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Ermanno WOLF-FERRARI (1876-1948)
Violin Sonata No.1, Op. 1 in G minor (1895) [26:42]
Violin Sonata No.2, Op 10 in A minor (1901) [19:50]
Violin Sonata No.3, Op. 27 in E (1943) [26:49]
Davide Alogna (violin)
Costantino Catena (piano)
Rec. November 4-6, 2019, Palazzo Chigi, Ariccia, Italy.
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 96093 [73:18]

If Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari is remembered at all nowadays it is largely for his operas, such as I quatro rustaghi (1906), Il Segreto di Susanna (1909) and I gioelli della Madonna (1911); but even these have become decidedly rare presences in the opera house. He seems always to have struggled, in particular, to make much of a reputation in Britain. In The Athenæum (December 1920), in a review of a performance of I gioelli della Madonna a writer (identified only as ‘R.O.M.’) wrote “To the badness of M. Wolf-Ferrari’s music no pen, we think, has yet done justice. Melodically, rhythmically, harmonically, it is simply a string of cosmopolitan vulgarities, in which all that is worst in the Italian, German, and French traditions seems to come uppermost, all by turns and all together”. A few years earlier, John F. Runciman had observed (in The Saturday Review, November 1st 1913) that “if the composer [i.e. Wolf-Ferrari] ever succeeds in anything worth achieving it will be in the theatre, not the concert-room.” More positively, in the 1930 edition of Cobbett’s Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music (the earliest edition to which I currently have access) Wilhelm Altman, in the course of his entry on Wolf-Ferrari, describes him “as a sensitive and often inspired musician” Cobbett himself added a note in which, ambiguously, he identified Wolf-Ferrari’s chamber music as “salon music of quite exceptional beauty”. Shortly after Wolf-Ferrari’s death a brief anonymous obituary mentioned only his operatic compositions, observing that “An Italian by birth and early upbringing; he was German by training and experience, and in the course of a successful career he managed to please both schools of taste by a melodious, easy manner and a high-grade musical texture” (The Musical Times, Vol, 89. No 1261, March 1948).

In acknowledging the dual nature of his musical inheritance, the anonymous author of the obituary did at least point to something significant in Wolf-Ferrari’s work; the coexistence within it of a melodic sense one might describe as Italianate and a structural sense (at least in his instrumental works) that owes more to the German tradition. The composer was born in Venice. His parents were August Wolf (1842-1915), a German painter who had studied and worked in Rome and earned his living making copies of Italian paintings for German patrons, and his wife Emilia (née Ferrari). Ermanno had piano lessons from the age of 7 or 8, but his initial ambition was to follow the example of his father and become an artist. To that end he studied art in both Venice and Rome, before moving to Munich in 1891 to continue such studies, at Simon Holosy’s Academy of Art. While there, however, he made the decision (having become fascinated by the music of Bach) to pursue a career in music, rather than as a painter. He passed the entrance examination of the Munich Academy of Music and took lessons with Josef Rheinberger, studying composition and counterpoint. At the age of 19 he left Munich and returned to Venice, writing his first Violin Sonata (his Opus 1) around this time – it certainly shows the influence of Rheinberger (and, through him, of both Brahms and even Wagner). Back in Italy, his musical ambitions were encouraged by Arrigo Boito and he found work there as a choral conductor, and also got married in 1897 (his bride was a soprano, Clara Killian). Two years earlier, in 1895, he had chosen to add his mother’s maiden name to his father’s surname, thus becoming ‘Wolf-Ferrari’ rather than ‘Wolf’. Although he may have composed his first violin sonata after his return to Italy, he primarily sought recognition there as a composer of opera; his first opera La Cenerentola was, however, a flop when premiered at La Fenice in 1900. The disappointed composer decided to return to Germany. In 1902 La Cenerentola was produced in Bremen with much more success and his Cantata from Dante, La vita nova, was also very well-received. Following these successes, in 1903 Wolf-Ferrari was offered the position of Director of the Conservatorio di Musica Benedetto Marcello in Venice, a post he held until 1909 (or until 1907 according to some works of reference). Also in 1903 another opera, Le donne curiose, was very successfully premiered in Munich (and further performances followed in other counties). But Wolf-Ferrari’s career never quite fulfilled this early promise.

Too many of his operas, buffo in dramatic idiom and neo-classical in orchestral style, were at odds with an operatic world in which these were not prevailing forms. His own sense of his ambiguous identity – he had both Italian and German citizenship – was compounded by the two World Wars, and by his retreat to Switzerland in 1916 and again in 1946, after he had been appointed Professor of Composition at the Salzburg Mozarteum in 1939. He suffered periods of depression and the two World Wars reduced the opportunities for performances of his works. His first marriage had ended in divorce in 1916. At the end of World War II he spent time in Zurich at the house of friends. He died suddenly, of a heart attack, in Venice in 1948. The authorities in the city of his birth granted him burial on the cemetery island of San Michele, which contains the graves of many artistic figures, such as Diaghilev, Stravinsky, Nono, Ezra Pound and Joseph Brodsky.

In recent years the conductor Friedrich Heider, born in Austria (though his family has Italian origins), has taken an enthusiastic interest in Wolf-Ferrari’s music. Outstanding among his recordings is that of the Violin Concerto, op. 26, with violinist Benjamin Schmid and the Oviedo Filarmonica. The concerto was dedicated to Giulia Bustabo. The work was premiered in 1943 and seems wholly outside its time – a beautiful, sustainedly lyrical, wholly tonal work which seems entirely untouched either by the upheavals of the war or, indeed, by any of the major musical developments of the first half of the Twentieth Century. This ‘timeless’ quality is both a strength and a limitation of Wolf-Ferrari’s music.

