemporary composer who (in turn) was prompted by someone else to venture through this creative path. Cellist Steven Isserlis brought to Brown’s attention a collection of published poetry written by an artist who is best known for his musical works, i.e. Camille Saint-Saens, to whose pianism Ravel’s style is strongly indebted. In the Brown’s own words, “Le Chêne (The Oak Tree) is an airy and good-natured ‘letter’ to an old friend, Edmond Cottinet, with whom the composer had collaborated on various stage works. The oak tree is, perhaps, a symbol of growth and the perils that beset the path of all creative endeavours. In homage to Saint-Saêns’ own predilection for pastiche this song fuses the forms of minuet and bourée in a carefree, neo-classical manner”. By way of contrast, “La Libellule (The Dragonfly) is rather darker in tone”, as the insect is seen as “a classic symbol of the femme fatale”. The final poem, Adieu, expresses “the desire to escape from worldly concerns and enter a paradise of contemplation and calm. The song opens with a cello solo in a somewhat despondent mood which is dispelled by the prospect of a steam-ship, slumbering in a bay, ready to carry the composer away”. In the central section, the composer explicitly evokes Gauguin’s Tahiti paintings, thus resorting once more to that world of imagination which we tend to place on this earth, though far from the places we currently reside in. As the piece draws to its end, “with a sense of joyful release the ship sets sail and Saint-Saêns finds a charming metaphor for the impossible dream – flying fish! Here, the flute, released from its lower octave, relishes the sea-spray and fresh air of freedom before the ship meets the horizon in a quiet reminiscence of the central, island music”.
A similar ensemble, though without the flute, was employed also by Liana Alexandra, a Rumanian composer who studied in Darmstadt but ended up finding a very personal voice, entirely different from the experiments of the avant-garde who had its shrine in the German city. Her Chant d’amour de la Dame au Licorne, set to lyrics by Etienne de Sadeleer (b. 1923), is a chamber opera whereby an enchanted world is created once more before our eyes. Here too the ensemble stands for an entire orchestra, while the soloist’s voice both narrates and experiences the human adventure suggested by the poems.
The album is framed by another work by Ravel, excerpted from one of his youthful masterpieces, Sheherazade – an exotic topic to end all exoticism, one is tempted to say. In this case, the influence of Claude Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande is clearly discernible, providing an alternative and complementary way to the Wagnerism which took Europe by storm at the time. However, Wagner is not missing from this picture; even the author of Ravel’s lyrics hid his name behind the pen name of Tristan Klingsor, with more than a hint of Wagner. The protagonist of the second piece (the only one recorded in this album) is obviously the flute, as the movement’s title explicitly focuses on a magic flute; the treatment of the instrument is in turn reminiscent of the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, with its gorgeous, sensual and intriguing sonorities, intertwined with an enthralling and enrapturing fantasy.
Thus, this album offers to its listeners an innovative and refreshing itinerary through the languages of the twentieth and twenty-first century, demonstrating the impressive possibilities of a small chamber ensemble and of its astonishing potential for creating a world of sounds.
Album Notes by Chiara Bertoglio
Damiana Mizzi. She graduated at the Nino Rota Conservatory in Monopoli under M. G. Pani’s direction, she improved her skills with A. Felle and M. Devia. She attended Renata Scotto’s “Opera Studio” at the Accademia Nazionale of Santa Cecilia. Finalist at the 2017 Operalia Competition, she won many International Lyric Contests, among which “As.Li.Co.” and a special prize at the “Tenor Viñas” International Contest. She debuted in 2004 with Rosina’s role (Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Paisiello). Afterwards, she performed many roles, like Giulietta (I Capuleti e i Montecchi), Nannetta (Falstaff), Corinna (Il viaggio a Reims), Musetta (La Bohème), Gilda (Rigoletto), Susanna (Le Nozze di Figaro), Adina (L’Elisir d’amore). She regularly performs opera, chamber music and contemporary repertoires, singing the works of renowned composers, such as M. D’Amico and G. Battistelli. She worked with many conductors, including Muti, Nagano, Campanella, Renzetti, and in many theatres: Rome Opera House, Bolshoi Theater, Acc. Naz. of Santa Cecilia, Teatro La Fenice, Teatro Regio in Turin, Teatro Regio in Parma, Ravenna Festival, ROF, Musikfest Bremen, Savonlinna Opera Festival, ROH Muscat, Lübeck Theater, NCPA in Beijing.
