A bit older than Giacomo Puccini, Francesco Paolo Tosti was every bit his younger countryman's (and friend's) equal in melodic fecundity. While Puccini chose to write operas, however, Tosti became the master of the cultivated popular song. Sometimes Tosti's work is lumped in with Neapolitan songs. This is an error, though, because Tosti wrote not for the city street and the public square, but for the drawing rooms of the genteel and well-to-do, and even for nobility. (Queen Victoria herself was among his fans, and later, King Edward VII) If Sir Arthur Sullivan had been Italian-born, his work might have sounded much like Tosti's. And, like Sullivan's work away from Gilbert, Tosti's work faded in popularity with the rise of records and radio, but every now and then someone takes more than a superficial glance at it, and we are reminded of how warm and splendid it really is.
In the late1970s, tenor José Carreras (before his struggle with leukemia) recorded an excellent Tosti LP for Philips – a disc that really should be reissued on CD. Now, a generation later, Ben Heppner has followed his example. For the most part, Tosti's songs were written for voice with piano accompaniment, and both Carreras and Heppner have been fortunate to work with sensitive arrangers. In the case of the latter, the duties are divided between Steven Mercurio and Michael Rot, and their salon-style arrangements (including harmonium!) are even more true to the period than those of Peter Hope on Carreras's LP, which tend to be a little too grandly orchestral.
Recently, Heppner lost a lot of weight, cancelled some performances, and sang poorly in others – he was reported to be dealing with indispositions of his own. Certainly the photographs included in DG's booklet show a man who has aged considerably in the last five years. One would be hard-pressed to guess that the man singing here is a famous Wagnerian heldentenor. Then again, one hardly wants Tristan to sing these delicate, violet-scented miniatures. If one notices vulnerability, even fragility in Heppner's voice, it is not inappropriate for the repertoire, and Heppner makes no distressing sounds here – only surprisingly gentlemanly ones. (The high notes are quite nice.) Carreras really cut loose in this repertoire; Heppner is more restrained, and that's valid too, albeit not as exciting.
Most of Tosti's songs are set to Italian texts (including several by Gabriele D'Annunzio), but some are in French or English. A language coach receives credits in the CD's production notes, but it must be said that Heppner's Italian and French are Berlitz-correct, and not terribly idiomatic. (The singer hails from Saskatchewan.) At any rate, the booklet contains original texts and English translations, and Heppner's diction per se is quite good.
I can't say enough good things about Tosti's songs, and Heppner's selection of nineteen of them is excellent. So, even though I have minor reservations about Heppner's singing, I'd hate myself for not giving this CD an enthusiastic recommendation.
Copyright © 2004, Raymond Tuttle