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Ermanno WOLF-FERRARI (1876-1948)
Orchestral Music
Il segreto di Susanna (1909)
Overture [2:44]; Intermezzo [2:55] *
I quattro rusteghi (1906)
Prelude [1:40]; Intermezzo [3:10]
La dama boba (1939)
Overture [8:11]
Il campiello (1936)
Intermezzo [3:09]; Ritornello [2:27]
L’amore medico (1913)
Overture [8:22]; Intermezzo [5:22] #
I gioielli della Madonna (1911)
Festa popolare [4:42]; Intermezzo [3:42]; Serenata [3:17] %; Danza napoletana [3:48]
Andrew Marriner (clarinet)*; Stephen Orton (cello)#; Christine Messiter (flute)%
Academy of St. Martin in the Fields/Sir Neville Marriner;
rec. December 1991, No. 1 Studio, Abbey Road, London
EMI CLASSICS 54585 [54:09]

The composer who traded under the name Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari was actually born Ermanno Wolf, in Venice. From about 1895 onwards he called himself Wolf-Ferrari,  combining the surnames of his Bavarian father and his Venetian mother. Though born in Venice, he spent much of his life in Bavaria and while it might be going too far to say that he had serious psychological problems about his nationality and about his musical identity as it were, he certainly seems to have felt a degree of uncertainty in this regard, an uncertainty which was by turns liberating and inhibiting. Though he set Italian libretti, his operatic success came largely in Germany, rather than in the land of his birth.
Orchestral music from six of Wolf-Ferrari’s operas is contained on this disc, reissued by Arkiv. The four earlier works all had their premieres in Germany: I Quattro rusteghi (‘The Four Boors’) and Il Segreto di Susanna were first performed at the Hoftheater in Munich; I gioielli della Madonna (‘The Jewels of the Madonna’) had its premiere at the Kurfürstenoper in Berlin and L’amore medico at the Hoftheater in Dresden. Only the later works, Il campiello (‘The Little Square’) and La dama boba (‘The backward girl’) were premiered in Italy (both in Milan). There is another kind of split evident in Wolf-Ferrari’s output. The operas from which music is included on the present disc, represent two distinct visions of opera. I Quattro rusteghi is based on a play (I rusteghi) by Goldoni; Il campiello is also based on a play (of the same name) by Goldoni; L’amore medico is based on a comedy by Molière and La dama boba on one by Lope de Vega. Along with Il segreto di Susanna, which has a libretto by Enrico Golisciani, all of these are comic operas, all of them largely, and elegantly, modelled on the example of eighteenth-century Italianate comic opera. But in I gioielli della Madonna he attempted a work in a kind of pseudo-Mascagnian verismo idiom. Perhaps he felt that if he adopted the prevalent Italian operatic manner of the day he would gain more acceptance there. Ironically, while the work was very popular in Germany and, indeed, in England and America, it attracted little attention in Italy.
Through and beyond these dichotomies which mark out his musical identity, Wolf-Ferrari continued (intermittently) to produce work of considerable charm. I am not entirely sure that he is best served by a collection such as the present, attractively played as it is, simply because so much of his best writing is for the voice and here we have purely orchestral passages from the operas. It isn’t, I think, a CD best listened to straight-through, since it is somewhat lacking in variety.
The vivacious overture to Il segreto di Susanna shows Wolf-Ferrari at something like his opera-buffa best and the intermezzo is contrastingly still and quiet (it is marked ‘tranquillo con grazia’). The brief Prelude to I Quattro rusteghi doesn’t amount to much, but the intermezzo (actually the prelude to Act II) is a delightful piece for pizzicato strings. The overture to La dama boba is longer than most such works by the composer and has a characteristically attractive lilt, alternating animation with languor without ever being other than wholly decorous, and ending in a kind of polite grandeur. From Il campiello we hear the intermezzo before Act II, with perhaps more emotional weight than much of Wolf-Ferrari’s writing, certainly richly evocative of the unexpected dignity of the working-class community in the opera’s Venetian square, and the ritornello which functions as a prelude to Act III; it is in that act that, in the representation of a fierce quarrel that Wolf-Ferrari strays into dissonant areas usually alien to him, but there is no anticipation of that in this placid piece. The overture to L’amore cupido is another of Wolf-Ferrari’s longer examples of the genre, and the handling of the contrasts of mood is nicely done; the intermezzo, which precedes act II, is rather slight. The orchestral music from I gioielli della Madonna occupies rather different territory. The ‘Festa popolare’ makes entertaining use of a range of orchestral colours, but its demonstrativeness feels slightly forced, as if it didn’t come very naturally or comfortably to the composer. In the ‘Danza napoletana’ too, it is hard not to feel that Wolf-Ferrari is doing, decently enough, what some other composers did better. In the quieter, more graceful music of the intermezzo and the serenata Wolf-Ferrari seems more comfortable, more himself.
Most admirers of Wolf-Ferrari, of whom I am one, would surely concede that he is a minor composer, not a major figure to whose music everyone should listen or can be expected to enjoy. And since these are good, rather than great performances – there isn’t enough feel of the opera house about them - this CD will surely appeal to specialists rather than to the general listener.
Glyn Pursglove


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