Franco ALFANO (1875-1954)
Concerto for Violin, Cello and Piano (1932) [28:24]
Sonata for Cello and Piano (1925) [31:42]
Elmira Darvarova (violin); Samuel Magill (cello); Scott Dunn (piano)
rec. June 2008, M & I Studios, NY, USA
NAXOS 8.570928 [60:06]

Alfano’s 1925 Cello Sonata was a commission from Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, though its first performance didn’t materialise until three years later in Rome. It’s a big, powerful work written, like the majority of Alfano’s chamber music, on a self-confident and expansive canvas. It’s also deeply expressive, and has strong meditative qualities that make it an intriguing peripheral piece in the cellistic programming armoury. Being Alfano there are also powerfully vocalised melodies as well, as the composer loses no opportunity to explore the full compass of the instrument. Whether Elysian or surly, the first movement is a template of the sonata as a whole – wide-ranging emotively and with virtuosic elements imbued for both instruments. The slow movement is not just the ‘gentle lullaby’ hinted at in the notes because it has its fair degree of eruptive passages – plenty of fast, twitchy writing, and, as ever, mood changeability is omnipresent. The finale is powerful and intense once more. There’s a species of Irish-sounding folk melody coursing through its veins but it falters and ushers in a finale brooding soliloquy. It ends a work of real introspection; in ethos it’s rather late-Debussian, but flecked with hot-house and verismo melodic stamp.

The companion work is the Concerto, which might hint at an allegiance with Chausson, though it’s one that doesn’t fully materialise. What it does share with the latter’s Concerto, at least, is a sense of space, of tension and passionate sweep. In other respects this trio – premiered in 1933 – is a bold and extrovert work and offers other succulent pleasures. It’s sinuous, rich in glissandi, tremolandi, and moments of baroque-antique sounding passages, that vie with rich unison playing to titillate the ear. As before Alfano knows how to prepare for, and spin, a potent soliloquy. Above all one admires Alfano’s strong sense of narrative development. He laces the central movement with ‘fantastico’ voicings; leering in part, but hinting at both the folkloric and Ravel as well. The slithery Bacchanal is exemplary in its weirdness. The finale reverts to the columnar glory of ‘Old Rome’ – vigorous, exacting and exciting, though the least compelling thematically of the three movements.

This is music that thrives on assertive but subtle musicianship, and fortunately it has a fine match in the Naxos trio, who acquit themselves splendidly. There are no moments of faltering or tentativeness, either with regard to the idiom or technically. With a suitably warm acoustic, this off-beat offering racks up high marks.

Jonathan Woolf