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Pietro MASCAGNI (1863-1945)
Rapsodia Satanica (1917) [46:17]
Nino ROTA (1911-1979)
Il Gattopardo (1963) [15:45]
Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz/Frank Strobel
rec. Ludwigshafen Philharmonie, Germany, 2005
CAPRICCIO C5246 [62:02]

Curiosity was the sole motivation for my requesting this disc. Could it really be the Pietro Mascagni of Cavalleria Rusticana fame writing a film score and what's more a score in 1917, way before many of the film scores that are considered seminal in the history of the genre? Even the score written for the 1915 Birth of a Nation although in part original was a patchwork of re-arranged classics, original themes and popular melodies. The answer is yes and yes.

This is not this score's first recording, the only other one I can find is a rare - and expensive - disc on the Bongiovanni label featuring the Londerzeel Symphonic Youth Orchestra which I have not heard. No disrespect to a youth ensemble but I find it hard to imagine they outclass the Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz under Frank Strobel. They are afforded an excellent detailed and richly vibrant recording so this substantial Mascagni appears in all its rather wonderful gaudy glory. Mascagni is not a one-hit wonder. At least two of his other operas - L'Amico Fritz and Iris - retain some hold in the repertoire, but his output of orchestral/instrumental works alone is tiny. So unless he was made a financial offer he simply could not refuse it would be fascinating to know what appealed to him about this new medium. One revelation in the interesting but brief liner is that the first performance was part of a series of orchestral concerts and that the film was designed to illustrate and accompany the music rather than the other way around. Deprived of the pictures it is fascinating to listen to this music and realise how many of the conventions and even clichés of 'film music' it already obeys. The key to this lies in Korngold's observation that his film scores were "operas without words". Dramatically illustrating scenes through music is meat and drink to verismo opera composers so in effect this is all Mascagni is doing here.

There is an entertainingly tongue-in-cheek description of the film - not the music - here www.mubi.com/notebook/posts/the-forgotten-rapsodia-satanica-1917. In brief this is a variant on the Faust legend - a faded diva is offered a return to her seductive youth in return for forswearing love. Two young brothers compete for aforementioned love, one commits suicide the other ultimately gains his goal. David Cairns, the writer of the mubi.com post, writes: "Rapsodia Satanica belongs foursquare to the "diva dolorosa" school of Italian silent cinema, movies of and for and about their vampish leading ladies, in which melodramatic narratives might at any moment be entirely subsumed in welters of veiled languishing. Even by these delirious standards, Nino Oxililia's penultimate feature (before his death in WWI) is heady stuff." This same site has a YouTube link to hand-tinted version of the complete film including the music which I strongly advise the curious to watch. It is not clear which orchestral performance is used to accompany the images and Cairns points out that it has not been synchronised accurately but it does provide a fascinating flavour of the mood and style of the complete music and movie 'experience'. The conclusion of the first 'Prologue' section sees the old lady transformed back to her glamorous youth accompanied by music of near-Straussian heroic vigour. It is thrillingly dispatched here.

Mascagni's music is lush, opulent and effective. At a final reckoning it lacks the killer melody that can lock a film score indelibly in the memory - it is strong on mood and atmosphere. Heard in isolation from the images it is clearly illustrative with emotional passages interrupted by suddenly animated sections and vice versa. However the more I listen, the more the motifs and themes start to resonate. Try for example the ardently passionate music around 11:00 minute mark of Part I [track 2] for an example of Mascagni in full romantic flood. This same passage points up how well and sympathetically Strobel and his orchestra play this idiom too - the music is allowed to ebb and flow with impulsive surges and yearning rubati. Interestingly Strobel's traversal of the score takes around 45 minutes but the YouTube film version lasts just thirty seven - I have not been able to make a direct comparison to see how or where the time differences occur - certainly Strobel does not sound over inflated or 'slow' either in isolation or compared to the soundtrack recording. This strikes me as a very impressive and fascinating piece of work both for those interested in Mascagni and in the history of film. Certainly for anyone with even a passing interest in the latter I would strongly recommend listening to this very enjoyable score as well as watching the YouTube link.

The disc is completed by a fifteen minute suite of music from the Visconti 1963 film Il Gattopardo [The Leopard] written by Nino Rota. The suite was extracted by Riccardo Muti and has been recorded by him (concert review). Lusciously enjoyable though this is, it is much more standard film-music fare. If, as I do, you enjoy the genre this is powerful and exciting stuff - again impressively played and recorded. In immediate juxtaposition to the Mascagni it is striking how little the lingua franca of film music seems to have changed between 1917 and 1963. It is this institutional conservatism in film scores that many composers pre-1963 were trying to break away from. For whatever reason Rota in this score sticks closely to traditional conventions. This is clear from the opening bars of the Title Music [track 4] which surges upward to a minor key brass-dominated fanfare motif. The film itself is highly regarded - Martin Scorsese is quoted as regarding it as one of the finest movies ever made. Certainly the suite is very enjoyable with Rota's skill for apt scoring and attractive melody clearly demonstrated. One minor quibble, with the disc running to just an hour it is a shame that the unallocated space was not used to provide a more extended selection from this Rota score. As it is, unfortunately the liner does not provide a detailed synopsis for the film or how the suite's excerpts relate to it - nearly as much space is devoted to Strobel's (impressive) career as the music performed.

On more than one occasion curiosity alone has resulted in my listening to some distinctly sub-par discs. Not so here, I have been surprised and delighted in turns by the music and performances on offer. Certainly I will be seeking out Strobel's other Capriccio discs - the reconstruction of the score to Fritz Lang's famed 1927 Metropolis for one. One curio, this new disc seems to have been languishing in the Capriccio vaults for exactly a decade. Lucky the recording company that has the luxury of leaving product of this quality unreleased for such a long time.

A revelation and an obligatory listen for all film music aficionados.

Nick Barnard

 




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