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Alfredo CATALANI (1854-1893)
Ero e Leandro - symphonic poem (1884) [18:09]
Scherzo (1878) [5:36]
Andantino* (1871?) 4:44]
Cantemplazione (1878) [11:35]
Il Mattino "sinfonia romantica"* (1874) [14:44]
Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma/Francesco La Vecchia
rec. 16-17 April 2011 (Contemplazione), 1-2 July 2011 (Andantino and Il Mattino), 11-13 July 2011 (Ero e Leandro) and 3-4 June 2012 (Scherzo); Auditorium di Via Conciliazione (Scherzo) and OSR Studios, Rome (remainder)
*world premiere recordings
NAXOS 8.573072 [54:48]

Almost exclusively remembered nowadays for his 1892 opera La Wally, Catalani was a precocious composer of orchestral scores. He completed his Symphony for full orchestra at the age of just 18 and the Morning, romantic symphony just two years later.
With their proven commercial acumen, Naxos have, I imagine, selected works that they hope will make the best case for the composer on this new release.  It would be fair to say, nevertheless, that my colleague Brian Reinhart didn't much care for it (see here).  True enough, he credited the artists and the producers for their enterprise in mining some of the more obscure byways of Italian musical history, but he was singularly unimpressed with Catalani's scores and considered them distinctly formulaic. Indeed, Brian's tongue-in-cheek suggestion that his teenage self could have come up with something just as good subsequently sparked a brief, well-tempered exchange of opinion on our website's message board (see here).
It is true that there are more than a few points where Catalani seems less than confident of his skills and is essentially composing by numbers - the "storm" episode of Ero e Leandro, for instance, or the early morning hubbub depicted in Il Mattino - but I will nail my colours to the mast right away and admit that I rather enjoyed this disc. While I doubt that anyone will claim these scores as masterpieces, they nonetheless provided me with almost an hour of innocent but quite considerable pleasure.
It is not, I think, necessary to subject the music to detailed analysis.  Ero e Leandro is certainly episodic, but arguably no more so than - by the very nature of the beast - many other symphonic poems of the time.  Catalani handles the links between the comparatively straightforward story's various sections skilfully and effectively.  His score does, moreover, contain some rather beautiful melodies, notably those depicting both the surging sea and the lovers' "ecstasy", as the composer coyly terms it.
The brief Scherzo of 1878 and the earlier and even more succinct - yet more thematically varied - Andantino are both less ambitious and give the impression of a young composer finding his way with the resources of an orchestra.  It is not without significance that both pieces have also survived, as we learn from Marta Marullo's usefully informative booklet notes, in alternative versions for solo piano.
The more substantial Contemplazione was a particular target of Brian's scorn, dismissed as "Catalani's big dud" and also prompting him to ask "how many 'contemplative' pieces do you know that involve a climactic tam-tam thwack?"  It is perhaps worth observing in response that there are, after all, several different varieties of "contemplation" and that not all of them are indicative of insipid navel-gazing.  In its specifically spiritual sense, for example, where a meditative process aims to achieve nothing less than one-to-one experience of God, I'd have thought that a climactic stroke on a tam-tam might well be the musically appropriate response to an awe-inspiring revelation of the deity himself.  In any case, I have to admit that, maybe as a consequence of the ageing process, my own ears didn't actually detect that "thwack" at all.   Meanwhile, Contemplazione's many attractive cantabile elements certainly play to Catalani's undoubted strengths as a composer and I enjoyed the piece a great deal.
I had imagined, in advance of actually hearing it, that the "romantic symphony" Morning would provide some sort of final, conclusive advocacy for Catalani's orchestral scores, but it proves, in fact, oddly anti-climactic.  This is self-evidently a depiction of a rustic morning, full of chirruping birdsong and general bustling about as a new day of country life gets under way.  Nevertheless, the most effective and memorable moments occur - as in Ero e Leandro - when the composer eases the pace slightly so as to introduce more lyrical elements - 7:04-7:46, for instance, though that brief passage is all too soon superseded by a return to yet more bustling - leaving me to wonder whether Catalani's talents might not have been better employed in composing an appropriately atmospheric Evening symphony instead of this one.
With expert and idiomatic performances from the Rome orchestra and conductor Francesco La Vecchia, fine work by the recording engineers and the attractive Naxos price point, anyone who enjoys late 19th century orchestral music will not, I think, be disappointed in taking a gamble with this new release.  These unfamiliar scores may not be masterpieces but they certainly do not deserve the obscurity in which they have languished for more than a century.
Rob Maynard

Previous review: Brian Reinhart