ALFANO Concerto for Violin, Cello, and Piano. Cello Sonata ? Samuel Magill (vc); Scott Dunn (pn); Elmira Darvarova (vn) ? NAXOS 8.570928 (60:06)
by William Zagorski
These days Franco Alfano (1875–1954) is remembered more for his controversial and much maligned 1926 completion of Puccini’s Turandot than for his own well-crafted and often quite striking music. His career started promisingly. In 1904, his opera Risurrezione, based on Tolstoy’s last full-length novel, made him internationally famous (see Henry Fogel’s review in Fanfare 28:4). In 1918, he rose to the directorship of Liceo Musicale, Bologna, and two years later helped to found the society Musica Nova. His career remained on the ascendancy until 1926, when Toscanini’s de facto damnation of his completion of Turandot made him an odd man out in Italian music. Add to this that two of his contemporaries, Malipiero and Respighi, were changing the focus of Italian music from opera to purely instrumental, while Alfano continued doggedly in the operatic realm with Madonna imperia (1927), Cyrano de Bergerac (1936), Don Juan de Manara (1941), Il dottor Antonia (1949), Vesuvius (1950), and Sakùntala (1952). Then further add that Alfano was on favorable terms with Mussolini’s fascist government and one has a pretty good recipe for his subsequent obscurity.
Then there is the music itself, as illustrated by these two chamber works—soft edged, introspective, and quietly luminous in a most Debussian manner. Cellist Samuel Magill, in his liner notes to this release, points out that Alfano was half French (on his maternal side), and spent the years from 1899 until about 1905 in Paris, where he composed light music for the Folies Bergère. It is plain from these two pieces that he soaked up the atmosphere and found it most congenial. The earlier of these two works, the Cello Sonata, was commissioned in 1928 by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. It is a tour de force in its exploitation of the cello’s full compass and coloristic possibilities. The high A-string writing makes it seem a super violin, and the use of harmonics in combination with quiet sustaining pedaled piano figurations creates moments that would have made both Ravel and Debussy proud. It is a long and discursive work that opens serenely, as if to say “I will reveal a great mystery,” and then travels from the elementally abstract toward the more and more intelligible; unfathomable mystery gives way to unbridled passion, and then to a moment of sublime peace.
The Concerto for Violin, Cello, and Piano of 1932 is similar to the Cello Sonata, but given the third instrument, the violin, it is richer in tonal possibilities. Its opening revealing a kinship with Renaissance polyphony, indeed farther back than that, shows how easily those languages can dovetail into that of the French Impressionists. Alfano, like Bruckner and Brahms, was an antiquarian. In both of these works, Debussy’s idea that pure sonority should be an element of music equal with melody, harmony, and rhythm, is writ large.
All three performers are excellent and play with razor-edged accuracy, passion, and insight in these two world-premiere recordings. The recording, alas, is harsh in its upper register, requiring treble cut on my system, but, on the other hand, it reveals everything, as if under a microscope. The piano, however, is splendidly registered throughout. William Zagorski, FANFARE Magazine