Franco Gulli Rediscovered – Rhine Classics

by | Apr 25, 2019 | Classical CD Reviews, Classical Reissue Reviews | 1 comment

Franco Gulli reDiscovered: An 11 CD Set of Defining Performances by Gulli [Composition List Appended] – Rhine Classics RH-005 [Rhineclassics.com] *****:

I had the immense privilege to have heard and to meet violinist Franco Gulli (1926-2001) in Atlanta, where he joined Louis Lane and the ASO in Bloch’s Baal Shem Suite, a performance so ravishing I had to meet this “unknown” artist. He cordially informed me that he held a Chair* in the Music Department at Indiana University, where he shared music making with Joseph Gingold and Janos Starker.  When I expressed a desire to know more of his work, he graciously agreed – and so fulfilled his promise – to send me vinyl records, mostly on the Musical Heritage label, of his various labors in chamber music and concerto repertory.  In the course of our discussion, I learned that Gulli had served as concertmaster of a chamber-symphony ensemble in Milan which had accompanied Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli sixteen times!  I asked directly, given Michelangeli’s reputation for cancelled and missed concerts, if Michelangeli were a drug addict. “No,” replied Gulli, “but he is very strange, very exacting and peculiar. He will cancel because of the temperature, the height of the piano stool, the acoustic. But. . .when he plays!”

The massive set dedicated to Gulli, here on Emilio Pessina’s Rhine Classics label, repeats a mere handful of performances that had circulated on private or pirate labels, like the 1960 Paganini Concerto No. 5 in A minor, which Gulli helped reconstruct.  Many performances derive from the studio, such as the opening Bach A minor Concerto (10 May 1973) with Ernest Bour in Baden-Baden. But many of the collaborations have been captured in actual performance, such as the ingratiating Viotti Concerto No. 22 in A minor (19 February 1964) at RAI Naples with Tibor Paul. Having been impressed by Nathan Milstein as a youth, Gulli follows that master’s penchant for driving speed combined with a natural bel canto, aided in these by his 1716 Stradivari formerly owned by Franz von Vecsey.  Gulli, incidentally, provides his own cadenzas to many concertos  he plays, particularly appropriate in his Mozart “Turkish” Concerto from Cleveland under Aldo Ceccato (in concert, 31 January 1980).

Even in spite of the relative obscurity in which Gulli’s name resides, he has a reputation as a bravura virtuoso, a “Paganini specialist.” Certainly, the last movement of Viotti Concerto sets us up for the grand gestures of the live Paganini Violin Concerto No. 1 in D Major (13 July 1961) from RAI Naples under Nino Sanzogno.  Gulli performs uncut editions of the concertos, unlike Francescatti and Heifetz in their respective repertory. Whatever the pure dazzle of the outer movements, the singing lyricism of the Adagio espressivo, featuring the marvelous tone of Gulli’s 1716 Stradivari – once the pride of Franz von Vecsey – shines in rapt splendor for an equally mesmerized audience. Famed conductor Mario Rossi (1902-1992) appears with Gulli in three major collaborations, of which the Beethoven Concerto (10 September 1965) from RAI Turin proffers the Kreisler cadenza effectively realized. Rossi leads another large work, Bartok’s intricate Second Concerto (1938) in B Minor (31 December 1959), a reading that as well illustrates the breadth of the conductor’s range.  Of course, the Rossi participation in the Paganini Concerto No. 5 (20 July 1960), the reconstruction having been made by musicologist Federico Mompellio, guarantees Rossi’s fame in this exhaustive set.

