Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Music Webmaster
Len Mullenger:

Reviews from other months
ERMANNO WOLF-FERRARI (1876-1948) Violin Concerto (1943) Serenade for strings (1894) Ulf Hoelscher (violin) Frankfurt Radio SO/Alun Francis CPO 999 271-2

Cello Concerto "Invocazione" (1945) Sinfonia Brevis (1944)  Gustav Rivinius (cello) Frankfurt Radio SO/Alun Francis CPO 999 278-2




Right, let's get our bearings. The composer is a German conservative who was born in Venice and who died there but who spent most of his life in Germany. The music is tuneful and romantic with elements of Beethoven, Brahms, Dvorak and Rossini. You could loosely group him with Reger, Pfitzner, Marx, Korngold and Schoeck.

Wolf-Ferrari had German and Italian parents. The Italian element shows in various of the works, especially the symphony and the last movement of the violin concerto. If he is known at all by the general music lover it is for an orchestral bob-bon from his opera The Jewels of the Madonna. He made his reputation both in Germany and beyond from 1900 to 1914 with a succession of operas. The Great War stopped or re-set many clocks. For Wolf-Ferrari, as for the British composer Joseph Holbrooke (another fashion-devastated romantic), the 1920s saw a decline he was never able to see reversed. Under a composer's compulsion he continued to write, secured his premières, but his music was not striking roots into the day-to-day repertoire. The artistic preferences of NSDAP Germany of the 1930s and 1940s, together with his impeccable Axis blood-line, might have spelt renewed attention. For whatever reason, this never happened. Instead, although the three 1940s works here were premièred in Germany, these were largely isolated events. The composer continued an impoverished existence surviving the war by only three years.

The Violin Concerto was written for the Wisconsin-born American violinist Guila Bustabò "con ammirazione". The excellent notes by Herbert Rosendorfer suggest that the composer was in love with Bustabò but details seem sketchy.

The first movement opens in hushed magic with the violin quietly intoning a Hungarian-inflected tune over whisper-rustling strings. The second movement has (Richard) Straussian moments. The final Beethovenian movement is the longest of the four at 13 minutes. This is a most attractive, fresh and rounded work. Ulf Hoelscher is excellent, his playing full of fantasy, brilliance and poetry.

A performance tape by Bustabò of the concerto survives from a radio broadcast by the Munich PO conducted by Rudolf Kempe.

The Serenade for strings is an early work dating from his student years. Apparently influenced by Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, I more often thought of Dvorak's and Tchaikovsky's Serenades for Strings. In any event, it is charming, lively and fresh - well worth hearing and performing.

The Cello Concerto is an earnest, lyrically flowing, work in the grand 19th century manner, rather like the contemporary Pfitzner concerto. The tunes are clear and whistleable. The music seems to flow effortlessly so no doubt it was hard to write. The themes have a Bach-like grandeur. There are touches of Brahms, Bruckner and even Beethoven but none of the Hungarian or Italian element to be found in some of his other works. The odd shape of the work, with a 13 minute first movement followed by two 4-5 minute movements, does not, in fact, cause any problems. The playing of Gustav Rivinius is sonorous, unapologetic, convinced and convincing.

Sinfonia Brevis is not particularly short at 35 minutes: four movements alternately 11 mins and 6 mins. The first movement is Beethovenian. The second movement, Capriccio, is a serenade-like stroll. A real sense of theatre is apparent in the closing measures of the movement. The following adagio is confident with a Bachian stamp. This is the sort of big-band Bach we might have got even as late as the 1950s from Beecham and Goossens without the Philadelphian glitz of Stokowski. The music also has a Mozartian demeanour. The last movement allegro is definitely Beethovenian but this is not Beethoven of the beetling brow but serenade-like with more in common with the first two symphonies. Rossini and the tarantella put in an appearance towards the end. Ultimately this has the look and feel of a divertimento, suite or serenade rather than a barn-storming symphony. There is no "sturm und drang" .Regard the symphony as a blood-brother of the very early Serenade for strings or the contemporary Schoeck Suite for Strings (also on CPO see review).

