WOLF-FERRARI: Intermezzo from “L’amore medico”; Overture to “Il segretto di Susanna”; Prelude to “I quarto rusteghi”; Ritornello from “Il Campiello”; Suite Veneziana, Op. 18; Trittico, Op. 19; Divertimento, Op. 20 – Oviedo Filarmonica / Freidrich Haider – PhiArtis PAV 0902, 76:47 [Distr. by Allegro] ***:
CURT CACIOPPO: “Italia” = Impressioni Venexiane (Impressions of Venice); Sulla Via dei Sette Ponti (On the Road of the Seven Bridges); Colomba Scarlatta della Libia (Red Dove of Libya) – Quartetto d’Archi di Venezia / Matthew Bengtson, piano / Network for New Music, Philadelphia – Navona Records NV5826, 73:25 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
Two very different composers of two different eras reflect on the city of Venice, among other places. Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari was a native of the city and died there. However, from his student days onward, he divided his time between Munich and Venice; from the early days of World War I until just before his death in 1948 he lived and worked abroad, first in Zurich and then Salzburg, where he served as professor of composition at the famous Mozarteum.
Born of a German father and Italian mother, he added his mother’s maiden name to his surname in a gesture that seems to mirror his divided loyalties. Wolf-Ferrari’s music, however, breathes the same air as Verdi and Puccini, even the music he wrote while in the land of Wagner and Strauss.
The present disc is devoted to music from early and late in Wolf-Ferrari’s career. The first four pieces on the program are orchestral excerpts from the Italian operas that made him an international star before World War I. Two of them turn the clock back to the Venice of seventeenth-century playwright Carlo Goldoni. L’amore medico (The Doctor in Love) stays in the same century but takes a jaunt to the France of Molière. All have fallen into obscurity except The Secret of Susanna, which is kept alive mainly by its sparkling overture, the perfect comedic curtain-raiser. If the other operas are as negligible as their pretty but insubstantial orchestral bits, I can see why they’re not heard from today.
The three orchestral suites that Wolf-Ferrari penned in the 1930s (receiving their world-premiere recordings) are a bit meatier, though only Trittico has an essentially serious demeanor. I hope I’m not being a sober-sides, but it’s my favorite. The first movement, “In excelsis,” captures the rarefied air of religious devotion; it reminds me of the “Angelic Concert” movement from Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler Symphony. The second movement, “Agli eroi caduti” (“To the Fallen Heroes”) portrays a solemn procession on All Saint’s Day (November 2), probably a reminiscence of World War I, which left the traumatized Wolf-Ferrari feeling like an exile from both countries that claimed his allegiance. The movement builds to a stirring climax that seems alien to Wolf-Ferrari’s mostly undemonstrative style.
Even the last movement of Suite Veneziana, “Alba di festa” (“Morning of the Festival”), hardly gets the blood stirring and like the operas seems to take us back to earlier times, to the sort of dance music of bygone days that Respighi celebrated in his Ancient Airs and Dances. The rest of Wolf-Ferrari’s suite is touched with a pervasive melancholy as it explores the Venetian Lagoon and the famous canals. Conductor Friedrich Haider maybe goes a bit too far, but he has suggestive things to say about this sense of melancholy: “[Venice’s] overwhelming splendor was, of course, not only born out of the desire to strive for artistic perfection. It also went hand in hand with intrigue, conquest, torture, capital punishment, and a grandiose addiction to the display of power. . . . The ‘Suite Veneziana’ is composed in A minor, the parallel minor key to the bright and pure C major, its ‘underside’ so to speak. Thus this music also resonates with fear and trepidation.” That’s reading a lot into this slight music, but as I say, there’s undoubtedly a grain of truth in it. The more generally upbeat Divertimento, too, has a wistfulness about it that is sometimes darkly shadowed, as in the slow plaintive Siciliana movement.
There is much pretty, tenderly lyrical music here that makes for enjoyable listening. But except for the Secret of Susanna Overture and Trittico, little of it is truly memorable. The performances by Wolf-Ferrari enthusiast Haider and the Oviedo orchestra are certainly more than competent; Haider manages to convey his sympathies to the players, who respond in kind. The recorded sound, however, is more variable. Perspective seems to change from uncomfortably close in the Intermezzo to the more natural one accorded the Overture. Somehow, the close miking emphasizes the pop-musical easiness of Wolf-Ferrari’s style to its disadvantage. The recording also captures some highly expressive breathing, probably the conductor’s. So this CD represents something of a mixed blessing.
Coincidentally, it’s not composer Curt Cacioppo’s Venetian Impressions that makes the strongest impression on me. I’m much more partial to the other works on the Navona disc. Maybe the problem is placing so much responsibility for his neo-Expressionist tone painting on the shoulders of a mere string quartet.
Ohio-born Cacioppo (b. 1951) is no stranger to the string quartet idiom, having written for the Emerson, American, and Moscow String Quartets, as well as having fulfilled commissions from the Chicago and Milwaukee Symphonies. He studied composition with Leon Kirchner at Harvard and is currently Ruth Marshall Magill Professor of Music at Haverford College outside of Philadelphia.
After a strong opening portraying sunrise over St. Mark’s Cathedral, the Venetian Impressions loses focus and interest for me, seeming to approach most of its subjects—from reflections on wet pavement to the Venetian ghetto—with that same intensely earnest Expressionist demeanor. There’s more appealing winsomeness to On the Road of the Seven Bridges for solo piano. The best movement, “Lo studio,” gives us an impression of a music studio where Beethoven is getting a workout; I catch fragments of the Hammerklavier Sonata and the Bagatelle Op. 119, No. 6. Cacioppo includes his own properly improvisatory-sounding bagatelle as the fourth movement of the suite.
Other memorable bits include the sixth movement, the aptly spooky “Apparition,” and the eighth, “Old Swedes,” a very free fantasia on “Santa Lucia.”A different animal is Red Dove of Libya—a souvenir of Arabian-influenced Sicily—for flute, harp, percussion, and double bass. The first movement features atmospheric ramblings by the flute followed by double bass. The second, “Melodrama and Ayre,” includes a spoken part for female voice amidst some sensitive and colorful writing for the small instrumental group. The last movement starts as a stately dance, then introduces some jazzy syncopations and jazzy coloration courtesy of the marimba. All very appealing.
Without any points of comparison, the performances seem to represent the composer’s intentions quite well. The sound recordings, deriving from as many locales as there are pieces on the disc, are atmospheric, resonant yet clean and clear. Navona’s packaging leaves something to be desired, though. The trifold cardboard case contains brief notes on the composer and recording details, directing you to the Navona Records Web site for “interactive media content,” including well-delivered, entertaining, but slightly wayward commentary by the composer himself. Life being short, I didn’t listen to all of it.
I’m sure this sort of presentation will please the turned-on generation, but old-head, analogue types like me will prefer a nicely produced booklet insert. Oh, well. In these belt-tightening times, we’ll probably see more and online content accompanying recordings. I still recommend this attractive offering from Navona, booklet or no.
– Lee Passarella