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Alfredo NAPOLEÃO (1852-1917)
Soupirs du Tage (Caprice-Etude) Op.38 (c1890) [4:25]
Rondo Op.47 [7:45]
Prelude and fugue Op.41 [10:12]
Légende (Lenda da Beira) Op.39 (c1890) [5:19]
Andante et polonaise de concert Op.27 (c1879) [17:12]
Trois Romances Op.45 [24:11]
Daniel Cunha (piano)
rec. 2018, Fundação, Portugal
Booklet notes in English, Portuguese and German
DECURIO DEC-002 [69.09]

Pianist and composer Alfredo Napoleão, one of three composer/pianist brothers, was born in Porto, Portugal and died in Lisbon. In the intervening years he travelled extensively, firstly to Rio de Janeiro where he managed a piano store and performed alongside Louis Moreau Gottschalk in 1869. 1870 finds him in Buenos Aires where he stayed for six years, teaching and concertising there as well as throughout South America. After returning to Portugal, during which time he gave well-received concerts in London, he returned once more to Brazil where he premiered his Piano Concerto op.31 (Artur Pizarro's recording of this lovely work can be heard on Hyperion CDA67984 Review.). He had another brief sojourn in Buenos Aires but left to travel back to Brazil and thence to Portugal where he lived his remaining years in increasing economic straits, not managing to replicate his foreign success on home soil.

Much of his output appears to be lost, possibly languishing in archives in Portugal or South America. Are there piano concertos lying undiscovered? There seems to be some ambiguity about the numbering; the Hyperion release says he wrote 4 concertos and that op.31 is the second whilst the notes to the present release list op.31 as the first and only mention 3 concertos. The solo piano music that appears here seems mostly to have been written while he was in Brazil but the influences are all firmly European; Bach, Beethoven and the early romantics all featured in the many concerts that he gave and it is evident that these masters have all filtered down into what is very enjoyable music.

The opening caprice study, Sighs of Tagus, is a depiction of the River Tagus that flows through Spain and Portugal joining the Atlantic Ocean at Lisbon. The river may have its surges and drama but this portrait is like a Mendelssohn song without words, wreathing first a lovely solo melody then a duet in gently rippling triplet arpeggios. His effervescent Rondo with its fleet passagework is reminiscent of Hummel or Weber, even early Chopin. That the nocturnal central section has faint pre-echoes of Rachmaninov is certain but the return to the rondo proper, courtesy of chromatically descending diminished seventh arpeggios plants us firmly back in Chopin territory (this is so like a similar passage in the first movement of Chopin's E minor concerto that I half expected Chopin's heart-melting E major melody to follow).

His Prelude and fugue combines the world of baroque and romantic perfectly. The Prelude is reminiscent of Alkan or Franck with its repeated chords and slow growing intensity. The fugue theme that follows after a brief interlude is sinuous and lyrical; passages of brilliant arpeggios and strident octave work build to a grand climax leading to a reprise of the fugue and winding down to a tranquil ending. The mournful Legend of Beira opens like a Chopin Nocturne with a bel canto melody over a triplet left hand accompaniment but this soon rises to Lisztian grandeur, akin to the passionate outpourings of the Petrarch Sonnets.

The Andante et polonaise de concert, originally written for piano and orchestra is an earlier work, given its first performance by Napoleão in 1879 in Rio de Janeiro. The obvious inspiration here is Chopin's Andante spianato and grande polonaise brilliante though this concertante format - a slow first half followed by a fast, usually dance-like second half - is a common one. The opening melody is pleasant enough; a song without words, more wide-ranging in mood than Chopin's tranquil opening. The polonaise is more akin to Liszt's E major Polonaise with an heroic opening and some delicate passagework. A more reflective section breaks up the triumphal grandeur of the main dance.

The disc closes with the three Romances op.54 (or op.45 – the notes give the former whilst the cover gives the latter). The first, Un soir de Printemps, depicts a spring evening. Again we hear the sound world of Chopin, a Nocturne with a flavour of the kind of decoration found in the Berceuse. The second Romance, Un rêve, is a particularly beautiful nocturne with a long spun-out melody. The tranquillity of this opening section gives way to a restless, unsettled passage, almost Mendelssohn-like at first but moving into the realms that reminded me a little of the Henselt études. The dark dreams relent and peaceful sleep returns. The third romance, Exhaussée, exalted, is the longest. It is a slow waltz with right hand broken chord figuration accompanying an inner melody and a contrasting declamatory central section, full of grand gestures accompanied by arpeggios and interlocking octaves. These two worlds combine in the latter part of the piece and it ends in grand style.

Daniel Cunha, who studied with renowned Portuguese pianist Sequeira Costa, is a new name to me but he is a superb advocate for this unfamiliar repertoire. He spins the melodies out beautifully in the Romances and he brings dramatic flair and astute idiomatic awareness to all the differing styles on this disc. For all Napoleão was heavily influenced by the romantic masters this is enjoyable to listen to and the Caprice-Etude and second of the Romances are, for me at least, little gems.

Robert Challinor

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