Who was this extraordinarily cultivated figure who rose from humble beginnings to become the composer of nearly 400 songs, a colleague of the most illustrious names in singing, and a favorite of Queen Victoria?
The son of a cereal dealer, Tosti was born in 1846 in the coastal town of Ortona in the Abruzzo region, north of Naples. That city's San Pietro a Maiella conservatory accepted him as a twelve-year-old scholarship student. His instructors included the renowned opera composer Saverio Mercadante, whose encouragement proved invaluable. After completing his studies, Tosti returned to Ortona at the age of 20 as cathedral choirmaster, serving from 1866 to 1869. He suffered a serious breakdown, however, requiring a lengthy convalescence, during which he produced the first songs of his professional career.
Rome beckoned to Tosti as a far more exciting artistic milieu. Shortly after his arrival in 1870 he was presented in a début concert, exhibiting not only his pianistic talent but also a very pleasing lyric tenor voice. The event was so successful that Princess Margherita of Savoy named him as her singing teacher. In 1873, an even more important association for the composer was initiated with the house of Ricordi, which over the years would publish virtually the entire Tosti œuvre.
During his first trip to London in 1875 and annual visits there over the next four years Tosti felt totally at home; he established permanent residence in 1880. During his London years his excellence as a singing teacher benefited stars of Covent Garden (Melba for one), students of the Royal Academy and Royal College, and talented dilettantes who could meet Tosti's exacting standards. London society regarded him as an engaging personality and an essential presence at any musical soirée.
The ultimate stamp of approval came with his appointment as singing teacher to the younger children of Queen Victoria, herself a fervent devotee of vocal music. Her secret diaries reveal great admiration for Tosti, who proved himself indispensable as her music administrator. He arranged frequent performances at the royal residences, in which many prominent artists performed with him. Having become a British citizen in 1906, he was knighted two years later by Edward VII. The king's death proved a major factor in Tosti's decision to return to Rome for good, but he spent only four years there before his own death in 1916. The most courtly and gentlemanly of musicians, he exuded an unforced charm and graciousness. His best songs certainly do likewise.
Whether in English, French, "pure" Italian or Neapolitan dialect, the effectiveness of Tosti songs stems in large part from an unfettered legato style (albeit one allowing ample scope for the singer's interpretive imagination). His profound understanding of the voice is apparent in consistently grateful lines that promote relaxation and freedom in the vocalism. Generally he concentrates on the middle voice, only occasionally exploiting extremes of range; "In the hush of the night," for example, spans from low D sharp to high B. Many of the top notes one expects in certain songs are interpolations not written by Tosti, the close of "L'alba separa" being an obvious example. Those climactic high phrases that he did compose are beautifully prepared and yet always comparatively "contained." Tosti included Puccini and Mascagni among his dearest friends, though their feverish verismo expansiveness was hardly his stock in trade, and indeed, would have seriously undermined his basic expressive approach.
Tosti committed himself almost exclusively to contemporary texts, although not necessarily by the greatest writers. London's salons gladly accepted his choice of English poetry - sometimes endearing, more often unabashedly sentimental. In his French settings significantly more distinguished literature comes to the fore, including Hugo, Musset, and Verlaine, whereas in Italian he invariably chose poems that get to the heart of the matter through a disarming emotional directness. Among Tosti's Italian writers, the only truly consequential figure was his lifelong friend, poet-dramatist Gabriele D'Annunzio. Perhaps most noteworthy among their collaborations are the superb Quattro canzoni d'Amaranta, three of which are included on this disc.
The majority of Tosti's texts deal with some aspect of love (it is perhaps worth noting that Ben Heppner has characterized himself as "the romantic type"). Of the 19 songs recorded here, it is the idea of suffering in love that dominates in "Goodbye," "Lasciami! Lascia ch'io respiri," "Plaintes d'amour," "Pierrot's Lament," "Non t'amo più," "Chitarrata abruzzese," and "Penso". Tosti is also a master at portraying lovesick longing, whether in passionate outpourings ("In the hush of the night," "Entra"), stark simplicity ("Lasciali dir") or tender intimacy (the exquisite, justly celebrated "Ideale"). He also captures the lover's unbridled joy ("Io ti sento"), impatience ("Seconda mattinata"), sweetness ("'A vucchella"), and defiance ("I dare to love thee"). Heppner's program moves beyond love to encompass both life's optimism ("Demain") and its misery ("Invan preghi"), as well as two views of death: "Vorrei morire" expresses a willingness to die if nature proves calm and welcoming, while in "L'alba separa" the singer asserts that death and heaven are preferable to a dream unfulfilled.
Tosti's original piano accompaniments are well matched to melody and mood, but are often excessively spare in texture and, frankly, seldom inspired. Rather than rely solely on the piano, this recital opts for the captivating sound of a "salon orchestra." With no selection involving more than eleven instruments, the arrangers avoid the unnecessary lushness to which many of these songs have previously been subjected. This accompaniment may not have been in the composer's "mind's ear," but he would surely have applauded the elegant manner in which it enhances Ben Heppner's heartfelt performances.
The author acknowledges the cooperation of Prof. Francesco Sanvitale, director of the Istituto Nazionale Tostiano in Ortona, which since 1983 has promoted Tosti's works internationally through publications and concerts.