Some may, perhaps, feel like condemning Wolf-Ferrari for writing such conservative music despite the Nazi regime and a world seething with death and horror. It however seems clear from the notes that Wolf-Ferrari wrote music under a composer's self-compulsion to create. His style was a natural part of his make-up. Nothing is fabricated or artificial. Here is a genuine romantic who would have written this music whatever was happening around him whether the tragedy of his own neglect or the wider tragedy of a world at war.

These two discs may well have become lost in the torrent of new releases. If so this is a great pity. Neither is recent. Both were recorded in 1994 and released in 1996. They have not received much critical attention.

It is fifty years since Wolf-Ferrari's death. This conservative and joyful music deserves more playing time. If you want only one of the two discs opt for the violin concerto. Both are enthusiastically recommended.


Robert Barnett

The following is a newsgroup exchange which may be of interest in reading these reviews.

Rob Barnett wrote:

Having recently reviewed the CPO recording of the Wolf-Ferrari violin concerto I am curious about this Wisconsin-born violinist. The W-F violin concerto was written for her and dedicated to her con ammirazione. It was premiered by her in war-time Germany (1944?).

How on earth did Bustabò get to do this? This was a première by a US citizen (?) with an Italian name in Nazi Germany. It seems incredible. The concerto BTW is very attractive and fresh in its ideas though the essential language is Brahmsian. Can anyone shed light on Bustabò, her other recordings, her biography and her relationship with Wolf-Ferrari. There is an off-air tape of Bustabò playing the W-F with the Munich PO and Kempe. This dates (I believe) from early 1970s. W-F died in 1948.

Guila Bustabò (with accent grave on the final o, suggesting a pronunciation [g(h)ila Bustabò]) (so given in the 1948 Gramophone Shop Encyclopedia of Recorded Music) remains a mysterious figure in the history of musical performance in the 20th century. I don't have the New Grove to consult, but I can report that neither Baker's 8th Edition nor (incredibly!) MGG (Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart) has an entry for her. She did make a handful of 78s, mostly in Germany, where her base of operations appears to have been, even before WWII. Among these is a recording of the Sibelius Violin Concerto (C-LWX 372/5), with Fritz Zaun conducting the Berlin Staatskapelle. Since in the 78rpm era all recordings of this work were up against the stunning Heifetz/Beecham recording, there were understandably few reviews, and I was unable to turn up any, even in the books by David Hall. There is also a live performance of Max Bruch's Violin con. #1 in G-min. with Bustabò and the Royal Concertgebouw Orch., cond. Willem Mengelberg (rec. 27 Oct. 1940) in Music & Arts CD-780 (four CDs, a set of live concert recordings by Mengelberg and his orchestra).

Does anyone know how W-F was viewed in Nazi Germany. The notes imply that he was not encouraged or very much supported.

The book, Die Musik und Musikpolitik im faschistischen Deutschland, ed. H-W Heister and H-G Klein (Fischer Taschenbuch 6902), 1984, reports, p.149, that W-F's opera Der Campiello, which received 100 performances during the Third Reich, was one of the successes of that era. Joseph Wulf's Musik im Dritten Reich (rororo 818-819-820), 1966, includes, pp.51-52, some correspondence (all in the most bristling bureaucratic Reichsbeamtendeutsch) with a certain Dr. Achim Gercke, whose title was "Der Sachverständige für Rasseforschung beim Reichsministerium des Innern" ["the authority (literally: the one who understands the matter) on racial research in the Imperial Interior Ministry"], this concerning W-F's racial heritage. Dr. Gercke replies that, as far as the accessible documents indicate (NB, there was a specific request, for reasons not given, not to extend the research onto Italian soil), W-F's ancestors were "arisch und frei von jüdischem und farbigem Bluteinschlag" ["aryan and free of Jewish and colored strain"]. (FWIW: The same pages in the Wulf contain reports on the ancestry of Alban Berg, and the report correctly states that Berg was not Jewish.)

Hope this helps... --E.A.C.


Robert Barnett

Return to Index