About this Recording
8.573754 - ALFANO, F.: Piano Works - 4 Danses Napolitaines / 4 Danses Roumaines / 5 Danses de Cléo de Mérode / Pax / Nostalgie (Maione)
English  Italian 

Franco Alfano (1875–1954)
Piano Works

 

Franco Alfano, who was born in Posillipo (a hill town overlooking the Bay of Naples) in 1875 and died in San Remo in 1954, was one of the great Italian—and indeed European—composers of the last century. There is a certain bitter irony about the fact that he is largely remembered for the work that turned out to be his greatest misfortune. In 1925, by which time he was one of the best-known composers of his day (the conductor Fritz Reiner, on hearing Alfano’s 1921 operatic masterpiece Sakùntala, had hailed it as ‘the Italian Parsifal’), he was commissioned by Toscanini to complete the third act of Turandot. Puccini had died without finishing his magnificent score—without having found a plausible way of bringing about the emotional thaw experienced by its psychopathic princess when she finds love for the first time. Alfano’s completion is orchestral writing of high quality: the ‘authentic’ third act as he wrote it is well known these days, and is theatrically very effective. Toscanini, however, rejected it on the grounds that it was not faithful to Puccini’s (nonexistent) sketches, and a mutilated, inauthentic ‘Alfano version’ remained in circulation throughout most of the 20th century. And Toscanini may not have been entirely wrong in his judgement, given that Alfano’s compositional process, based on a technique of thematic elaboration that was both more classical and more modern than that of Puccini, distances his writing to a certain extent from the rest of the work, despite all the motivic echoes he so skilfully incorporated into his score.

Alfano was, in fact, one of the leading figures of the 20th-century opera world. His Risurrezione (1904), based on a novel by Tolstoy and wrongly labelled a verista work, established a new style that went beyond that of Puccini and Mascagni. Sakùntala, whose libretto is drawn from a play that Goethe too had wanted to see set to music, is really the final chapter in the story of musical exoticism, simultaneously more complex and more refined than Roussel’s Padmâvatî. With L’ombra di Don Giovanni (1914), a work still suffering from neglect, Alfano had launched himself into the realm of metaphysical drama, imagining the redemption of the libertine hero years before the idea occurred to writers of the late 20th century. And he left a legacy of significant stylistic contributions to opera composition.

His Cyrano (1936) [Naxos 2.110270 / DVD; NBD 005 / Blu-ray video] set much of Rostand’s play to music, in the original language, and is a model of French declamatory style. It has had some success in recent years because its title role has such attractions for any famous tenor, and for its creation of a kind of musical quintessence of 17th-century Paris, surpassing the efforts of any French composer in this respect. Alfano also wrote a comic opera based on Balzac—Madonna Imperia (1927)—and tackled bourgeois realism with Il Dottor Antonio (1949).

In addition to his operatic achievements, Alfano left a body of instrumental works of such high quality that his only equals among Italian composers are Ottorino Respighi, Gino Marinuzzi and Alfredo Casella. His two symphonies (1910 and 1933) are models of formal clarity and instrumentation; his chamber works include a series of masterpieces in which mastery of classical form is combined with a vastness of scope and a truly individual concept of harmony, with touches of both modernity and nostalgia—an original reworking of the model laid down by Fauré, Debussy, Ravel and Schmitt. Those masterpieces include his Violin Sonata (1923), Cello Sonata (1925), Concerto for violin, cello and piano (1929), Piano Quintet (1945) and the String Quartets Nos.1–3 (1918, 1926 and 1943), which represent his closest brushes with the avant-garde, together with his songs to texts by Rabindranath Tagore, even more beautiful than Zemlinsky’s Lyrische Symphonie settings.

Alfano was born to a French mother and was a polyglot, equally at ease in Germany and France. A highly talented pianist, he began his career as a virtuoso soloist—the wonderful collection of works on this album bear eloquent testimony to his understanding and feeling for the instrument—brought out in the technically exceptional and stylistically elegant performances of Orazio Maione. Son of the conductor Rino Maione, who as a young man was a friend of the then elderly composer, the pianist is one of the leading experts on Alfano. While the works featured on this album, most of them in world premiere recordings, help paint a more rounded picture of the composer and his work, I should also like to suggest, if I may, that listeners go in search of the various excellent recordings of Alfano’s chamber music that are, happily, now available (and which were not, it has to be said, made in Italy—no man is a prophet in his own land…!). It is worth noting in this context that while his pianistic idiom is of the highest standard, I have also been asked by both a violinist and a cellist whether Alfano was a virtuoso on their respective instrument.

Some of his early works are tributes to eminent predecessors: the Romanzetta  2  to Mendelssohn, the Fable  3  to Schumann. But the Danses napolitaines [ 5  8 ] need to be seen rather differently. The Neapolitan canzone has no authentic, ethnic folk roots, but is a genre of relatively recent, bourgeois invention. Alfano, however, adopts some of its stylistic elements and transforms it, creating an idealised folk music with a nostalgic feel. The harmony is elegant, the bolder features skilfully concealed, while the major-key sections of these canzoni—for they are closer to that genre than they are to being dances—represent wonderful bursts of light. In all four pieces the piano is transformed into a guitar with such expertise—recreating its sounds rather than imitating them—that it makes one wonder whether Albéniz and, later, Rodrigo, might not have been familiar with them.

We return to ethnic folk music in the marvellous Danses roumaines [ 11  14 ]. It is possible that Alfano, a frequent visitor to Paris, may have met George Enescu, who was just a few years younger than him and who was such a giant of his native Romanian folk traditions. In these strange, wild pieces, with their modal harmony, Alfano certainly proves himself a fine imitator of his Romanian contemporary, and of that other great ethnomusicologist, Béla Bartók, as well as anticipating, in terms of their inventiveness, Zoltán Kodály’s Dances of Galánta. The pieces written for dancer Cléo de Mérode [ 15  19 ], finally, are reminiscent of the refined, neo-Classical vein of Fauré’s Masques et bergamasques. Taken as a whole, this collection of piano works paints the portrait of a composer of international stature—a worthy son of the cosmopolitan city in which he was born.

Paolo Isotta
Translation by Susannah Howe


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