After two strong outings on Preiser, soprano Akiko Nakajima shifts her efforts to the Italian Dynamic label for an interesting and characteristic release, Plasir d'amour. Nakajima is accompanied at the piano by Niels Muus in a recital of European drawing room literature of the nineteenth century. In Europe, drawing room music was designed to be genteel, yet popular in appeal, in tune with the quality of entertainment once enjoyed by the nobility, yet couched in the more modest circumstances of free, or moderately free, industrial societies in which personal wealth and precious goods were no longer the exclusive domain of the nobles. Chopin's lieder, for example, were largely intended to fall into the category of such semi-casual music-making. The predominantly Italian songs chosen here by Nakajima and Muus are substantive and directly relate to Italian opera.
At the centerpiece of this project is an Italian song album issued in 1869 to help raise money for Francesco Maria Piave, a librettist living in poverty as the result of a serious medical condition. Only the item contributed to this publication by Giuseppe Verdi has been previously recorded, and collaborative song albums like this one, while relatively common in the nineteenth century, are almost never recorded as a unit. The Piave album is decidedly a worthwhile example, as the composers -- Auber, Cagnoni, Mercadante, Federico Ricci, Ambroise Thomas, and Verdi -- did not contrive second-rate work for this undertaking, but instead contributed efforts worthy of their best. The program is filled out by songs of Mercadante, Paolo Tosti -- including a breathy and impassioned "Goodbye!" sung in its original English -- and a selection of eighteenth century songs that wound their way into the drawing room as "old favorites." These songs were adapted into voice and piano versions long after their initial appearances as continuo arias in operas and oratorio.
As in her previous albums, Nakajima's singing is both generous and glorious; she takes the time to characterize -- not just sing -- the material, but she never utilizes that as an excuse to sideline the pitch for short stretches to make the going easier. Muus' accompaniment is sensitive, supportive, and keyed into the style of the period, still audible on early recordings, for example, Umberto Giordano's accompaniment for Enrico Caruso's 1902 recording of the aria "Amor ti vieta" from Fedora. The notes seem to indicate that these kinds of primary sources were consulted in preparation for the project; certainly, the level of research involved here is very high. However, it is not a sense of "research" that one will extrapolate from Plasir d'amour; it is all about the warmth, sensuality, and personality of Nakajima's voice. Dynamic's recording is very good; it could stand to be a little closer to both voice and piano, but it is not so distant that it ruins the sense of intimacy the artists are seeking to establish, an intractable element of the drawing room music experience. Plasir -- "pleasure" -- they got that part right.