It is a measure of the standard and stature of many new Naxos recordings that returning to this ten year old re-release of a Marco Polo comes as something of a shock. Marco Polo, ‘The Label of Discovery’ often promised much in terms of the obscure and down-right unknown but sometimes the message was conveyed in less than perfect terms both musically and technically. Sad to report that is the case here with this disc meriting a cautious welcome back to the catalogue at best.
Things don’t get off to a good start with Lev Ginsburg’s brief and uninformative note. We get pearls of wisdom such as “Arturo Toscanini and Arthur Nikisch were ardent admirers of Garofalo’s work” and “the circumstances of his life, however did not permit him to reach a wide audience” or “Respighi was to some extent responsible for the unhappy fate of Garofalo”. None of those statements are explained, elaborated or qualified. So when later he says “there is really something to play for each section of the orchestra” it rings as being as vacuous a statement as it is obvious.
Two works are offered here – neither have opus numbers or dates of composition although the symphony did receive its first – and only complete performance prior to this Russian revival – in 1915. The disc opens with the Violin Concerto. The soloist here is Sergei Stadler. He won the 1982 Tchaikovsky competition at the age of 20 and his pedigree is not in doubt. Throughout he plays with great attack and fervour and succeeds in surmounting the many technical hurdles Garofalo puts in his way. With no date of composition one can only speculate when the work was written – it sounds more conservative (earlier?) than the symphony which would place it sometime between 1905 and 1915. Whenever that was it really is a work of very limited interest. The model for the whole work is determinedly Germanic; a kind of Brahms/Bruch fusion without the form of the former or the melodic gift of the latter. The orchestration is functional at best but smacks more of the talented student than the mature master. The main problem is that I hear a tension between soloist and conductor/orchestra. There are moments of roughness in Stadler’s playing and it feels as if he is trying to inject some energy and élan into the accompaniment. Too often both here and in the symphony the orchestral performance sags. Joel Spiegelman does not seems able to inspire his obviously rather good orchestra beyond the perfunctory. By no means is this as bad as some of the early Marco Polo/Naxos discs. In fact there are several passages of rather beautiful playing – particularly from the solo horn and oboe. Unfortunately too much plods. There is little or no electricity, no frisson, no sense of occasion.
But of the two works the concerto is probably better served here than the symphony. Without Stadler providing the musical equivalent of a cattle prod the Romantic Symphony as performed here makes for a rather dull forty minutes. Again, the liner is utterly unhelpful in this, but I’m sure I heard enough rustling to make me think this is a live performance. One curio, unlike any symphonic work I can think of, this piece has a very extended part for orchestral organ. By this I mean, unlike the big dramatic gestures of a Saint-Saens Organ Symphony or the overtly soloistic writing of a Guilmant Symphony for Organ and Orchestra, Garofalo uses a large organ as part of the orchestral texture. Yes, it does allow him to make some big gestures at the opening and close of the work – unfortunately here the organ is painfully recessed to its answering phrases sound like a distorted echo rather than a call to arms – but in the main he uses it to double instrumental textures albeit rather pointlessly. The brass of the New Moscow Symphony Orchestra are rather harsh and poorly balanced with a timbre that would thrill in Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich but grates in the sub-Brucknerian writing here. The real problem though again is that Spiegelman does not encourage to the music to surge or flow with any romantic ardour. Add to that some upper string playing that can be tentative at key moments. Track 4 at 2:18 is one example of some wince-makingly cautious and inaccurate playing from the first violins. But when the same lyrical phrase passes to the cellos who play it better there is still little burning bright here. Indeed, apart from the big dramatic gestures that frame the work too much of this performance inhabits the comfortable middle ground of not too loud and not too quiet. This is the kind of work a Neeme Järvi recording for Chandos could have made you believe was masterful. Indeed I would not go as far as saying this is a work that deserves its forgotten status – this is simply not the performance to convince one that a resurrection is merited. The central pair of movements; an