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8.570567 - PASCULLI: Operatic Fantasias
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Antonio Pasculli (1842–1924)
Operatic Fantasias for Oboe and Piano

 

Antonio Pasculli was among the great virtuosi of the oboe, an instrument for which he wrote music of considerable brilliance, making phenomenal demands on any performer. Born in Palermo in 1842, he embarked on a career as a performer at the age of fourteen, appearing in Italy, Germany and Austria. In 1860, at the age of eighteen, he became professor of oboe and cor anglais at the Palermo Conservatory, where he taught until 1913. His playing career, during which he also appeared with his brother Gaetano, a violinist, came to an end in 1884, when it seemed he might be losing his sight. Pasculli played a boxwood oboe and an eleven-key cor anglais.

As a conductor from 1879 Pasculli directed the Municipal Music Corps in Palermo, insisting that his wind players should also play string instruments, thus enabling the band to tackle a much wider and more adventurous repertoire. The orchestra was disbanded on Pasculli’s retirement in 1913. He outlived his three sons, the youngest of whom was killed in the Great War. Of his six daughters two became harpists.

Pasculli provided himself with virtuoso oboe repertoire in his fantasies on themes from popular operas of his time. These include Donizetti’s La favorita, Poliuto and L’elisir d’amore, Verdi’s I vespri siciliani, Un ballo in maschera and Rigoletto, Bellini’s Il pirata and La sonnambula and Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots. Other compositions for oboe include three Characteristic Studies, including Le Api (The Bees), a Trio Concertante for oboe, violin and piano on themes from Rossini’s William Tell, his Ricordo di Napoli and a transcription of Rode’s Caprices. Other works were written for his band. In his operatic fantasias the thematic material is of less importance than the amazing technical demands made on any player, in ornamentation, cadenzas and other elements of virtuosity. The musical allusions may now be lost, but the technical display remains supreme.

Donizetti wrote his opera Poliuto based on Polyeucte, Corneille’s tragédie chrétienne, in 1838, envisaging the possibility of transforming it into a work for the Paris stage, resulting in the expanded version of the work as Les martyres. The Italian Poliuto was banned in Naples in 1838 and first performed there ten years later, after the composer’s death. Set in third century Armenia, Poliuto is secretly baptized by Nearco. Poliuto’s wife Paolina, once betrothed to the proconsul Severo, has rejected the high priest Callistene, who arouses Poliuto’s jealousy by allowing him to overhear a conversation between her and Severo. The Christian Nearco is captured and condemned to death, refusing to name his most recent convert. Poliuto comes forward and is also imprisoned. In death he is joined by his wife Paolina, herself now embracing the new faith. Pasculli’s Fantasia on the opera Poliuto starts with the theme of the chorus of priests in the temple of Jupiter that opens the second scene of the second act, in which Nearco is interrogated by Callistene and Severo, and also includes Poliuto’s first act D’un’alma troppo fervida, as he prepares for baptism.

Donizetti’s La favorita was first seen in Paris in its original French version in 1840. Set in Spain in the reign of Alfonso XI of Castile the opera finds the novice Ferrando seeking release from his vows, having fallen in love with Leonora, who, although Ferrando does not know it, is the King’s mistress. She arranges a commission for him in the army, where he distinguishes himself, honoured by the King, who is unaware of Ferrando’s relationship with Leonora, revealed to him by a courtier. Ordered by the Church to leave his mistress and return to his Queen, Don Alfonso obeys, and rewards the victorious Ferrando with the hand of Leonora. After their marriage an earlier letter of confession comes to Ferrando, who now understands his disgrace, and casting aside his sword he returns to the monastery, where Leonora, disguised as a novice, follows him, only to die in his arms. Pasculli starts his Concerto on motifs from La favorita with the first act scene in which Fernando is brought blindfold to the island where he is to see Leonora again. He is greeted by Inez, her confidante, and her women with Dolce zeffiro il secondo. Among other themes included is Fernando’s fourth act Spirto gentil.

Verdi’s opera I vespri siciliani (The Sicilian Vespers) was first staged in Paris in 1855 in its original French version. It is set in the year 1282. In the great square in Palermo the occupying French soldiers vaunt their power and force Elena, whose brother has been killed by the French, to sing for them. Her patriotic song rouses the Sicilians, who attack the French, the riot quelled only by the appearance of Monforte (Simon de Montfort). Elena is greeted by Arrigo, released from prison and now offered fame if he will enter Monforte’s service, a suggestion he refuses. Outside the city Procida, a Sicilian patriotic leader, has returned, joined now by Arrigo, with Elena. Arrigo refuses an invitation from Monforte to a ball, and is seized by the French soldiers. Procida suggests to the French that they carry off Sicilian women, aiming, successfully, to rouse the anger of the Sicilians. Monforte learns that Arrigo is his son and the latter at least accompanies him to a grand ball, where conspirators prepare to murder Monforte, presenting Arrigo with a dilemma, divided, as he now is, between loyalty to his newly found father and to his patriotic Sicilian associates. He eventually chooses to shield his father from Procida. The conspirators are seized and imprisoned. Elena and Procida are to be executed, but Monforte offers pardon, if Arrigo will call him father, which he eventually does. In the garden of Monforte’s palace the wedding of Elena and Arrigo is to be celebrated. Procida has prepared another attack on the French, the signal for which, as he tells Elena, will be the ringing of the church bells. She will not betray the plot, but seeks to frustrate it by refusing to marry. Monforte, however, overrules her, the bells are rung and the massacre of the French takes place. Pasculli’s Gran Concerto on themes from the opera includes the barcarolle at the end of Act II, Del piacer s’avanza l’ora, as a galley takes noble guests to the governor’s ball, and Arrigo’s last act Un sol tuo sguardo.

Meyerbeer’s grand opera Les Huguenots was first staged in Paris in 1835, its French libretto later translated into German and into Italian. The Huguenot nobleman Raoul de Nangis is in love with a girl of whose true identity he has no idea. He sees the girl in the garden with his host, the Count de Nevers, but Marguerite de Valois has had the idea of arranging a match between Raoul, a Protestant, and Valentine, the daughter of a Catholic nobleman, in order to solve some of the religious difficulties of France. Brought by Marguerite de Valois’ page to meet Valentine, Raoul rejects the match, thinking her engaged to the Count de Nevers, an imputation resented by her father the Count de Saint-Bris, whose friends, when he is challened by Raoul, resolve to have him killed. Raoul discovers that Valentine had met the Count de Nevers in order to break off her engagement to him. Visiting Valentine he overhears a Catholic plot to massacre their opponents on St Bartholomew’s Day. De Nevers refuses to participate in the plot and is taken prisoner, while Raoul rushes away to warn his friends. He takes refuge with Valentine and his servant Marcel, and all three are killed by the Count de Saint-Bris, unaware that he is killing his own daughter. Pasculli’s Fantasia includes the second act Choeur des baigneuses, Jeunes beautés and, in a very different mood, the urgent Le danger presse of Raoul, as matters come to a head.

Pasculli’s Ricordo di Napoli, Scherzo brillante, opens with a piano introduction, marked Allegro prestissimo, leading to a Largotheme that is increasingly elaborated. A second Neapolitan song is introduced, Allegretto and Con eleganza, which is duly varied before a cadenza and the return of the music of the introduction. This is followed by a further variation, a final scherzando version of the theme, and a conclusion, marked by a prolonged trill before the closing bars.

Keith Anderson


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