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Giovanni SGAMBATI (1841-1914)
Symphony No. 1 in D major Op.16 (1881) [38:30]
Symphony No. 2 in E flat major (1885) [41:00]
Württembergische Philharmonie Reutlingen / Ola Rudner
rec. 2015/2017, Studio der Württembergische Philharmonie Reutlingen, Germany
CPO 555 195-2 [79:47]

Sgambati’s First Symphony is no longer terra incognita, given the existence of the Naxos recording directed by Francesco La Vecchia on 8.573007. Now CPO’s reading appears, harnessed to the Second Symphony, the editorial and performance history of which is much more complicated.

The tempo differences between Ola Rudner’s reading and La Vecchia’s are striking. There’s a near five-minute difference in total, with consistent differences across all five movements. This is not just a tempo question; it’s almost a conceptual concern. Though in theory a faster tempo might be thought to bring what Beecham termed ‘bringing electricity to a lazy body’, in practice things are not that simple. The fact is that, in the main, the Rome orchestra is the more characterful, and the contrasts La Vecchia finds are more full of incident than the more dutiful, though faster – and thus sometimes more steamrollering – approach of Rudner. There are gains and losses in both approaches. The dark-hewn slow movement generates a fine sense of momentum under Rudner and they generate real Wagnerian thrust elsewhere. The Rome performance’s Serenata, one minute slower than CPO’s, is the more ardent and expressive, whereas arguably the finale is handled with greater confidence by Rudner. It’s certainly of a piece with his conception as a whole.

Where does this leave us? La Vecchia has the more pliant and expressive orchestra; his tempi are more measured and loving. Rudner views things differently. He is tight, aggressive, less prone to linger; his orchestra is blander but also bolder.

Maybe the problematic Second Symphony can help decide preferences, given that the Naxos coupling is the overture Cola di Rienzo It was unpublished but fortunately the hand-written orchestral parts exist and have been used in this painstaking reconstruction of a new full score. The symphony was premiered in full in 1915 as part of Sgambati’s Memorial Service; an earlier performance had been partial and sparse instrumentation had been employed. The modern premiere was given by the Rome Symphony under La Vecchia in February 2014 but given that any recording by the Rome forces has yet to appear, CPO has the field to itself here. There is a long slow introduction, finely sustained, with warmly textured wind writing and some agitato in the lower brass. The conclusion to this movement is properly exultant and the scherzo is sinewy and vigorous – prominent percussion here. The lingering cavatina that is the slow movement is a real high point, its themes repeated to advantage and well-orchestrated to bring out its appeal. Whereas - like the earlier symphony - the finale is sporty, confident, and classically developed. There are plenty of incidents along the course of the development section. I assume it’s only time before Naxos use Roz Trübger’s restoration – she writes the comprehensive booklet notes, by the way – and if and when they do it will be intriguing to see if La Vecchia allows the Cavatina even more time to breathe.

Jonathan Woolf

Previous review: Rob Barnett

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