Monday, 17 February 2014

Francesco La Vecchia and the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma give excellent performances of attractive orchestral works by Alfredo Catalani on a new release from Naxos

Naxos  are doing much to raise the profile of lesser known Italian composers with their 19th/20th Century Italian Classics series with composers as diverse as Franco Alfano,  Alfredo Casella, Franco Ferrara, Giorgio Federico Ghedini, Luigi Mancinelli, Saverio Mercadante, Goffredo Petrassi, Ildebrando Pizzetti, Nino Rota, Giovanni Sgambati, and Camillo Togni.

Alfredo Catalani (1854-1893, who is the subject of a new release from Naxos, is probably best remembered for his operas Loreley (1890) and La Wally (1892), though even those works will not be familiar to many people. Born in Lucca, Italy, Catalani studied at the Conservatory of Milan under Antonio Bazzini (1818-1897). He had support from Toscanini but his premature death from tuberculosis cut short his career.

As well as opera, Catalani wrote a number of orchestral works of which five appear on this new disc, including two world premiere recordings. The Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma  is conducted by their Artistic and Musical Director, Francesco La Vecchia , who have been responsible for many of the performances in this series.

The first work on this new disc is the Symphonic Poem, Ero e Leandro (Hero and Leander) (1884) based on the Greek myth of Hero, a priestess of Aphrodite,  who dwelt in a tower in Sestos on the European side of the Dardanelles, and Leander, a young man from Abydos on the opposite side of the strait.  Hero lights a lamp at the top of her tower to guide Leander’s way but after making love to her he is eventually drowned. This work was first performed at La Scala in 1885.

The symphonic poem opens with repeated orchestral chords before woodwind and brass appear in a rising and falling sea motif that is developed by the rest of the orchestra. There is a transparency of texture reminiscent of Mendelssohn as, slowly the music develops becoming powerful and even violent before subsiding with a lovely woodwind passage. There are hints of Wagner but Catalani seems to have forged his own style out of many varied influences. Eventually the music comes to a sudden halt before there is a horn call and timpani strokes indicating the death of Leander and the orchestra quietly moves on, soon becoming enlivened and building to a stormy vivacissimo section that leads to the emphatic coda with pizzicato strings to end.

Catalani’s short Scherzo (1878) was first performed in Paris in 1878. Strings open this happy, light and transparent work, full of varying rhythms that are most attractive.

The even shorter Andantino (1871?) is opened by an oboe, soon followed by a flute in this distinctive work that shows, despite the Wagnerian tonal pallet of Ero e Leandro, how far from the weightier German orchestra he was. There are light and transparent textures with a lovely, flowing melody. The work builds to a climax midway and in the coda there are some lovely orchestral textures woven by Francesco La Vecchia and his orchestra.

Contemplazione (1878) was also performed in Paris and opens with a lovely flowing melody for strings with a subtle pulse added by the double basses. The way Catalani shares the theme around the orchestra adds so much colour and texture. Part way through, the music builds in passion and drama before falling back to the restrained nature of its opening. This is a beautifully structured work.

Il Mattino ‘Sinfonia romantica’ (1874) is one of three symphonic works by Catalani. At just under fifteen minutes, Catalani’s single movement symphony has larger ambitions than the preceding works on this disc. Opening with hushed strings, oboes and clarinets enter as a swaying theme gradually gains momentum. The orchestra develops the theme over the tremolando violins but, before long, a livelier section arrives, more positive in feel. There is a little rising motif that leads to a quieter section but soon, aided by brass, the music grows more dynamic before falling to a broader melodic idea. As the work progresses, Mendelssohn is again brought to mind in the writing for strings. There are a number of little climaxes punctuated by attractive orchestral detail before the music finally builds to a sustained climax over tremolando strings leading to the coda where two pizzicato notes conclude the work.

Francesco Vecchia and the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma are excellent and do much to add to the attractions of this disc, which is nicely recorded at the OSR Studios in Rome. There are excellent booklet notes making this an interesting and attractive release well worth exploring.

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