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Robert R. Reilly, November 2010

The restoration of 20th-century Italian non-operatic music continues apace, with the Naxos release of Franco Alfano’s Cello Sonata and the Concerto for Violin, Cello and Piano (8.570928). This is gorgeous chamber music, full-throated, declamatory, characterful, and moving. The Concerto is supposed to be more neoclassical than the romantic Cello Sonata, but it is so imbued with feeling that it does not strike me as neoclassical at all. This release makes me eager to hear Alfano’s three String Quartets and his Quintet for Piano and Strings.

Glyn Pursglove
MusicWeb International, June 2010

Both these works were new to me and both have given me a good deal of pleasure since I made their acquaintance…Franco’s instrumental music largely awaits reassessment—a process to which this Naxos CD will surely make an important contribution…The earlier of the two works on the present disc, the Sonata for Cello and Piano, is an impressive piece, particularly in the way it exploits something like the full range of the cello’s tonal colours. Running over half an hour in performance, it is a work of some substance. Alfano’s intriguing writing and strong sense of design, along with the fine performance it gets from Samuel Magill and Scott Dunn, mean that it is never in danger of outstaying its welcome. The first movement of the work—one of the many written to a commission from Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge—has a predominantly pensive quality, steeped in a kind of calm nostalgia, but not without spiritual overtones. The central allegretto con grazia makes one think of Ravel at times; it is a movement that has many not-always-easy-to-anticipate twists and turns and some strikingly exotic phrases at times. The closing movement is passionate and full of dark colours on the cello, angry at one moment, more optimistic at another, and finally falling away as if all passion has been spent. The sonata as a whole is a fine work which deserves to be better known. It here gets a performance of sufficient quality to make one hope that it might become so.

I didn’t find the ‘Concerto’, written seven years later, as exciting on a first hearing as the Cello Sonata had proved. But further listenings have revealed a work of considerable subtlety and range, a work which—in its grounding in the reclamation of the Italian past, musical and otherwise—has things in common with Respighi, though the music of the two composers wouldn’t, I think, be easily confused. The long first movement (‘con dolce malinconia’) echoes the modes of the Renaissance church at its opening, but such reminiscences give way to more turbulent music which one might readily imagine to be the musical translation of a Renaissance tragedy. In the second movement (‘allegretto fantastico’) there are splendid instrumental dialogues, conversations conducted across and around rhythms which appear to owe much to basque and gipsy traditions. The final presto has more than a little of the ceremonial about it; indeed in his very helpful booklet note cellist Samuel Magill declares that it “is clearly a celebration of ancient Rome”. Certainly such an interpretation—though it needn’t limit modern responses to the music—would fit in with the politico-cultural climate in Italy at the time of composition. It was premiered at the Accademia Santa Cecilia in Rome in 1933, with the composer at the piano. This ‘Concerto’ makes considerable technical demands on all three instrumentalists and all those demands are met, and turned to thoroughly musical effect in this fine performance. If you are interested in Italian instrumental music or in the music of late-Romanticism, please don’t fail to hear this impressive disc.

Robert Markow
Fanfare, May 2010

…Alfano has created a worthy addition to the piano trio repertoire, a work that deserves far greater exposure than it currently enjoys. There is also a strong whiff of the sweet lyricism of Fauré, a quality apparent immediately in the affecting opening bars.

The performances are fine and presented with an evident sense of commitment…

Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb International, January 2010

Alfano’s 1925 Cello Sonata was a commission from Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, though its first performance didn’t materialise until three years later in Rome. It’s a big, powerful work written, like the majority of Alfano’s chamber music, on a self-confident and expansive canvas. It’s also deeply expressive, and has strong meditative qualities that make it an intriguing peripheral piece in the cellistic programming armoury. Being Alfano there are also powerfully vocalised melodies as well, as the composer loses no opportunity to explore the full compass of the instrument. Whether Elysian or surly, the first movement is a template of the sonata as a whole—wide-ranging emotively and with virtuosic elements imbued for both instruments. The slow movement is not just the ‘gentle lullaby’ hinted at in the notes because it has its fair degree of eruptive passages—plenty of fast, twitchy writing, and, as ever, mood changeability is omnipresent. The finale is powerful and intense once more. There’s a species of Irish-sounding folk melody coursing through its veins but it falters and ushers in a finale brooding soliloquy. It ends a work of real introspection; in ethos it’s rather late-Debussian, but flecked with hot-house and verismo melodic stamp.

