The unfamiliarity of three of the names at
the head of this review is not perhaps well-calculated to attract
the casual browser; should that browser grow a bit less casual
and work out that best-known of the four composers, Busoni, is
represented by a work written when he was twelve, expectations
will not, perhaps, be very high.
And, in truth, there isn’t anything to be heard here that is likely to take the world by storm. But there is much that makes for thoroughly enjoyable listening and nothing that is less than interesting. To varying degrees all the works belong broadly in the idiom of late Romanticism, growing out of the German tradition but leavened with distinctively Italian elements and - particularly in the case of Scontrino - some French influences. There are lots of attractive melodies, some sophisticated harmonies and some finely expressive music.
All three of those less familiar names belong to composers who played a significant role in the musical life of their day. Alessandro Longo was one of the earliest modern scholars of Scarlatti; he established a Domenico Scarlatti Society in Naples early in the 1890s, and subsequently published 11 volumes containing 544 of Scarlatti’s sonatas (1906-10) and a monograph on the composer (1913). His ‘L’ numbers were for a long while the standard system for referencing Scarlatti’s sonatas. Longo taught piano at the Conservatory in Naples and was himself very active as a performer. His suite for clarinet and piano was one of a series for piano and wind instruments; it is in three movements, the second of which, an intermezzo, contains some pellucid melodies and some adroit piano writing; in the third movement (Allegro con spirito
) is an attractive dialogue, the interplay of clarinet and piano is full of interesting touches and some intriguing changes of tempo. The writing everywhere is highly competent and the results, if relatively lightweight, make for engaging listening.
Born in Sicily, after studying at the Palermo Conservatory Antonio Scontrino worked extensively as virtuoso player of the double-bass. From 1871-1873 he studied in Munich. He later worked in Milan as a teacher, before being appointed Professor of counterpoint and composition back at the Palermo Conservatory in 1891 and a year later was also appointed Professor at the Istituto Musicale in Florence. His Sei Bozzetti
(Six Sketches) were written when the composer was approaching his sixtieth birthday and they breathe experience and maturity. Full of complex rhythmic and harmonic manoeuvres, they deserve to be better known than they are. The first, Adelaide
, contains some lush writing for the clarinet, beautifully played by Sergio Bosi; Didone
, the second, is in the long line of musical responses to Dido’s abandonment and suicide, though the music is perhaps more sad than suicidal - at any rate until its close. Valser
is thoroughly Germanic, though perhaps it isn’t only knowledge of the composer’s nationality that makes one hear some rather Italianate quasi-operatic inflections in places; the fourth piece, Gondoliera
begins languorously, and with some audible debts to French impressionism, but builds to a vigorous conclusion. The fifth, Speranza
, packs a good deal of emotional power and the suite closes with Letizia
(Joy), which lives up to its title, full of vivacity and energy … and demanding considerable skill of its performers.
Giuseppe Frugatta has perhaps been even more comprehensively forgotten than Longo and Scontrino. He taught piano at the Milan Conservatory from 1891-1930 while also active as a soloist and a composer. More than one of his compositions won a significant international prize for him; he wrote some fine and once very popular operatic transcriptions for piano; but he has no entry in the current Grove nor, indeed, in Marc Vignal’s Dizionario della Musica Classica Italiana
(2002). The six movements of his suite are elegant and expressive, full of music which, while very much of its time, should also appeal to most modern listeners. The thoughtful, slightly troubled Romance, the second movement of the suite, and the witty Scherzino (the fourth) are both of them rewarding and the closing Tarantelle is colourfully inventive.
Though it may have been written when its composer was not yet into his teens, Busoni’s six-movement suite is a work with some real emotional depth. Its opening Improvvisata
is thoughtful and questioning, the following Barcarola
has a melancholy sweetness and some dignified melodic lines; at the heart of the suite is Elegia
, a lyrical movement that is more than merely mournful, with its sense both of letting go and of fond memory; Danza campestre
(Rural dance) is a pretty, sprightly affair; Tema variato
is a miniature of some compositional subtlety - especially considering the age of the composer - and the whole closes with a Serenata
which has moments of astringency amidst its general (uncloying) sweetness. This was a 12 year old of real promise and already possessed of considerable maturity!
Throughout, the playing of Sergio Bosi is exemplary, always sympathetic to the writing, unfazed by any of the technical demands and capable of real wit and panache; his accompanist, Riccardo Bartoli is excellent, even if the recording balance occasionally seems to thrust the clarinet a little too far forward at the piano’s expense. On the whole, however, the sound is good.