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Niccolò PAGANINI (1782-1840)
Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major, Op. 6 (1816) [36:19]
Ermanno WOLF-FERRARI (1876-1948)
Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 26 (1943) [35:49]
Francesca Dego (violin), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Daniele Rustioni
rec. live, Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 21-22 August 2016 (Paganini); 8-9 March 2017 (Wolf-Ferrari)

This disc caught my attention because of the Wolf-Ferrari but before we get to that, a few words about the Paganini concerto. It's not a rarity but neither is the catalogue awash in alternatives.

The Paganini's heaving goulash of Rossinian ppp-fff shock dramatics and boastful bel canto in the orchestra contrasts with the alternating caramel sweetness and bickering breath-robbing pyrotechnics of the solo. In this connection Francesca Dego is in no measure found anything other than triumphantly enjoyable. This she achieves whether in conflagration, bouncing spiccato or smoochy melisma. The orchestra, which is conducted by Dego's husband, Daniele Rustioni, is utterly idiomatic. This is not their natural stamping ground but they romp, crash and swoon with the best. I would just mention that, within the last five years, Dego recorded Paganini's 24 Capriccios for DG so she is not without Paganini credentials.

I was pleased to hear Dego deliver the Wolf-Ferrari's UK premiere in March this year in Birmingham, the venue for these recordings. The work was not completely new to me. I reviewed the Ulf Hoelscher CPO disc quite early in the life of this site. Years before that I knew the work through an off-air tape of Bustabo playing the concerto with the Munich Phil conducted by Rudolf Kempe.

Rather as is the case with Othmar Schoeck (1886-1957) who wrote his Violin Concerto for Stefi Geyer (1888-1956), here is a violin concerto written by a composer suffering on the rack of unrequited love. The amour Wolf-Ferrari aspired to was Guila Bustabo (1916-2002), now a cult figure. She is the dedicatee of this work of the late 1940s which carries a dedication to Bustabo “con ammirazione”. This Concerto has some stylistic parallels with the songster Schoeck, as does the fact that Schoeck’s much older work (1911-1912) can be heard in a recording. A difficult to find recording exists on the Classical Record label of Bustabo in a Kempe-conducted 1971 performance of the Wolf-Ferrari. It can be had in alternative versions which I have not heard as yet: Benjamin Schmid on Farao 108069 and Laura Marzadori on Tactus. The Farao is part of the conductor Friedrich Haider's Wolf-Ferrari Edition. All are differently coupled from the DG disc.

The four-movement Wolf-Ferrari is a concerto of almost constantly passion-brimming cantabile. The composer, with his Italian and German parentage, leans here towards the Italian side. There are some bluff tarantella moments in the finale. That what it has to say is couched in late nineteenth-century romantic style need not detain us beyond simply noting the fact. Its nostalgic bel canto will appeal to anyone who loves the violin concertos by Tchaikovsky, Glazunov or Korngold. The invention may not be quite as vitally memorable as in those three works but it is still a winning listen provided you are well disposed to such a florid flow. The first movement opens in a whisper — rather like the Sibelius — to which Dego’s violin soon engages. She is in almost constant masterful action throughout, with unsullied soaring ardour and meticulous yet silky delicacy. There are some banal moments towards the end but they are transient. The fly-away solo cadenza writing in the Rondo finale appears in two episodes. Unlike the Paganini, the Wolf-Ferrari ends in applause but I heard no audience noise at any point.

If you are interested in Wolf-Ferrari, there is a website, but unlike Othmar Schoeck, who basks in Chris Walton’s magisterial study, there is no English language biography.

I have a few things to take issue with. The booklet design favours presentation over the ability to read the liner-note. Second, there's a lack of work details and timings on the reverse of the jewel case. There are lots of pictures of Dego - and you can understand why - but not one of the composers. The cover of the booklet has the violinist's surname in large font while the composer names must make do with something more diminutive; not that any of this detracts from a most beautiful performance and recording with gripping front-row presence. It also does not take away from Francesca Dego's brave and welcome decision to invest in the Wolf-Ferrari. I see that two days were lavished on each work to get the results as good as they could be … and they are very good.

I would rather have had one of the other neglected Italian violin concertos of the twentieth century (Pizzetti, Malipiero, Casella) instead of the Paganini. That said, this is a de luxe product and it is richly enjoyable if you do not flinch from backward-looking music with a high cream and sugar count.

Rob Barnett

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