Art Songs + Works for Piano: Duo Vanini-Coni Interview

Diana Castelnuovo-Tedesco / News /

One of the most memorable sessions of last summer’s Italian- Jewish Studies Conference in Camaldoli, Italy was a lecture and concert by the Duo Vanini-Coni (mezzosoprano Valentina Vanini and pianist Giuseppina Coni),  during which they focused on the art songs Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco wrote during his early years in Florence. The Duo has recently released a two CD box set (Tactus), which features both these early art songs as well as works for solo piano of the same period, along with interesting and in depth liner notes by Professor Cesare Orselli. The project includes the premiere recordings of three songs: La sera fiesolana, based on Gabriele D’Annunzio’s celebrated poem;  La canzone della vita, with words by Mario’s elder brother Ugo Castelnuovo-Tedesco; and the brief cycle Il libro di Dolcina, set to poems by Laura Milani Comparetti, the mother of Elisa Milani, a childhood friend of Mario’s.  Valentina and Giuseppina kindly agreed to tell us about their experience studying and recording this music.

Interview with Duo Vanini-Coni by Diana Castelnuovo-Tedesco – November 2023

Let’s go back to the very beginning. Tell us about the first time you remember hearing Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s music. 

For my part (Valentina Vanini), it was about 10 years ago at a concert at the Teatro Alighieri in Ravenna, where I heard Platero y yo performed by Lorenzo Micheli on the guitar, Nino Tagliareni as narrator, and the soprano Stelia Doz.

I (Giuseppina Coni) heard some of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Shakespeare Songs at a concert in Parma, also about 10 years ago.

When did you begin to study and perform Mario’s works as a duo?

We began in 2017, when we formed our Duo, during our Master’s program in Italian vocal chamber music of the 1800s  and 1900s at the Milan Conservatory. We started with ten or so of the Shakespeare Songs, with which we immediately fell in love, and then we studied L’infinito.  Later on we created a program called Emigranti [Emigrants], focused on Castelnuovo-Tedesco and Kurt Weill, in which we included many of the works that we subsequently recorded (such as  the Quattro sonetti da “La Vita nova”, Stelle cadenti, and Piccino picciò).

Did you fall in love with these works immediately or did your interest grow more gradually?

Probably it was love at first sight, a love that continued to grow as we studied and came to know the works more deeply. Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s writing is exceptionally varied and creative and is, without a doubt, descriptive and theatrical in some works, and poetic and spiritual in others. His music is fascinating and evocative; thanks to the detailed directions and tempo markings provided by the composer in the score, performers can clearly understand his ideas. 

Why did you choose to dedicate two entire CDs to this music?

The initial project was to record a selection of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s art songs from his early years. We also considered including other works from that time, such as the cycle Coplas [set to texts in Spanish] and the Die drei Könige [set to poems in German by Heinrich Heine]. However, eventually we decided to focus on art songs in Italian, because in the meantime, we had discovered several unpublished songs.

(Giuseppina Coni) The solo piano music component of our recording was, in a sense, a consequence of COVID. We were supposed to record the songs in the summer of 2020, but we had to postpone it because we couldn’t meet to rehearse. Then, out of curiosity, I started to read through some of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s piano works from the same time period as the songs, thinking that it would help me to understand and perform our original program even better.  I discovered that the piano works are wonderful too, and I then wanted to study them. Later we expanded our recording program to include a selection of piano pieces from the same time period as the songs, which, all together, represent very well Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s musical production during those years. Incidentally, his vocal chamber music and his works for solo piano (such as Stelle cadenti and  Il raggio verde) were establishing his reputation not only in Italy, but also in other parts of Europe during those years.

Your recording includes three world premieres. Tell us about these pieces. 

The unpublished songs we recorded are very interesting and quite diverse. 

La canzone della vita [The Song of Life] is a short song set to words written by Mario’s brother Ugo, in which each strophe pertains to a different phase in the life of a human being (childhood, adulthood, and old age). Castelnuovo-Tedesco expresses this in music in three distinct sections and adds a concluding coda: a lullaby, a passionate serenade of a young man to his beloved, a tired melody that recalls the rhythms of a funeral march; in the coda Castelnuovo-Tedesco includes a brief citation of each section. We have performed this song many times in concerts, and it is always a big success, perhaps because it’s a simple, yet profound, portrayal of the essence of human life, with warm and touching melodies. 

Il libro di Dolcina [Dolcina’s Book] is a brief cycle comprised of three songs (“A Dolcina” [To Dolcina], “Dolcezza autunnale” [Autumn sweetness], and “Il tramonto” [Sunset] ), that we were able to record thanks to ICAMus, and specifically thanks to Aloma Bardi [musicologist who is the founder and president of ICAMus]. The poetic texts are by the Florentine poet Laura Milani-Comparetti (c.1865-1913), whose daughter became a close friend of Mario’s during summer vacations spent at [the Tuscan seaside resort of] Castiglioncello. As songs they are rather complex but impressive, rich in harmonies and atmospheres that remind one of Debussy.

La Sera Fiesolana [Evening in Fiesole] is a masterpiece. This first recording arrives exactly 100 years after the piece was written. Mario dedicated this work to Alfredo Casella, in response to Casella’s setting of the same poem by D’Annunzio; Mario had judged Casella’s piece “poco fiorentina” [“not very Florentine”]. Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s setting perfectly captures the Tuscan atmosphere, highlighting all the nuances of the text, giving it an expansive and lyrical character. 

After studying this music so intensely, do you have favorites? If so, which ones?

Our favorites are probably La sera fiesolana, L’infinito and La canzone della vita, because they are perhaps the most touching ones. However, to be honest, all of them are favorites because each has its own characteristics and creates its own atmosphere. 

What aspect of this project has given you the most satisfaction?

There’s no question that it was enormously satisfying to have been able to record the unpublished songs. In addition, more generally, we were very pleased to have studied this music in depth, as it deserves to be known and performed more frequently.

Do you plan to perform this repertoire in concerts again soon?

Absolutely! Thanks to Aloma Bardi, Eleonora Negri and Irene Weber Froboese, we will have the opportunity on 20 May 2024 to perform Limpidi Orizzonti, a concert program selected from the works we recorded, at the Lyceum Club Internazionale in Florence, a place that was very dear to young Mario and which now holds his Florentine library among its collections. In addition, in the summer of 2024, Davide Casali has invited us to bring the same program to Trieste for the Festival Viktor Ullmann.

Why did you title your program Limpidi Orizzonti?

“Limpidi orizzonti”, which translates to “Clear Horizons” in English, is a quotation from La sera fiesolana.  We chose it, with a bit of irony, to refer to Mario’s rosy circumstances in those years as a young and talented composer destined for success, a situation that then, unfortunately, would be turned upside down by larger events. 

Thank you Valentina and Giuseppina for your expressive and touching performances of this splendid and rarely-heard repertoire and for your commitment to making Mario’s early works better known to today’s audiences!