GIOVANNI SGAMBATI: Piano Concerto, Op. 15; Cola di Rienzo overture; Berceuse-Rêverie (orchestration Jules Massenet) – Francesco Caramiello, piano/Nuremberg Philharmonic / Fabrizio Ventura – Tactus TC 841908, 70:29 [Distr. by Allegro] ****:

Giovanni Sgambati (1841-1914) was a piano virtuoso, composer, promoter and host during the later part of the romantic era. He was a friend and student of Franz Liszt, and his admirers included Richard Wagner, Anton Rubinstein, Piotr Tchaikovsky, Johannes Brahms and Ferruccio Busoni. His apartment in Rome was a favorite watering hole for the visiting musical cognoscenti.

Sgambati, who never composed an opera (the most popular musical idiom at the time in Italy), was responsible for retrieving the instrumental tradition in Italian music. His re-assertion of pure musical values, using German symphonic composers as models, included the valuable Italian melodic element.

From a twenty-first century perspective, it is unclear what these nineteenth century giants saw, or heard, in Sgambati’s music that they admired so much. With so much musical evolution having taken place in the interim, Sgambati’s music cannot overcome the excessive use of trite musical phrases, despite possessing some original musical ideas.

Sgambati, similar to other well-known virtuosi/composers, had a tragic vision, but not the musical talent to know when to leave well-enough alone. The long-drawn-out first movement of his piano concerto clocks in at just over 23 minutes. It is unduly prolonged by endless repetition of simple figures that sap the good ideas he does have. The other two movements are mercifully short.

The pianist Caramiello is skillful in playing the complex score, but cannot overcome the overused musical clichés. Ventura and his Nuremberg Philharmonic are successful in accompanying Caramiello in the concerto. Conductor and orchestra acquit themselves well in the overture (musically of more interest than the Piano Concerto) and in the Jules Massenet-orchestrated Berceuse-Rêverie, originally the second of the Trois Morceaux, Op. 42, for solo piano. The overture and berceuse are world premiere recordings.

This Tactus release shows a copyright date of 2014, but a recording date of 2000. The sound is first-rate. Tactus, which has enriched the collection of musical recordings, has upheld its impressive tradition with this release. The jewel case insert is both in Italian and English.

So, is it worth acquiring this recording? For one, if only one good reason: Any serious student of romantic era music should find this a mandatory acquisition, because it fills in a gap in the history of music in 19th century Italy.

—Zan Furtwangler