The companion work is the Concerto, which might hint at an allegiance with Chausson, though it’s one that doesn’t fully materialise. What it does share with the latter’s Concerto, at least, is a sense of space, of tension and passionate sweep. In other respects this trio—premiered in 1933—is a bold and extrovert work and offers other succulent pleasures. It’s sinuous, rich in glissandi, tremolandi, and moments of baroque-antique sounding passages, that vie with rich unison playing to titillate the ear. As before Alfano knows how to prepare for, and spin, a potent soliloquy. Above all one admires Alfano’s strong sense of narrative development. He laces the central movement with ‘fantastico’ voicings; leering in part, but hinting at both the folkloric and Ravel as well. The slithery Bacchanal is exemplary in its weirdness. The finale reverts to the columnar glory of ‘Old Rome’—vigorous, exacting and exciting, though the least compelling thematically of the three movements.

This is music that thrives on assertive but subtle musicianship, and fortunately it has a fine match in the Naxos trio, who acquit themselves splendidly. There are no moments of faltering or tentativeness, either with regard to the idiom or technically. With a suitably warm acoustic, this off-beat offering racks up high marks.

Gene Gaudette
Synaphaï: Gene Gaudette’s Blog, December 2009

This is Italian romantic music at its finest, played with passion and commitment and beautifully recorded.

William Zagorski
Fanfare, November 2009

…the music itself, as illustrated by these two chamber works—soft edged, introspective, and quietly luminous in a most Debussian manner. Cellist Samuel Magill, in his liner notes to this release, points out that Alfano was half French (on his maternal side), and spent the years from 1899 until about 1905 in Paris, where he composed light music for the Folies Bergère. It is plain from these two pieces that he soaked up the atmosphere and found it most congenial. The earlier of these two works, the Cello Sonata, was commissioned in 1928 by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. It is a tour de force in its exploitation of the cello’s full compass and coloristic possibilities. The high A-string writing makes it seem a super violin, and the use of harmonics in combination with quiet sustaining pedaled piano figurations creates moments that would have made both Ravel and Debussy proud. It is a long and discursive work that opens serenely, as if to say “I will reveal a great mystery,” and then travels from the elementally abstract toward the more and more intelligible; unfathomable mystery gives way to unbridled passion, and then to a moment of sublime peace.

The Concerto for Violin, Cello, and Piano of 1932 is similar to the Cello Sonata, but given the third instrument, the violin, it is richer in tonal possibilities. Its opening revealing a kinship with Renaissance polyphony, indeed farther back than that, shows how easily those languages can dovetail into that of the French Impressionists. Alfano, like Bruckner and Brahms, was an antiquarian. In both of these works, Debussy’s idea that pure sonority should be an element of music equal with melody, harmony, and rhythm, is writ large.

All three performers are excellent and play with razor-edged accuracy, passion, and insight in these two world-premiere recordings. The recording…reveals everything, as if under a microscope. The piano, however, is splendidly registered throughout.

Julian Haylock
The Strad, November 2009

Franco Alfano (1875–1954) composed a large number of piano and orchestral pieces, several operas (including Cyrano de Bergerac [Naxos 2.110270]) and a number of major chamber works, including three string quartets. Yet despite his considerable prowess as a composer in his own right, he is still principally remembered as the man who completed Puccini’s final opera, Turandot. [Naxos 8.660089–90]

Listening to these hauntingly beautiful scores it seems barely credible that Alfano’s music could have fallen into such unwarranted neglect. Middle-period Ravel would appear to be the Italian’s stylistic launch pad, most unmistakably in the laid-back central movements of both the Cello Sonata and triple chamber concerto, although the music’s passing modal inflections owe at least as much to the epic ‘ancient’ style of Respighi and (rather later) Rózsa.

