Franco ALFANO (1875-1954)
Quatre Pièces, Op 3 [12:23]
Quatre Dances napolitaines, Op 8 [11:24]
Deux Pièces, Op 5 [6:35]
Quatre Danses roumaines, Op 9 [11:36]
Cinq Danses de Cléo de Mérode [14:20]
Melodia dei miei vent’anni [3:26]
Orazio Maione (piano)
rec. 2016, Studio ‘Piano et Forte’ Perugia, Italy
NAXOS 8.573754 [68:57]
Over the years, listeners have not only been able to enjoy a far more extensive range of works in the concert-hall, but they can also audition at home virtually anything that has been composed to date. In the early days of vinyls and then CDs, the market tended to be dominated by the big companies – Decca, RCA, Deutsche Grammophon, and EMI, for example, who seemed understandably somewhat reluctant to spend money recording material than might not sell well. When Naxos was founded in 1987, it appeared to open the floodgates, and all manner of niche-discs started to appear, and have continued to do so every month since, not only from this outstanding Hong Kong-based budget-label, but from the plethora of smaller labels out there now, all doing the same thing.
Inevitably this will often involve composers completely unknown to the average listener, or more-familiar names, but writing in a genre for which they aren’t best known. Either way they may need a little editorial push, and Paolo Isotta’s sleeve-note for this new Naxos CD would clearly suggest that he is a great supporter of Alfano’s music, when he starts out by describing Franco Alfano as ‘one of the great Italian – and indeed European composers of the last century’.
Alfano’s name is, in fact, probably best remembered, or forgotten today, as the composer charged with completing fellow-opera composer Giacomo Puccini’s final oeuvre Turandot – something which Alfano probably wouldn’t want to be known for, given the chequered history of said completion, which could almost provide an opera plot in itself. As a composer in his own right, Alfano is probably best known for his operas Risurrezione (1904), and Cyrano de Bergerac (1936), which received its US premiere only back in 2005 at the New York Met with Plácido Domingo in the title role, and then presented anew there only last year, this time with Roberto Alagna. Alfano also held academic positions during his lifetime, and, while working in Leipzig, he met his idol, Edvard Grieg. This connection may well have had a bearing on the shorter types of piano miniatures Alfano wrote.
Quatre Pièces opens the CD, and comprises a Mazurka that basically ticks all the boxes. This is followed by a rather attractive Romanzetta, which does have some distinctive moments and, as Isotta suggests, looks back towards Mendelssohn for part of its inspiration, whereas Fable has some Schumannesque moments along the way. Causerie (or ‘chat’) is a pleasant little number, cast very much as a lighter, soubrette miniature – hinting, perhaps, at one or two of Debussy’s similarly light-hearted confections.
The Quatre Danses napolitaines are the first of six world-premiere recordings on the CD, but, of course, you can read into that what you will. The first, Chanson populaire, captures the passionate nature of a Neapolitan song, starting out, unsurprisingly, in the minor key, before blossoming into the major, with some clichéd phrases, before the minor tonality rounds it off. Sérénade à la bien aimée is more dance-like, with plenty of passages in thirds in the piano’s right hand, something usually identified with the genre. The middle section again is appealing, even if the whole is still rather derivative, and could really have been fashioned by anyone anywhere – Alfano, coming from Posillipo, a hill-town overlooking the Bay of Naples, just would seem to have a head start, geographically speaking. Sérénade qui passe again is more dance than song, initially a gentle melody in compound time over some pretty standard chord progressions, once more with an engaging middle section. Just under two minutes long, it is indeed a fleeting (qui passe) serenade. The final piece is entitled Guitare, and the sleeve-note points out that all four pieces take their lead from the Spanish instrument in terms of layout on the piano keyboard. There is also a suggestion that, such is Alfano’s expertise here, that Albéniz and later Rodrigo, might even have modelled their own similar pieces on Alfano’s. With respect though, this is rather putting the cart before the horse, given that the rhythmic pattern of the final piece Guitare, for example, is similar to Albéniz’s Sevilla, from his Suite Espagnole, which the composer premiered in 1885. Alfano would have just been a ten-year-old lad at the time.
The Deux Pièces which follow, consist of a Valse coquette – an attractive little number with a definite French connection à la Fauré, and a playful characteristic morceau in the shape of Arlequin. The Quatre Danses roumaines may have evolved, Isotta suggests, from a possible, though undocumented meeting in Paris, between Alfano, himself a frequent visitor, and Romanian composer George Enescu, who was a few years younger than the Italian. While Alfano’s pieces aren’t specifically Romanian-sounding, nor feature the more exotic time changes of original folk-dance material, such as we hear in the likes of Bartók, the second section of the third and fourth dances respectively, are both particularly effective in performance.
The Cinq Danses de Cléo de Mérode – a world-renowned dancer of the Belle Époque – are titled: Entrée et Danse des modèles, Danse ancienne, Pas des éventails, Mazurka, and Aveu et Valse du premier modèle. These five characteristic waltzes in varying styles and tempos do help while away almost a quarter of an hour quite painlessly. Nostalgie is again cast in triple time, with some Spanish hues in a somewhat darker harmonic palette, and its characteristic melodic figurations. Pax is suitably peaceful and evocative at the outset, before building to an impressive climax, which then abates to close as introspectively a meditation as it started out, Alfano definitely extending his harmonic vocabulary here, to some degree. Melodia dei miei vent’anni (‘Melody from my Twenties’) has a Schumannesque feel to it, and certainly some nostalgic charm to boot.
The sleeve-note concludes by saying that, taken as a whole, the CD ‘paints the portrait of a composer of international stature – a worthy son of the cosmopolitan city in which he was born’. While the last part is no doubt true, the first may be just one claim too far. But at the label’s regular budget price, the excellent piano sound and Orazio Maione’s sympathetic, committed, and highly-accomplished playing throughout, it’s surely worth putting some of Alfano’s piano works to the test.
Philip R Buttall