Most of Wolf-Ferrari’s operas have had decent modern recordings, as have such works as the Cello Concerto. The wind concertos and the Serenade for String Orchestra. Satisfactory recordings of Wolf-Ferrari’s chamber music are, however, rather less abundant. The Deutsches Steichtrio recorded (on CPO) a CD of Wolf-Ferrari’s trios and duos for strings, and there is an interesting (and pleasing) 2-CD set (on DGM) which contains performances of his Piano trios (opp. 5 & 7), Piano Quintet (op.6) and String Quintet (op. 24), played by the Munchner Klaviertrio and the Leopolder Quartett, with Wolfgang Sawallisch contributing from the piano stool. But given the relative paucity of recordings of Wolf-Ferrari’s chamber music, it is a particular pleasure to welcome this new CD from violinist Davide Alogna and pianist Costantino Catena, both because there is some fine music here and because the three compositions effectively span the whole of Wolf-Ferrari’s musical career, the first quartet being one of his very earliest compositions and the third being written just five years before his death.

The first of the three violin sonatas – the first work to which Wolf-Ferrari gave an opus number – has a first movement (marked Sostenuto – Allegro appassionato quasi presto) which sustains a powerful emotional intensity throughout its two sections. The shorter second movement alternates and contrasts some chordal writing for the piano (which has some chorale-like affinities) with more lyrical, even declamatory passages for the violin. In his booklet notes pianist Costantino Catena uses the term recitative about the movement and writes of how “its lyricism, combined with moments of solemnity, makes us catch a glimpse of what will be some of the main characteristics of the composer’s music”. While it would be an oversimplification to say that in this one movement we hear both the German and the Italian sides of Wolf-Ferrari’s personality, such a statement is not without a certain truthfulness. The closing movement opens forcefully on the piano and there is, to borrow another word from Costantino Catena, a certain “theatricality” to the way in which emotions and ideas are explored in the rest of the movement. This first sonata deploys many subtle and striking tone colours and is an impressive piece of work for a nineteen-year-old who had only quite recently chosen to devote himself to music rather than the visual arts. Certainly, it has, to my ears, an attractive freshness and even a somewhat innocent directness.

Written some six years later, the second sonata doesn’t very obviously merit the title of ‘sonata’. It is in two movements, neither of which is in sonata form. But leaving aside such terminological questions, it contains some striking music, even if it is, in Altmann’s phrase (see above), “a loosely constructed work”. The second is the more interesting and satisfying of the two movements combining, as it does (rather like the second movement of the first sonata) an air of almost religious solemnity with a decidedly Italianate lyricism, before it reaches a calm and untroubled conclusion. The first movement, on the other hand, in which Wolf-Ferrari seems to be striving after a more ‘advanced’ musical language which didn’t come naturally to him, becomes rather fragmented and self-contradictory on several occasions.

Wolf-Ferrari’s third sonata for violin and piano was not written until 1943. This time the work is in four movements. It shares some qualities with the early first sonata discussed above – its third movement (agitato con passione) shares a mood with the second section (allegro appassionato) of that first sonata’s opening movement. But it also has a larger sense of scale and greater variety. That is particularly evident in the first movement of the op. 27 sonata which, while finding room for some of that moving quasi-operatic lyricism which was one of the hallmarks of Wolf-Ferrari’s instrumental music, also finds space for some passages which Catena justly describes as fugati (i.e. in the manner of a fugue, without being strictly fugal). Wolf-Ferrari clearly hadn’t forgotten his Munich lessons in counterpoint with Josef Rheinberger. Very different is the second movement which fully lives up to the marking in the score ‘Andantino con innocenza’; though only just over four minutes long, this is a piece of real beauty, endowed with a simplicity that entirely justifies the use of the word ‘innocenza’. The sonata’s fourth and last movement is thematically linked to the opening movement; it is music of fire and drive, though it also finds time for more reflective passages and, again, for some quasi-fugal writing. Until I first played this recording, I hadn’t heard this third of Wolf-Ferrari’s violin sonatas and I have much enjoyed making its acquaintance. I am sure that I shall hear more and more in it on future hearings.

Throughout, Davide Alogna (playing a Testore violin of 1715) and Costantino Catena prove persuasive advocates for this neglected music. Their partnership is well-balanced and their reading of these three sonatas respects their qualities without giving into any temptation to make excessive claims for them. The recorded sound is entirely satisfactory.

An online review by Mattia Rossi of an earlier Brilliant CD of music by Wolf-Ferrari, the Trio Arché’s recording of his two piano trios (BC 95624), included two quotations that seem equally apt in this context. One comes from a letter of 1936, which Wolf-Ferrari wrote to his younger contemporary (he was born in 1885), the composer Adriano Lualdi (now more comprehensively forgotten than Wolf-Ferrari himself): “Bisogna riaffermare il concetto di Bellezza in arte” (‘It is imperative to reaffirm the concept of beauty in art.’ My translation). The second – from Max Reger – comes in Rossi’s closing paragraph: “Le magia della musica di Wolf-Ferrari è la sua straordinaria opulenza in un contesto eppur così semplice. E questa fu la carratteristica del compositore italiano più ammirata dai suoi colleghi d’oltralpe. Perfino di un gigante quale Max Reger che gli scrisse ‘Tu possiedi qualcosa che nessuno dì noi possiede: la semplicità’.” (‘The magic of Wolf-Ferrari’s music is its extraordinary opulence within such a simple context. And this was the characteristic of the Italian composer which was most admired by his colleagues across the Alps. Even by a giant like Max Reger who wrote to him: “You have something that none of us have: simplicity”.’ My translation).

Glyn Pursglove



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