Pianophiles will no doubt already be familiar with Scott Dunn’s outstanding Naxos recordings of Foss and Duke, while long-time Metropolitan Opera principals Elmira Darvarova and Samuel Magill sound no less captivated by these expertly written scores. Darvarova produces a silky-smooth, voluptuous sound ideal for the concerto’s meticulous opulence, while Magill’s husky, dark timbre matches the Cello sonata’s yearning intensity to perfection. The discreetly balanced studio recording allows the players’ impassioned advocacy full rein without resorting to sonic spotlighting.

David W Moore
American Record Guide, November 2009

The concerto is really a trio; there is no orchestra, but the rich sonorities do sometimes suggest larger forces. The cello sonata is actually richer and more emotionally satisfying. Collectors of the unusual will find this well-played program a satisfying investment; and those who would like more romantic music in their collections will be happy with it, too.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, August 2009

Franco Alfano, the name forever linked with the completion of Puccini’s opera, Turandot, a task he foolishly took on and in so doing almost blinded himself poring over the sketches Puccini had made. To that point he had enjoyed a good career as pianist, teacher and composer, his greatest triumph coming with Risurrezione, an opera that has enjoyed much popularity in Italy. Then came the debacle of the Turandot assignment. The great conductor, Arturo Toscanini, had been engaged for the premiere, and in rehearsal rejected much of Alfano’s ending, and on the opening night walked out of the orchestra pit at the moment that completion began. The composer’s reputation was shattered and it assured the demise of his music following his death in 1954. The year before that disaster in 1926, he composed the Cello Sonata to a commission from the American musical philanthropist, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, a large-scale three movement score opening in sensual and romantic mood. Pizzicato brings a feel of mischief to the central movement, with a finale full of passion as the cello becomes increasingly agitated. The Double Concerto was completed eight years later when he had begun to embrace the era represented by Kodaly and Bartok. It creates an interesting dialogue between the three instruments, and if you delight in the era of Szymanowski, then I am sure you will find much to enjoy here, the Concerto’s finale (track 3) being an ideal sampling point. Robust performance of the Sonata from the American-based cello of Samuel Magill, and who is later joined by violinist, Elmira Darvarova, and the pianist, Scott Dunn, to produce some seductive sounds in the more relaxed moments of the Concerto. Well balanced sound, but I have heard a better piano sound from Naxos.

Bob McQuiston
Classical Lost and Found, July 2009


If asked who Naples-born Franco Alfano (1875–1954) was, most knowledgeable classical music lovers would reply that he’s the guy who completed Puccini’s (1858–1924)Turandot, and leave it at that! But he was also an extremely well educated man (he studied in Leipzig with Solomon Jadassohn), who was highly regarded as a teacher, and a very talented composer to boot! In fact he wrote several successful operas in addition to a very distinguished body of chamber music, some of which we’re treated to here.

The first work on this informatory release is a three-movement piano trio dating from 1932 that Alfano called a concerto, probably because of the virtuosic demands made on each of the soloists. With a neoclassical simplicity similar to that of Pizzetti’s (1880–1968) Concerto dell-estate the Alfano is in three stylistically diverse movements. The first, which is the longest and lasts almost as long as the last two combined, is an affecting modal rumination with possible religious overtones, and an austerity like that found in sacred Renaissance music.

The next, an allegretto fantastico, features a fetching combination of Basque as well as Magyar folk elements, and ends on a mystical note. The final presto, which is the most modern sounding of the three, is celebratory, ending this unusual trio with what could pass for a Roman triumph. Maybe it reflects the pressures being placed on Italian artists by the Fascisti in the 1930s to be patriotic and extol things related to the motherland.

