Franco ALFANO (1875-1954)
Concerto for Violin, Cello and Piano (1932) [28:24]
Sonata for Cello and Piano (1925) [31:42]
Elmira Darvarova (violin), Scott Dunn (piano), Samuel Magill (cello)
rec. 9-10 June 2008, M&I Studios, New York
NAXOS 8.570928 [60:06]

Both these works were new to me and both have given me a good deal of pleasure since I made their acquaintance. Alfano’s fame has always been chiefly bound up with his completion of Turandot, a completion with which Toscanini famously and crudely expressed his dissatisfaction - to put it mildly - by walking out on the opening night at La Scala in 1926 at the very point where Puccini’s music ended and Alfano’s began. Alfano’s own work as an opera composer – notably in Risurezzione (1904), La leggenda di Sakùntala 1921 and Cyrano de Bergerac (1936) – has done rather more for his reputation. Perhaps it is not surprising that Konrad Dryden’s 2010 study of the composer should be entitled Franco Alfano: Transcending Turandot. Franco’s instrumental music largely awaits reassessment – a process to which this Naxos CD will surely make an important contribution. Further revelations will be delivered by the CPO disc of his first and second symphonies (CPO 777 080) played by the Brandenburg State Orchestra of Frankfurt, conducted by Israel Yinon.

The earlier of the two works on the present disc, the Sonata for Cello and Piano, is an impressive piece, particularly in the way it exploits something like the full range of the cello’s tonal colours. Running over half an hour in performance, it is a work of some substance. Alfano’s intriguing writing and strong sense of design, along with the fine performance it gets from Samuel Magill and Scott Dunn, mean that it is never in danger of outstaying its welcome. The first movement of the work - one of the many written to a commission from Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge - has a predominantly pensive quality, steeped in a kind of calm nostalgia, but not without spiritual overtones. The central allegretto con grazia makes one think of Ravel at times; it is a movement that has many not-always-easy-to-anticipate twists and turns and some strikingly exotic phrases at times. The closing movement is passionate and full of dark colours on the cello, angry at one moment, more optimistic at another, and finally falling away as if all passion has been spent. The sonata as a whole is a fine work which deserves to be better known. It here gets a performance of sufficient quality to make one hope that it might become so.

I didn’t find the ‘Concerto’, written seven years later, as exciting on a first hearing as the Cello Sonata had proved. But further listenings have revealed a work of considerable subtlety and range, a work which – in its grounding in the reclamation of the Italian past, musical and otherwise – has things in common with Respighi, though the music of the two composers wouldn’t, I think, be easily confused. The long first movement (‘con dolce malinconia’) echoes the modes of the Renaissance church at its opening, but such reminiscences give way to more turbulent music which one might readily imagine to be the musical translation of a Renaissance tragedy. In the second movement (‘allegretto fantastico’) there are splendid instrumental dialogues, conversations conducted across and around rhythms which appear to owe much to basque and gipsy traditions. The final presto has more than a little of the ceremonial about it; indeed in his very helpful booklet note cellist Samuel Magill declares that it “is clearly a celebration of ancient Rome”. Certainly such an interpretation - though it needn’t limit modern responses to the music - would fit in with the politico-cultural climate in Italy at the time of composition. It was premiered at the Accademia Santa Cecilia in Rome in 1933, with the composer at the piano. This ‘Concerto’ makes considerable technical demands on all three instrumentalists and all those demands are met, and turned to thoroughly musical effect in this fine performance. If you are interested in Italian instrumental music or in the music of late-Romanticism, please don’t fail to hear this impressive disc.

Glyn Pursglove

see also review by Jonathan Woolf