Marcos Madrigal. He was born in Havana, Cuba. In 2007, he graduated with honours from the University of Arts of Cuba, under the guidance of the renowned professor and pianist T. Junco. He attended Master Classes at the Conservatory in Lugano and at the International Piano Academy Lake Como, where he had the opportunity to study with A. Staier, D. Bashkirov, Fou Ts’ong, M. Bilson and especially with his mentor W. G. Naboré. He has performed in recitals, and as a soloist with orchestra, in many of the most renowned concert halls of the world, such as the Teatro Colón of Buenos Aires, the Auditorium Parco della Musica of Rome, the Queen Elizabeth Hall of London, working with notable conductors, such as C. Abbado. He has received numerous awards in several international competitions, among which are the the “Panama International Piano Competition”, the International Piano Competition “María Clara Cullel”. In 2012, he was awarded the International Award “Gold Medal Maison des Artistes”. Among his most recent recordings are Homo Ludens, with L. Brouwer; Cuba, a monograph dedicated to Cuban composer Lecuona, which was critically acclaimed and won numerous awards, among which are the Choc de Classica (France), the Melómano de Oro (Spain).
Roberto Mansueto. Born in 1990, he is a cellist of the Accademia of Santa Cecilia’s Orchestra in Rome since 2013. After graduating with honours at the “Nino Rota” Conservatory in Monopoli under Marcello Forte’s guidance, he attended Luigi Piovano and Antonio Meneses’s Master Classes at the Hochschule der Künste Bern and at the Chigiana Music Academy in Siena. He performed as principal cellist with many orchestras; from 2009 to 2011 he was the principal cellist in the Italian Youth Orchestra and in 2011 he was selected for the same role at the Cherubini Orchestra, conducted by Riccardo Muti. He played in the best concert halls of the world under the conduction of the greatest musicians on the international music scene: A. Pappano, M.W. Chung, K. Petrenko, G. Dudamel, D. Harding, V. Gergiev, Y. Temirkanov, among the others. Well-versed in chamber music, he played with great artists, including Bruno Giuranna, Wolfram Christ, Josè Gallardo, Beatrice Rana, Olaf Maninger, Andrea Oliva. He’s principal cello of Santa Cecilia Orchestra Strings.
Andrea Oliva. He studied with Jean Claude Gerard and Sir James Galway. He was invited as Principal Flute by the Berlin Philharmonic at the age of 23, during his Karajan Academy period, under the baton of Claudio Abbado and Mariss Jansons. He was awarded the first prize at the Kobe International Flute Competition (2005) and the third prize at the ARD Munich (2004). He also collaborates with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. He has performed as a soloist with the Accademia di Santa Cecilia Orchestra (Nielsen Concerto, the Italian premiere of Dalbavie Concerto). He is a member of the Wind Quintet of Santa Cecilia and Concertgebouw and I Cameristi di Santa Cecilia. As soloist and teacher, he has been invited by many flute festivals in China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, USA, UK, Slovenia, Germany and Italy. He has recorded CDs for the labels ARTS, Chant de Linos, VDM, Hyperion, Decca and Sony. Andrea Oliva Is currently Principal Flautist of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia Orchestra in Rome, Italy and Professor at the Music University of Lugano, Switzerland. He’s currently Visiting Professor at RNCM of Manchester.
Maurice Ravel (b Ciboure, Basses-Pyrénées, 7 March 1875; d Paris, 28 Dec 1937). French composer. He was one of the most original and sophisticated musicians of the early 20th century. His instrumental writing – whether for solo piano, for ensemble or for orchestra – explored new possibilities, which he developed at the same time as (or even before) his great contemporary Debussy, and his fascination with the past and with the exotic resulted in music of a distinctively French sensibility and refinement.