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 New York Chamber Music Festival - Alfano and Duke: Elmira Darvarova (violin), Samuel Magill (cello), Scott Dunn (piano), Symphony Space, New York City, 17.9.2009 (BH) 

Franco Alfano
: Sonata for Cello and Piano (1925)
Vernon Duke: Sonata for Violin and Piano in D Major (1949, New York premiere)
Franco Alfano: Concerto for Violin, Cello and Piano (1932)

In his excellent notes, cellist Samuel Magill describes Toscanini conducting the world premiere of Turandot, and the conductor's curt dismissal of Franco Alfano's completion of the opera's final act: "On opening night at La Scala in 1926, Toscanini stopped conducting where Puccini's music ended and Alfano's began, and abruptly left the orchestra pit. This incident had a lot to do with damaging Alfano's career and ensuring his falling into obscurity after his death."

So fast-forward to the 21st century, when there appears to be a bit of an Alfano revival afoot. In 2005 the Metropolitan Opera staged his Cyrano de Bergerac, which I thought was an underrated gem, at least on one viewing. And now, in conjunction with their new recording of two of Alfano's chamber works, Magill and his superb colleagues, violinist Elmira Darvarova and pianist Scott Dunn, performed them at Symphony Space.

Alfano's Cello Sonata is an intense outpouring of emotion—florid and romantic—and Magill's larger-than-life sound immediately captured attention, coupled with Dunn's astute work at the keyboard. The harmonic language is not too far removed from Debussy, with moments of intense chromaticism that could almost be from Scriabin. The emotional range is huge, from the touching middle lullaby, to the anxiety of the final agitated movement, and Magill and Dunn captured every nuance. During the final pages, with an impassioned climax dissolving into an ending of haunting repose, I kept thinking this might be a major find for cello sonata aficionados.

As a well-conceived break, Ms. Darvarova and Mr. Dunn tackled Vernon Duke's surprisingly virtuosic Sonata for Violin and Piano. Perhaps best known for popular songs like "Autumn in New York," "April in Paris," and a favorite, "I Can't Get Started," Duke studied with Gliere and admired Prokofiev, and some of those influences can be heard here. The sonata's flavor is very much Latin-influenced, especially in the off-kilter rhythmic patterns of the final movement, titled Brilliante and tumultoso. The violin part is extremely difficult, which is perhaps why it hasn't been performed often, but Ms. Darvarova pulled through winningly, with Dunn in close footsteps behind her.

The title of Alfano's Concerto for Violin, Cello and Piano is a bit misleading, since it is basically a piano trio, most likely dubbed a "concerto" because of its difficulty. It also gave Mr. Dunn a considerably larger role, which he filled effortlessly, while his companions played tag, the cello using its upper register to mimic the violin timbre. Moments of violence are matched by dusky muted string hues, and the first movement ends on a note of solitude. In the middle section, pizzicatos sprinkle down like a spring shower with hints of Eastern European folk music. Time after time, the tension rises then cools off and steps back, as if a scene were being glimpsed behind a curtain. The finale evokes Bartók—vigorous, feverish, dance-like—and oceans away from the previous movements. Bristling with energy and occasional fugal treatments for all three players, skittering figures alternate with long-breathed interludes leading to a bravura final page. All three gave some of their best playing of the entire night.

The concert was part of the inaugural season of the New York Chamber Music Festival, created and administered by Ms. Darvarova, which presents off-the-radar music by musicians from the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera. A light audience turnout notwithstanding, some seriously good music was on display this evening: I suspect all three works will delight those who encounter them.

Bruce Hodges

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