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Franz von Suppé (1819-1895)
Mozart - Incidental music (1854)
Die Afrikareise Overture (1883)
Julie Svěcená (violin)
Pavel Rybka (organ)
Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra/Dario Salvi
rec. 2021, House of Culture, Ostrava, Czech Republic
NAXOS 8.574383 [57]

Dario Salvi is something of a polymath. He will be best known to MusicWeb readers as a conductor whose recordings have often been warmly praised on this website. He is also, as we will see below, an author, a musicologist and a leading researcher into some of the more obscure byways of the 19th century repertoire. Now, thanks to a throwaway reference printed in very small type on this new CD, I learn that he’s also a graphic designer who was responsible for creating the striking photomontage on its front cover.

Mr Salvi’s very useful and enjoyable series of recordings of Auber’s overtures on the Naxos label has already reached a fifth volume. No doubt it won’t be too long before he produces a sixth disc, but in the meantime here to be going on with is a pair of hitherto little-known – and certainly never previously recorded - pieces by Franz von Suppé.

The major item on the disc, taking up all but six of its 57 minutes, is the incidental music written to accompany Leonhard Wohlmuth’s 1854 play Mozart. As the invaluable booklet essay by Dario Salvi and Robert Ignatius Letellier suggests, Wohlmuth’s abilities as a dramatist were not necessarily of the first order. We would obviously be foolish to expect some sort of post-Freudian psychological insight into its subject à la Peter Shaffer, but all the same Wohlmuth’s Mozart seems, at least from the synopsis we’re offered, to be best described as somewhat randomly episodic: “Oh, look, that must be Mozart’s parents… And here comes his wife-to-be Constanze – or maybe it’s her sister Aloysia?... Papa Haydn’s just popped in for a quick chat… Now Mozart’s working on the Requiem and, to be honest, he looks a bit peaky… The End”.

Suppé’s music for this theatrical salmagundi turns out to be a well-crafted amalgam of familiar Mozartian themes and his own newly-composed material. It is not “incidental” in the sense of comprising an odd introduction here or a mood-setting entr’acte there – i.e. stand-alone episodes inserted between spoken scenes but not overlapping with them. Instead, somewhat akin to a film soundtrack, it accompanies the action as it happens and is used to enhance the atmosphere of the drama’s individual scenes or specific incidents. That, one imagines, is not an easy task to accomplish successfully. After all, a composer in such circumstances would be required to sustain a delicate balancing act. On the one hand, his music must add something to the performance by being both attractive in its own right and appropriate to the action on stage. On the other hand, however, he always needs to keep in mind that the function of his score is to support the acting rather than to overwhelm it or to become the primary focus of attention in its own right - which is, it goes without saying, an even greater risk if the play itself is not especially gripping and so leaves the audience members’ minds open to distraction. Only a staged production, of course, will allow us to judge the effectiveness of Suppé’s score on those terms – and, interestingly enough, I note that Mr Salvi has co-authored a substantial 227-page guide to mounting the piece (Lucinda Bray and Dario Salvi The practicalities of producing the play ‘Mozart’, with music by Franz von Suppé [Newcastle, 2016]). In the absence of such a theatrical production, however, we are perforce reliant on this recording if we are to make any abstract assessment of the music.

Perhaps the Mozart score’s most obvious feature is the skilful way in which Suppé incorporates Mozart’s own music into it. Thus, in the nine-minutes long “overture” alone, knowing listeners will spot some familiar themes from Le nozze di Figaro, Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Don Giovanni and Die Zauberflöte. This might easily have turned out to be little more than a musical potpourri or an entertaining sequence of singalong melodies, but, as the booklet notes rightly observe, Suppé’s skill lies in the fact that he transforms it into a vehicle that successfully conveys some of the serious themes to be raised in the drama to come. Subsequent musical episodes, all equally well integrated with Suppé’s own material, add references to Die Schauspieldirektor, the symphony no. 39, the violin sonata no. 33 and, increasingly as Mozart reaches its dramatic resolution, the Requiem. Nothing, however, is simply shoehorned in for mere effect; rather, everything is carefully moulded into a consistent overall musical conception. Two instrumental soloists deserve, by the way, specific mention. Violinist Julie Svěcená makes an accomplished contribution to an upbeat and substantial Act 1 episode (track 3) in which Mozart comes to think that he may win Constanze’s hand, while, at the other emotional extreme, organist Pavel Rybka adds an effective air of religiosity to the orchestration of Act 4’s increasingly doom-laden score (tracks 7 and 8).

Other than the fact that it too has never been recorded before, the original and long-neglected version of Suppé’s overture to Die Afrikareise seems a somewhat odd pairing for the Mozart incidental music, for the two pieces are separated by almost 30 years and exhibit very different styles. Die Afrikareise was a three-Act comedy, popular around the world until the 1920s, that has been boldly described as “one of the best Viennese operettas of all time”. The Salvi/Letellier booklet notes characterise its overture as “a little tone poem about the mystique of travel and adventure” that encompasses, after a bouncy, attention-grabbing opening, our travellers’ dreamy fantasies before setting off, their adventurous journey and their joyful final arrival in Africa. In truth, the specific geographical element in this piece is negligible, for there’s far more in the score to suggest that we’re spending an evening in the ballroom at Vienna’s Hofburg palace than anything hinting even remotely at Africa. Nonetheless, the Die Afrikareise overture is an enjoyable enough romp, even if it doesn’t manage to come up with a tune as memorable as Poet and peasant or Light cavalry.

Almost all discs offering world premiere recordings are generally to be welcomed – even if, sadly all too often, they simply serve to demonstrate why no-one else had previously thought it a good idea to memorialise the repertoire in question. Dario Salvi has clearly invested a great deal of effort in reviving the pieces on this new Naxos release, for, as well as the Mozart book referred to above, he has also co-authored a study of Die Afrikareise (Dario Salvi and Hannah Salvi A trip to Africa: a comic opera by Franz von Suppé [Newcastle, 2016]). Even though we are, I think, entitled to feel somewhat short-changed by a CD that clocks in at less than 60 minutes in length, all the music that has been included is very well and entirely idiomatically performed by the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra. It has, moreover, been well recorded. Listening to it certainly expands our knowledge of Franz von Suppé’s considerable output and, even if it fails to uncover anything in the way of a genuine masterpiece, this disc is, therefore, to be welcomed.

Rob Maynard

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