Next up, a sonata for cello and piano that was composed in 1925 on a commission from American music patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge (1864–1953). When you hear it you’ll have to agree it’s right up there with the chamber music written for her by the likes of Béla Bartók (1881–1945), Sir Arthur Bliss (1891–1975), Benjamin Britten (1913–1976) and Sergei Prokofiev (1891–1953). Lasting over half an hour, it’s not only a significant but substantial contribution to the cello literature. There’s an emotional straightforwardness in keeping with the verismo style of opera that was all the rage at the time, while harmonically speaking, it’s linked to the world of Debussy (1862–1918) and Ravel (1875–1937).

Extremely demanding technically, its three movements explore all the cello’s tonal facets. The opening lento is impressionistically wistful and seems a nostalgic remembrance of treasured times long gone by. The allegretto that follows is a refreshing change of pace with an oriental exoticism. It lulls the ear into a relaxed state soon to be banished by the anxiety-ridden tragic finale. Be advised that repeated listening is a prerequisite for full appreciation of this emotionally complex piece!

Our soloists here, violinist Almira Darvarova, cellist Samuel Magill and pianist Scott Dunn are terrific. In addition to being technically gifted, they have the full measure of these two rarely heard, but extremely cultivated Italian finds. One can only hope they’ll again join forces in the not too distant future to bring us more of the same. Bravo!

The recordings are superb and deliver a generous virtual soundstage stage that emphasizes the sincerity and emotional depth of this little known chamber music. The instrumental timbre is perfect across the entire frequency spectrum, a fact helped by a warm venue. The recording engineers are to be complimented for using microphones that faithfully captured each of the instruments, and for a setup and final mix that achieved a perfect balance between them.

Franco Sciannameo, College of Fine Arts
Carnegie Mellon University, July 2009

In his New Grove’s entry on Franco Alfano (1875–1954), leading authority on 20th-Century Italian music John CG Waterhouse added the composer’s name to those of Pizzetti, Malipiero, Casella, and Respighi, the “traditional” quadrumvirate that identified the fathers of Italian modern music. With that acknowledgement, Waterhouse administered theoretical and critical justice to Alfano’s artistic creativity, which for too long had been confined exclusively to Alfano’s lauded and criticized completion of Puccini’s Turandot.

Musicologists’ re-evaluations or re-discoveries usually go sterile unless attentive performers “listen” to their calling and sacrifice time and effort for causes which may or may not bring them due reward. The present Naxos CD, dedicated to Franco Alfano’s chamber music, stands at the pinnacle of a fortunate synergy between scholarship and performance practice as it indeed combines great discovery, excellent music, and superlative performance.

The two world premiere recordings comprising this disc, Concerto for Violin, Cello and Piano (1932) and Sonata for Cello and Piano (1925), were particularly dear to Franco Alfano. A gifted pianist, Alfano participated in the performance of these works as often as he could, searching for refuge in their intimate thoughts in contrast to the magniloquent and omnivorous world of opera in which he also excelled. Resurrezione (1904), La leggenda di Sakuntala (1921), and Cyrano de Bergerac (1936) are titles still in the operatic repertoire. They never fail to marvel audiences and critics alike and then they make listeners wonder about Alfano’s symphonic and chamber music. This recording is aimed at satisfying such curiosity.

Concerto for Violin, Cello and Piano begins in the spirit of a new Italian style characterized by severity, formal asceticism, and neo-Renaissance qualities, which Alfano subtly transforms into a melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic language that oscillates between the Iberian harmonic world of Joaquin Turina and the lyrical counterpoint of Ernest Bloch. This concerto, in effect a traditional piano trio, is very approachable in both form and content, making an excellent overture to the following more complex Sonata for Cello and Piano.

This sonata bears at first Ravel’s imprint especially in the tip-toeing, bluesy second movement. However, the piece blossoms into its own full bloodied, passionate development, which concludes with an epilogue of extreme emotional delicacy.