Portrait Franco Guilli 1975

Franco Guilli, 1975

Given the neo-Classic composer Giorgio Federico Ghedini composed his 1961 Contrappunti for the Trio Italiano d’Archi which Gulli founded, it is little surprise that we have the Beethoven “Triple” Concerto (10 September 1965) from RAI Turin with Massimo Pradella at the podium.  But the Ghedini contrapuntal work proffers an academic’s notion of formal procedures tempered by a passionate, severe sense of introspection.  Here, the leader of the orchestra, the Rumanian wizard, Sergiu Celibidache (1912-1996), who generates nothing but fierce conviction in all he surveys. His touch likewise illustrates the Prokofiev D Major Concerto (22 December 1957) from RAI Naples. Gulli discovered the work via his admiration for its first interpreter on record, Joseph Szigeti.  The ardent, gauzy texture of the outer movements finds a brilliant foil in the Scherzo, whose eerie pyrotechnics invoke a vision of a manic banshee on the loose. For a quick demonstration of Gulli’s focused bravura, listen to the abridged, four-movement version of Lalo’s effective Symphonie espagnole from RAI Turin (15 April 1957) with Ferdinand Leitner in live performance.

For me, Disc 9 calls forth the direct memory of my first impression of Franco Gulli: we have a 1979 studio recording of the Bloch Baal Shem Suite with Enrica Cavallo at the keyboard. Too often “reduced” to its popular excerpt, Nigun, the three-movement suite offers “Pictures of Chassidic Life,” with its emphasis on dance as an expression of spiritual jubilation. He and talented wife Cavallo intone the three depictions of Hassidic life with a thoughtful elan whose Nigun section motivated Ivry Gitlis to exclaim, “By the way he plays, he seems more Jewish than me!” Disc 10 has its own allure: recorded in Trieste, Gulli’s birthplace, the “Golden Jubilee Recital” (24 November1994) celebrates 50 years, 1944-1994, of extraordinary musicianship.  Intellect and ardor combine for the ubiquitous solo Chaconne of Bach, whose challenge, besides sheer stamina, demands that the many pearls of variation sustain a continuous, flowing whole. The Chausson Poeme ensues, its five atmospheric sections permitting a ballet in chamber music form, and Giuliana Gulli’s keyboard no mean substitute for an orchestra. The Ravel Tzigane vibrates with gypsy sensuality and fiery tension, certainly on a par with classic readings by Francescatti and Heifetz. The announced 1841 Romanza by Vieuxtemps, “Desespoir,” conveys a visceral passion, an earthy energy that yearns for transcendence. Complementing the 1994 concert, editor Pessina adds a 1963 studio Suite No. 1 for Solo Violin by Bloch, its five movements a synthesis of Bach and the flighty, Semitic visons of Chagall.

I realized how much the music of Ferruccio Busoni meant to Franco Gulli after he had sent me, among his discs from Musical Heritage Society, the two violin sonatas, of which only the No. 2 in E Minor had any prior converse with me, by way of Clara Haskil and Joseph Szigeti.  The “find” for me lay in the Sonata No. 1 in E Minor, Op. 29, recorded like the Second, in 1975. The ten years separating the two sonatas have not improved their “melodic” content: what we come to admire lies in the intricacy of mind, the plastic manipulation of musical materials by a master contrapuntalist and instrumentalist.  The 1897 D Major Concerto, however, first revealed to me via Joseph Szigeti and Thomas Scherman, has a strong affinity for Gulli, who plays it with conductor Georg Mark in Udine (31 May 1997). They impart both lyricism and high drama to the youthful effort, which found other acolytes in Adolph Busch, Bruno Walter, and Sergiu Celibidache,  Mark and Gulli provide an airy, deft touch to the score, whose often martial evocations do not reek of anything vainglorious.  Equally captivating, the appearance of the 1912 Violin Concerto by Othmar Schoeck (rec. 1973) from Lucerne proffers a “Quasi una fantasia” led by conductor Niklaus Aeschbacher.  Schoeck conceived the work as yet another love-song to Stefi Geyer, the object of Bela Bartok’s affection, also, alas, unrequited.  The piece, in three movements, has Gulli committed to its seamless lyricism, on a par with evocations by youthful Nielsen and Walton.  The luscious writing, often in parlando style, perfectly suits the Gulli aesthetic.

