Sgambati was born in Rome, the son of an Italian father and English mother. Educated in the ancient town of Trevi in the region of Umbria, he gained early experience as a singer and conductor whilst also writing church music.
In 1860 he settled in Rome where he worked hard to gain an acceptance of German music, then little known in Italy. Remarkably, Beethoven’s Symphony No.3 (The Eroica) did not have a single performance in Italy until 1867. He was supported in his endeavours by Liszt, who was at that time in Rome.
During this time he wrote a quartet, two piano quintets, an octet, and the overture Cola di Rienzo (1866). In the same year as his overture, Sgambati conducted Liszt's Dante Symphony, and, travelling to Munich with Liszt, heard Richard Wagner's music for the first time. His first collection of songs was published in1870 and his Symphony No.1 in D major Op.16 was played at the Palazzo del Quirinale on 28th March 1881.
Sgambatio wrote his Piano Concerto in G minor Op.15 in 1878/80 which he performed during his first visit to England in 1882. His Symphony No. 2 in E flat was written in 1883/85 and his Sinfonia epitalamio was given at the Philharmonic during his second visit to England, in 1891. Sgambati’s largest work, the Messa da Requiem, Op. 38 (1895/1901), was performed in Rome 1901.
Naxos www.naxos.com have just issued a recording of his Overture: Cola di Rienzo and Symphony No.1 in D major Op.16 performed by the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma conducted by Francesco La Vecchia. www.francescolavecchia.com www.orchestrasinfonicadiroma.it
It is a richly varied work, full of interest with a wonderfully transparent orchestration. A slow, quiet, melody opens the overture before woodwind join in, hesitantly playing triplets which are then taken up by the strings as the music grows louder and more decisive. The opening melody returns several times during the course of the overture. The music quickens and so emboldened flows along with a great forward momentum. There are brass interjections, passages for woodwind and muted trumpets before a quiet section with a rich string melody.
A brief passionate climax precedes the return of a variant of the opening theme. The music rises again with woodwind against strings leading to a dramatic section before falling back again with brass playing over the strings. A lighter sounding theme is introduced by a harp leading to music for strings and woodwind that has a balletic feel before building again to a climax. The music falls again before low brass intone a melancholy theme. The brass rises louder intoning the same theme. Clarinets and rippling strings enter with a lovely variant of the original melody in a glorious coda.
Sgambati’s Symphony No.1 in D major Op.16 is a substantial work in five movements, lasting around 43 minutes. The allegro vivace non troppo opens lightly with an attractive flowing melody which is then developed. Such is the variety of treatment by the composer that the ear never becomes jaded. The music is constantly changing with new ideas, variants, instrumental colours and rhythms. During the course of the development we hear attractive variants for clarinet and cellos, then flute and oboe, and then bassoons with the lowers strings. There are occasionally hints of Schumann.
The second movement andante mesto opens on cellos and basses before a slightly Mendelssohnian tune on the woodwind and strings is heard. There is a rising motif, then a section featuring a solo flute before the music eventually broadens out with a great sense of Wagnerian freedom. The opening theme eventually returns on the oboe to end the movement.
There then follows a scherzo: presto full of invention with again that same clarity of orchestration combined with some lovely rhythmic bounce. The music is constantly changing and full of ideas.
The serenata is a lovely creation, opening on the violins, before more strings appear with a hesitant theme. Woodwind and brass quietly enter whilst the violins continue to play a more flowing melody against the hesitant string theme. Eventually the music becomes more expansive in a theme that, oddly, reminded me of the first movement of Edmund Rubbra’s Fourth Symphony written some 60 years later. Later the woodwind and brass join, quietly weaving around the melody. It is the beautiful textures that Sgambati achieves that mark this movement out.
The finale allegro rushes ahead full of purpose yet still with beautifully orchestral detail that is constantly changing the opening motif. A quiet interlude introduces a slower section before the music starts to build again arriving at a broad flowing melody that leads to the wonderfully vibrant coda.
Whilst there is a Germanic undertone to the music there is also a distinctive freshness and breadth to this music that is very appealing. The performances by Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma under Francesco La Vecchia are excellent as is the recording. Let’s hope that Naxos will give us Sgambati’s Second Symphony.