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Alfredo CATALANI (1854-1893)
Ero e Leandro [18:16]
Scherzo in A Major [5:36]
Andantino in A Major [4:46]
Contemplazione [11:35]
Il Mattino, ‘Sinfonia romantica’ [14:33]
Rome Symphony Orchestra/Francesco La Vecchia
rec. 16-17 April, 2011 (Contemplazione), 1-2 July, 2011 (Andantino and Mattino), and 11-13 July, 2011 (Ero e Leandro), OSR Studios, Rome, and 3-4 June, 2012, Auditorium di Via Conciliazione, Rome (Scherzo)
NAXOS 8.573072 [54:46]

When I was a teenager, I would compose music in my head to pass the time. This was to keep my brain busy walking between classes, or waiting for the school bus, or on long auto trips. The music was informed both by what I was listening to at the time - primarily Beethoven and the romantics who followed - and a few inherent limitations, like short-term memory’s inability to keep a melody for very long. To this day I remember a few of the catchiest and sometimes, most trite tunes … even a whole violin concerto. Probably 98% of what passed through my mind was just to divert myself momentarily: time-killing music.
At age 13 this primarily took the shape of Mendelssohnian piano concertos that sprawled on as long as needed, through endlessly repeating patterns of forgettable fast and slow melodies and virtuoso solo licks. By the time I was 15 or 16, my mind moved on to a later romantic model, based on tone-poems by the likes of Liszt, Smetana, Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky and Wagner, if Wagner were more docile.
The template for a “generic” mind-occupying piece from this time might be as follows: grand, imposing introduction while my brain struggles to think of a catchy main subject; striving, heroic, but ultimately bland main theme; dwelling on the theme and developing it, but not too richly because of the risk of it slipping from short-term memory; when I get bored, usually 7-10 minutes in, a sudden dramatic turn to the minor key. Everything was legato and sculpted in big phrases, to give my brain a chance to catch up; everything was vaguely programmatic, or story-based, to give me a clear idea what would happen next.
Alfredo Catalani’s Ero e Leandro is exactly like this. It was a near out-of-body experience for me, a flawless replica of the kind of music that floated through my mind in school. The first difference is that Ero e Leandro was really written down, published and recorded. The second difference is that Catalani wrote it at age 30.
Draw your own conclusions from this. I myself am fascinated, almost shocked, to discover that my juvenile brain was putting out music that could well have been a real piece, by the composer of the opera La Wally. It’s a memory blast. You may be interested, or not, based on how you liked the description above. The booklet notes cite an “ambitious” structure because the work is divided into many scarcely-connected sections; but when I did it, I was just being lazy.
Il Mattino, subtitled “Sinfonia romantica”, is similar. A slow introduction, this time wonderfully scored with murmuring woodwind solos over a mysterious string texture, leads to a primary allegro which is courtly and charming but not especially memorable until the big, bold, brassy final coda and its surprising ending. There are some lovely moments, and some which cry out to be sung in opera. Contemplazione is Catalani’s big dud; how many “contemplative” pieces do you know that involve a climactic tam-tam thwack?
The other works on the album are shorter and perkier. A Scherzo and an Andantino bring some modest charm and the tunefulness of comic arias.
Francesco La Vecchia, his Roman orchestra, and the Naxos producers deserve credit for continuing to mine the undiscovered world of Italian orchestral music. I did find the smaller, brighter acoustic a distraction in Contemplazione. If you’re downloading this album via ClassicsOnline, you might consider sampling each track and choosing which ones to download. Il Mattino is my top recommendation. For those who are just getting started on Italian orchestral music from the 1800s, the top picks in this series remain Sgambati’s marvellous Symphony No. 1 (8.573007) and Martucci’s insanely catchy Tarantella (see review).
Brian Reinhart