Sgambati: Symphony No. 1; Cola di Rienzo Overture
Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma/Francesco La Vecchia
Total Time: 61:23
After the Baroque period, when one thinks of Italian music, one general thinks only of opera. The seeming lack of instrumental music is perhaps more a sign of German dominance in the field of musicology through the period more than any real lack of orchestral music in the period. For most, Italian symphonic music hinges around three key colorful works by Ottorino Resphigi, certainly one of the more well-known of composers of the new Italian instrumental renaissance which began at the end of the 19th and beginning of the early 20th centuries. The Naxos label has been surveying a number of orchestral works by Italian composers over the past few years and now turns its attention to another earlier neglected master, Giovanni Sgambati (1841-1914).
Though it may be hard to believe, no less a conductor than Arturo Toscanini often conducted performances of Sgambatti’s first symphony which Is the primary work featured here. Along with Giuseppe Martucci, the two composers would provide a number of significant orchestral works paving the way for a resurgence of instrumental music in Italy. Opera so dominated the Italian music scene that Beethoven’s Eroica symphony was not performed there until 1867 and then under Sgambati’s direction. The composer would introduce the Italian public to more Beethoven Italian premieres while also adding the latest orchestral music by Liszt.
It was under Liszt’s guidance that Sgambati would study and eventually be encouraged to move to Germany to gain access to the great orchestras available there. While there he was able to hear the work of Brahms and Wagner. The latter even helped get some of Sgambati’s earliest work published. He would never compose an opera, but did manage two symphonies, much piano music and chamber works, as well as a requiem and a setting of the Te Deum. It is likely that some of his music has been lost, or yet remains to be rediscovered in the dustbins of some music library, as in the case of the overture on this release
The Romanticism of Sgambati owes a lot to Liszt and Wagner’s harmonic innovations of the period. It does have an Italianate lyricism that appears even in the somewhat Wagnerian overture Cola di Rienzo. This is a massive 18-minute orchestral work of rich harmony and soaring musical ideas with great brass writing particularly interesting to hear. The work itself was composed in 1866 and is based on the same story as Wagner’s Rienzi. Never published, and perhaps never performed, it was discovered in Rome’s Biblioteca Casanatense and receives what must be its premiere. It is a simply wonderful example of mid-century Romanticism certainly informed by its Germanic models but with great dramatic narrative sense. Certainly well worth further performances.
The Symphony No. 1 in D, Op. 16 was completed in 1881 and performed on March 28th of that year for Queen Margherita, an important patron of the arts. That concert included a performance of Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture. The work is cast in five-movements, a rather innovative touch for a first essay in the genre in this period. The opening “Allegro vivace, non troppo” has a decided lightness to its scurrying strings that recalls Mendelssohn a bit. Though seeming to be in sonata form, Sgambati seems to be instead focusing on the development of motivic cells in a unique version of thematic transformation. The orchestration and shifts in color are well done and the brass again insert themselves with fanfare-like ideas throughout the movement. There are also interesting harmonic modulations that will catch the ear as the movement moves along. It is nothing short of a brilliantly orchestrated work. The second movement is another example of this hybrid of Italian melodic writing with Germanic-style orchestration. It is a bit of a free fantasy in two beautiful sections the first for oboe which is then passed along to flute. The third “Scherzo” movement is a bit more like the center part of an overture with an almost rhapsodic nature. This is followed by another lyrical slow movement, “Serenata,” with darker string writing and hints of mystery. The finale is in some respects a bit of a “review” of the primary ideas in the work though with variation. It makes for a terrific closer.
The 20th century was not terribly kind to anything smacking of Germanic influence. Essentially every country has its share of neglected composers whose music “sounds” like mid-century Romanticism because that was when they were composing their music. Sgambati’s symphony falls into this fray but is another of the unjustly forgotten fine essays in symphonic form. Certainly its engaging melodic ideas and brilliant orchestration is cause enough for its resuscitation. The performances here of the Rome orchestra under La Vecchia are quite superb capturing the joy of discovery for these pieces and providing committed performances. Easily recommended for those looking for great Romantic music of the 19th century.
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