Franco ALFANO (1875-1954)
Violin Sonata in D (1923) [31:31]
Piano Quintet in A flat major (1945) [27:58]
Nenia and Scherzino for violin and piano (arr. Enrico Pierangeli) (1936) [4:24+2:23]
Elmira Darvarova (violin), Scott Dunn (piano), Mary Ann Mumm (violin), Craig Mumm (viola), Samuel Magill (cello)
rec. Edith Memorial Chapel, The Lawrenceville School, Lawrenceville, NJ, 22-23 February 2011. DDD
NAXOS 8.572753 [66:16]
This new release by Naxos of Italian composer Franco Alfano's chamber music follows last year's first volume, warmly received (review), of his Cello Sonata and Piano Trio ('Concerto'), featuring, as here, Samuel Magill, Elmira Darvarova and Scott Dunn, and recorded three years earlier. A few months ago Naxos also released on Blu-ray a performance of Alfano's opera Cyrano de Bergerac, starring Plácido Domingo in the title role - see review of the earlier NTSC version.
In his lifetime Alfano had reasonable success, at least until World War II. Posthumously his musical reputation has survived chiefly in Italy, where he sometimes appears in fifth place in that country's equivalent of Russia's 'Formidable Five', ranking with - though a little below - Respighi, Pizzetti, Malipiero and Casella. Beyond his homeland his reputation was tarnished by his association, more opportunistic than ideological, with Mussolini, and by an apocryphal anecdote, recycled by Naxos's in-house reviewer, according to which Arturo Toscanini "walked out of the orchestra pit on the opening night of Puccini’s opera Turandot, just at that point where Franco Alfano’s completion began". A more plausible version has Toscanini pausing and announcing where Puccini's completed music ends. Grandiose maestro that he was, Toscanini himself chopped and changed Alfano's completion, with the latter being censured for the musical supererogations of the former. Concrete facts about Alfano's life are in fact hard to come by, though Konrad Dryden's recent biography, 'Franco Alfano: Transcending Turandot' (Scarecrow Press, 2009), fills in a few gaps. Happily, Dryden has written the notes for this CD, giving him the chance to fill in the gaps he himself left in his book through focusing almost entirely on Alfano's operas.
Alfano had a reputation for favouring high tessituras in his numerous operas. The same may be said of the violin part of the Sonata, lending the work not just a very distinctive sound, but also a feeling of luminosity and emotional intensity bordering on sensuality. Not surprisingly, it is a demanding work for the violinist, wonderfully handled by Darvarova - according to the notes, "a concert violinist since the age of four" - and no easy ride either for pianist Scott Dunn. Alfano revised the work in 1933, but this is the original version from a decade earlier, written at about the same time as, and on a par with, his excellent Cello Sonata.
Alfano was nearly seventy when he began writing what was to be his last chamber piece, the Piano Quintet in A flat. Though a work of great maturity, it is surprisingly reminiscent of the Sonata, at least in the violin writing, which again has a high tessitura. In the previous decade Alfano had been through a mainly neo-Classical phase, and in earlier times had even had avant-gardist tendencies, but the beautifully scored, superbly lyrical Quintet represented, in Dryden's words, "a vehement reaction against atonal and dodecaphonic music". The jubilant moderato con grazia middle movement has moments of folk, jazz and musical theatre, yet its startling heterogeneity coheres expertly. Not to be overshadowed, the finale is pervaded with an exotic oriental flavour. Overall, Alfano's Piano Quintet is an inspired work of considerable originality, dulcet, optimistic, indelible. Well performed by the five experienced soloists of the ad hoc quintet, even if the ensemble playing occasionally alludes to an imperfect mutual familiarity.
The mellow, slightly Jewish-sounding Nenia and the cheery, sassy Scherzino, transcriptions made in 1935 by Enrico Pierangeli, make ideal encore pieces to bring the CD to a close. Sound quality is good throughout.
The blurb for this disc overstates things considerably by asserting that Alfano's chamber music "is receiving deserved recognition" - its ringing absence from recital programmes across Europe testifies to that - but this and its recent companion CD should at least get things moving in the right direction for this underrated composer.
Collected reviews and contact at reviews.gramma.co.uk
see also review by Rob Barnett
Considerable originality, dulcet, optimistic, indelible.