Andante and a Scherzo were performed separately in the composer’s lifetime by Tullio Serafin. They are substantially better movements than the larger rhetorical ones that frame the work. The Andante suffers from the presence of the ubiquitous organ again doubling away merrily. It is as if Garofalo lacked confidence in his own orchestrational skills and added an organ to lend the writing weight and body. Unfortunately the result is too often glutinous and undifferentiated rather than powerful. However, and despite that, the lyrical writing here – struggling strings and harsh brass apart – is much more appealing with nice touches from the celesta and harp which the recording catches well. Not that for a single instant do I think anyone would accurately place this as Italian music. Of course there is no reason at all any composer, just because they are from a particular country should produce music identifiably of that place but I do find the utter rejection of even the smallest scintilla of sound that could place this in the same country and time as Puccini or Respighi curious. Mentioning Respighi again – does Lev Ginsburg seriously expect us to entertain – on the strength of the music here – that Respighi was even slightly threatened by Garofalo professionally? The more famous composer is infinitely superior in every respect. By some distance the Scherzo contains the best music on the disc. Again, a lighter orchestration with flecks of harp and glockenspiel and a generally fleet style is a welcome relief after the portentous writing earlier. It also sounds considerably more ‘modern’ – not important or necessary for sure but rather welcome all the same.
Rather unoriginally the Finale is taken as an opportunity to give the work a cyclic shape by returning to some of the gestures with which the work opened. This is prefaced by a couple of the most grindingly unconvincing modulations I have heard in a long time [track 7 8:40-50]. In this movement Garofalo tries to emulate more Brucknerian chorale-like writing but instead we get some fairly uninspiring sequential writing played with grating crudeness by the Moscow brass. The organ reappears to contribute some Franckian antiphonal writing but again a gesture, which in demonstration sound could be exciting, here sounds odd with the answering phrases coming as if from the other end of the concert hall/recording studio. I mention Bruckner and Franck for the simple reason that as with the concerto Garofalo does lack an individual voice. This goes way beyond a lack of familiarity on my behalf; this is music that emulates others albeit in an individual way.
So with inadequate notes, acceptable engineering, uninspiring interpretations (Sergei Stadler honourably excepted) and music of modest quality this is not a must buy purchase even with the Naxos price advantage.
And another perspective … from Rob Barnett
This disc was first reviewed here in 2002 by Roy Brewer. You can read that review elsewhere on this site. That was in its Marco Polo finery. Now the same disc rises like a phoenix in less effulgent Naxos plumage. The migration is to be welcomed especially as the Violin Concerto is an attractive romantic-era essay.
If the Symphony combines lacklustre with ramshackle the Concerto has much to offer. According to the liner-note the Symphony was performed in full only once until its revival under Spiegelman in 1994 in Moscow. A contemporary of Pizzetti, Respighi, Casella and Malipiero, Garofalo’s confidence flew high during the two decades before the Great War. Confidence is one thing and accomplishment is another. The Symphony is a diffuse thing redeemed only sketchily by a rather good tune in the outer of the four movements. It might be closer to cutting the mustard had it been termed a suite but even then perhaps not. Its qualities are not helped by the rather strangulated tone of the Moscow orchestra’s violins. The style might be compared with that of the more obscure symphonies by Bruch and Glazunov.
The Violin Concerto in fact approaches the violin concertos of those two composers with a dash of Brahms thrown in. One might bracket the work with the concertos by Stojowski, Karlowicz, de Boeck and Borgström (1914). The Borgström is an engaging and catchy piece – well worth exhuming on Simax Classics PSC1311. As for the attractive de Boeck it can be heard in a 2007 recording by Ning Kam (violin) and the Flemish Radio Orchestra conducted by Marc Soustrot on Etcetera or on a much earlier one by Guido De Neve (violin), the Royal Flanders Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Frederic Devreese (Marco Polo 8.223740 and Naxos 8.553604). These are byways well worth exploration. The Garofalo sports whistleable melodies and an often lush sound.
This disc is not to be overlooked though the Symphony is not the reason for chasing this one down.