The music heard in this disc is far removed from both verismo opera and the angular modernistic models proposed by Casella and Malipiero. Its essentially cosmopolitan style reminds the listener about tonal patches heard in the works of Turina, Bloch, Delius, Bridge, and Arnold Bax, however, in Alfano’s music there is always a strong creative individuality hidden deep down that only great performers can bring to the fore; such is the great value of this disc.

Pianist Scott Dunn, violinist Elmira Darvarova, and cellist Samuel Magill, who takes the lion’s share of the program, are artists of the first order who have challenged themselves with music of great beauty never recorded before. One would love to hear them perform Alfano’s Sonata for Violin and Piano, the Piano Quintet and his three string quartets.

Naxos deserves great credit for releasing such an exemplary recording.

Ralph Lockwood, Professor of Music Emeritus, School of Music, Arizona State University, July 2009

The dark side of the moon of my musical knowledge—“luna incognita”—was brought into lush audibility and relief by the premiere recording (presented by Naxos) of very captivating music by Franco Alfano (1875–1954).

Featuring an elegantly expressive and superbly matched ensemble of eloquent artists.

Now that the “eclipse” (at least in my consciousness—perhaps in the world of music’s as well) of the Naples-born Alfano is ended, my own sleuthing for more of his music will gleefully begin, aided immeasurably by the excellent liner notes by Samuel Magill.

Musical sleuthing is a time honored profession; think Groves’ unearthing of Schubert’s 9th symphony, and Mendelssohn’s resuscitation of J.S. Bach’s oeuvre. Now, Naxos and Samuel Magill bring us to a new appreciation of a magnificent Italian colorist who bridged the last two centuries.

In general, Alfano’s music touched many resonances for me. It is full blooded, sanguine, direct and appealing, like a mature Chianti—not too sweet, but with no raw or rough unfinished overtones. It is too facile, and perhaps fatuous, to dismiss Alfano’s music as “derivative;” despite many antecedents ( and what composer has no roots?) he succeeds in finding his own voice—unique, with a style all his own. I found myself smiling and nodding at the ripe logic of his musical gestures and turns of phrase. Sometimes playful, sometimes serene, plaintive, passionate, wistful but NEVER anodyne.

The CD opens with the Concerto for violin, violoncello and piano from 1932. If this Trio of performers is an ad hoc ensemble, their burnished amalgam of real communication demonstrated the kind of seasoned naturalness that only time, like-mindedness, and much rehearsal can develop. Surely Santa Cecilia has blessed them herself, and the undertaking of un-eclipsing Alfano.

Ms Darvarova and Mr Magill share the same bowing incipit and rich-toned singing quality. Equal partners in stylistic unity, they match phrase by phrase and spin the kind of web of emotive variety that makes for real magic.

Scott Dunn sings, too, at the keyboard (not an easy thing to accomplish!), and brings rare sensitivity and a real understanding of how to balance without over, or under playing. Their collaboration is a true tripartitenership! ( what’s a neologism between friends)! Surely these musicians ARE friends, and they LIKE Alfano’s music. It shows, glows, and convinces me.

The earlier (1925) Sonata for Violoncello and piano is a “major” masterpiece from, a soon-to-be-less “minor” composer. A gift to (virtuoso) cellists; this Sonata has it all, and Mr. Magill gives it his all.

Sumptuously played with unerring instinct for variety and tonal warmth from sobs to laughs, Alfano gives the cello and piano (Alfano’s instrument) a magnificent opportunity to demonstrate all that they can encompass. Played by Messrs. Magill and Dunn, this Sonata was a revelation. May it give rise to a rebirth in interest in Franco Alfano, and my sincere hope is that many more will listen and rediscover this somewhat eclipsed master.

This CD is a winner on all counts, so thanks to Naxos for ending the eclipse, and let the sleuthing for more Alfano continue apace.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group