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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Aus Italien, Symphonic Fantasie, op.16 (1886) [43:28]
Ermanno WOLF-FERRARI (1876-1948)
Suite Veneziana (1935) [18:22]
Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester, Berlin/Ariane Matiakh
rec. 2017, RBB Sendesaal, Berlin
CAPRICCIO C5344 [61:50]

Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari is best known for his operas, in particular, The Jewels of the Madonna and Susanna’s Secret. Less-well-known is his considerable corpus of chamber music and a select number of orchestral works. The present Suite Veneziana (1935) is a strangely beautiful piece which presents a very subdued impression of Venice. The opening movement, ‘At the Lagoon’ conjures up a sad image; there is no sparkling sunshine nor scuttling vaporetti depicted in these pages. The ‘Barcarolle’ is a ‘form’ associated with boating songs sung by the gondoliers, often composed in 6/8 time and displaying a gently rocking motion. Wolf-Ferrari has given us an unhappy song. The ‘Nocturne’ is quite gorgeous. This music is sad too: it does not present the tourists’ image of singing gondoliers and the musical sparkle of Florian’s in St Mark’s Square by evening. In fact, the subtitle refers to ‘Lonely canals’. Here is deep sorrow and melancholia. The finale is entitled ‘Festive Morning.’ This is a misnomer. It is not so much a celebration as a gentle banishing of the previous night’s gloom. To be fair, the composer does disperse some of the gloom with some delightful pizzicato and a lilting melody.

It is hard to define the overall impression of this Suite. Stylistically, it is little removed from the more tender elements in Wolf-Ferrari’s stage works. Or, it could be regarded as ‘incidental’ music created for some lugubrious Venetian play. There is nothing here to challenge the listener, but plenty to evoke thoughts of sadness in their mind. This music is about Venice on a grey day, and as such it is a perfect evocation of ‘La Serenissima’ when tourists are rained off or are balancing precariously on the duckboards. A lovely little discovery.

After encouragement from Johannes Brahms, Richard Strauss embarked on a tour of Italy. He visited several towns and cities including Rome, Naples, Sorrento, Salerno, Bologna and the Isle of Capri. During his travels he began to sketch out some ideas for a tone-poem. The score was completed during September 1886. Strauss’ tone poem Aus Italien could be described as a ‘German Romantic Composer in Italy’. He brings the full Germanic style to the sunshine and history of that country. The resultant work is a cross between a symphonic fantasy and a four- movement symphony. In fact, it was largely a transitional work from Strauss’ earlier ‘absolute’ symphonies to the tone poems for which the composer is best-known.

Each movement of Aus Italien depicts an aspect of the Italian landscape. However, the composer was at pains to point out that the score presented the “emotions felt while contemplating the magnificent beauty of nature in Rome and Naples, not in describing them”. The work opens in the countryside outside Rome, ‘In the Campagna’. The second movement ‘In Roman Ruins’ imagines the Forum. It is difficult to know if this music presents an image of ancient Romans hurrying about their business and furthering their intrigues, or whether it portrays the tourists who followed in subsequent years. ‘On the Beach of Sorrento’ is a musical impression that was described by the composer as a meditation on the sound of the wind in the leaves, the songs of the birds and the sound of the sea. It is a lovely bit of ‘seaside’ music that could relate to many places in the world. The finale, ‘Scenes from Neapolitan Life’ caused Strauss problems. This is an extrovert study of life in Naples, which I understand was even more ‘vibrant’ in 1886 than at present. He included the popular tune Funiculi, Funicula in the exposition of this music, on the understanding that it was a traditional Neapolitan folksong. Alas, it had been composed just six years previously by a certain Luigi Denza. A lawsuit followed…

I enjoyed the playing by Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester, Berlin and the conductor Ariane Matiakh. Both works are given satisfying performances. The liner notes are written in German with an idiosyncratic English translation.

This is an interesting CD release. I had never heard the Wolf-Ferrari before and was suitably impressed, although I cannot compare it to other recordings. As to the Strauss, I normally listen to the Dresden Staatskapelle under Rudolf Kempe. It is good to hear another take on this early Straussian tone-poem. For me it is successful and highly enjoyable.

John France



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