Portrait Franco Gulli 1987

Franco Gulli, 1987

Disc 8 invites Franco Gulli to New York City, where at Alice Tully Hall (11 August 1980), he performs Ned Rorem’s feisty Day Music, 8 Studies for violin and piano (1971).  “Wedges and doubles” sets the tone for the 23-minute work, with askew, jagged harmonies and metric units dictated to by Gulli’s alternately sweet and rasping violin. Cavallo’s keyboard piano part, too, has its own demands,  “Pearls” means to assuage the message of the opening.  High tessitura marks “Extreme leisure,” an arioso mediation. As in all of Rorem, the intricacies find their realization in optimum clarity, a legacy Rorem takes from Ravel. The No. 5, “Billet doux,” or brief love-letter, has something of both Poulenc and Satie’s mystique. The last of the set, “A game of chess, four centuries ago,” begins much like a solo Bach partita, with only bare augmented chords from Cavallo. Like Ravel’s Tzigane, the piece allows the piano to participate after half the composition’s length.  Even so, the solo violin maintains its zealous hegemony.  As a showpiece for the Gulli tone, the piece is a must-hear.

We come to Disc 11, perhaps the most “personal” item, since it captures the Siena-based “Settimane Musicale Senesi” Recital of 17 July 1999 from St. Antimo Abbey, Castelnuovo dell’Abate, Montalcino.  Recorded live in immediate sonics, the concert proffers five works, opening with a resonant performance of Mozart’s Sonata No. 18 in G Major, K. 301. Easy verve combines with thorough fluency of style to make this union of true musical minds – with Enrica Cavallo – a musical Shakspeare sonnet.  The darker passions of Ottorino Respighi’s 1917 Violin Sonata in B minor offer visions of post-Romantic luxury of life after the WW I apocalypse.  Its last movement looks to Bach and Brahms in the form of a passacaglia, this in grim tones that might conjure images from the Abel Gance anti-war classic, J’Accuse!  Gulli proceeds, respectively, to the sonatas by Debussy and Ravel, the latter of whose contains the “Blues” movement in striking pizzicati.  The sweet slides of Gulli’s sense of jazzy “stride”proves eminently idiomatic.  After the buzz-saw Perpetuum mobile – Allegro finale, followed by audience rapture,Gulli announcesti “a little Schubert,” two movements from the A Major “Grand Duo,” D. 574. The sense of stylistic comfort and ease of transition have been with us throughout some 11 hours of playing time on these timeless discs.

Some musical assignments become a privilege to have reviewed, and this Gulli set from Rhine Classics is among them. That I will present goodly portions on “The Music Treasury” becomes a pre-determined fact.

Franco Gulli Rediscovered:

  • BACH: Presto, BWV 1001; Violin Concerto No. 1, BWV 1041; Violin Concerto No. 2, BWV 1042
  • BARTOK: Violin Concerto No. 2; Chaconne from Partita No. 2;
  • BEETHOVEN: Violin Concerto, Op. 61; Triple Concerto, Op. 56
  • BLOCH: Solo Violin Suite No. 1; Baal Shem Suite; Nigun
  • BUSONI: Violin Sonata No. 1, Op. 29
  • Violin Sonata No. 2, Op. 36
  • Violin Concerto, Op. 35a
  • CHAUSSON: Poeme; Concert, Op. 21
  • DEBUSSY: Violin Sonata
  • GHEDINI: Divertimento in D; Contrapunti
  • HAYDN: Sinfonia Concertante
  • LALO: Symphonie Espagnole
  • MOZART: Sonata, K. 301
  • Violin Concerto No. 5 in A
  • PAGANINI: Violin Concerto No. 1 in D; Violin Concerto No. 2; Violoin Concerto No. 5;Caprice No. 17
  • PROKOFIEV: Violin Concerto No. 1
  • RAVEL: Tzigane; Violin Sonata
  • RESPIGHI: Violin Sonata
  • ROREM: Day Music, 8 Studies
  • SCHOECK: Violin Concerto, Op. 21
  • SCHUBERT: Grand Duo, D. 574
  • VIEUXTEMPS: Romance
  • VIOTTI: Violin Concerto No. 22

Gulli joined the IU School of Music faculty in the early 1970s. He eventually held the Dorothy Richard Starling Chair in Violin Studies, the first fully funded endowed chair in the music school.

—Gary Lemco

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