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ClassicsOnline Home » ALFANO, F.: Violin Sonata / Piano Quintet / Nenia and Scherzino (Darvarova, Dunn, M.A. and C. Mumm, Magill)
Alfano’s chamber music is receiving deserved recognition. The Violin Sonata is a powerful and impressive work, with elements of French impressionism, but essentially post-romantic in ethos. The Piano Quintet was Alfano’s last chamber work, premièred in 1946, and a compelling example of his belief in resilient lyricism, as well as a rejection of contemporary atonal music. It teems with imaginative touches, colours and rhythms. The previous release in this series of the Cello Sonata and Concerto for Violin, Cello and Piano (Naxos 8.570928) was praised for its “razor-edged accuracy, passion, and insight.” (Fanfare). Alfano’s opera Cyrano de Bergerac, with Plácido Domingo in the title rôle, is available on Naxos DVD 2.110270 and Blu-ray NBD0005.
Franco Alfano (1875–1954)
Violin Sonata (1923) • Piano Quintet (1945) • Nenia e Scherzino (1936)
The initial source of Alfano’s fame stemmed from his immensely popular operatic adaptation of Tolstoy’s novel Resurrection in 1904, a powerful and moving work in the Puccini-verismo mould. However, like many of his contemporaries, Alfano soon broke away from this style in search of a more advanced musical idiom. This quest resulted in operas such as the lavish and complex La leggenda di Sakùntala (1921), based on the poetry of the Sanskrit writer Kalidasa (400 C.E.), and Cyrano de Bergerac, which initially had its première at the Rome Opera in 1936. Alfano’s short opera, Madonna Imperia, had already been staged at the Metropolitan Opera in 1928. Atmospheric chamber music and symphonies complemented these operas; however, as an art form, they originally lacked an enduring tradition in his native country. In addition, Alfano was also a superb crafter of finely wrought art songs (based on the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore), a gifted concert pianist, and the director of a string of Italian music conservatories, when not serving as artistic director of Palermo’s Teatro Massimo or doubling as stage director.
The unfortunate event, which has had lasting harm on Alfano’s reputation, occurred when he reluctantly accepted the “enormous responsibility” of completing Puccini’s final opera, Turandot, based on the latter’s nearly indecipherable sketches. Following the 1926 première, Toscanini made severe cuts to Alfano’s efforts, thereby lending a distorted view of what he had actually accomplished. Months of effort led to a near loss of vision from an ocular infarction due to the mental and emotional strain. Despite this overshadowing relationship with Turandot, Alfano, like many of his contemporaries, is only now beginning to enjoy a long awaited and deserved renaissance, affording listeners and operatic audiences the opportunity to rediscover worthy compositions filled with intensely emotional lyricism and finely wrought orchestrations. The day when Turandot is no longer mentioned in connection with Alfano will be the day when this composer finally comes into his own. It is time for a re-appraisal.
Alfano’s works may be roughly divided into three completely separate styles: melodic Italian verismo up until the opera Il Principe Zilah (1909), followed by a violent call to modernism and well-planned break with Puccini and the Giovane Scuola in the experimental L’ombra di Don Giovanni (1914) and, finally, from La Leggenda di Sakùntala on, a meshing of both. Alfano had always been intensely interested in orchestral innovation, something his native Italy did not afford him the opportunity to learn. His studies in Leipzig helped him realise, however, that mastering the necessary technical abilities required autodidactic training rather than pure academia. Thus, his entire career translated into an unremitting search for what he conceived to be the perfect synthesis of music and expression. Indeed, his understanding of the mechanics of music was so thorough that he wrote a manual on orchestration. This is the reason, perhaps, why he lent equal importance to myriad forms of music—operatic, orchestral, chamber, and a cornucopia of lieder—a claim that the overriding majority of his Italian contemporaries could not make.
It is in the chamber music, however, that we find an even more intimate Alfano. A purity of form and an inspiration bordering on tonal philosophy is as prevalent here as it is in most of the composer’s oeuvre, culminating in a sensitive, intimate, dignified, consoling, and intensely human sound. Repeated hearings are perhaps the key when approaching his abrupt rhythmic changes, as well as for discovering recurring themes woven into a seamless pattern. The Sonata for Violin and Piano, for example, contains intermittent touches of a translucent French impressionism (he admired Debussy, Ravel and Dukas) and exemplifies Alfano’s masterful instrumental writing. Offering a virtuoso violin performance, the work relates an intriguing dialogue while generating a sumptuous texture that, with a less gifted composer, would require additional instruments. The work’s essentially exotic post-romanticism is a continuation of influences previously inherent in La Leggenda di Sakùntala. Given its première in 1924 (revised 1933), the Sonata for Violin and Piano presents elegiac echoes in an aural landscape imbued with almost unbearably poignant writing for the violin that, in its yearning, remains remarkably vivid.
Both the wistful and Slavic sounding Nenia and the immensely charming and appealing Scherzino (transcribed for violin and piano by Enrico Pierangeli in 1935 from the composer’s vocalizzi nello stile moderno of 1933) mark a return to memorable lyricism in their forthright, fresh, and less complex manner (Nenia later re-appeared in a version for concertina). Alfano’s eclecticism in the pieces results, in part, because of his international heritage (French mother/Italian father), his studies in Germany, and time spent in a great many additional countries, including Russia. Although criticism can be raised that, like Boito, he was “a victim of his own great culture”, Alfano manages to imbue all of his works with his own personal style. Regardless of what this enlightened composer wrote, one feels the presence of greatness; an intriguing enigma confronting the listener upon hearing any of his compositions.
Finally, the compelling Quintet (given its première in Turin with Alfano at the piano on 10 April 1946), heralds a return to an earlier approach, serving as a distinct reaction to Italy’s modernist tendencies. In this, his last endeavour at chamber music, Alfano harboured a vehement reaction against atonal and dodecaphonic music. He was unable to admire any form of music that failed to be a tonal expression of “authentic beauty”. With advancing age, Alfano, once an ardent adherent of avant-gardism, now sought a compromise that, similar to Richard Strauss following Elektra, heralded a musical retrogression marking the autumn of his life (traces are to be found in his opera of the period, Doctor Antonio). Despite great personal misfortune, including the loss of his wife, and the horrific effects of World War II, Alfano, in the Quintet, becomes his own symbol of enduring positivism in the guise of a triumphantly resilient Falstaffian phoenix. The somewhat nostalgic glance back at the art deco of his youth is immediately apparent with the regal and pensive opening chords of the first movement, an impression heightened by the violin’s exquisite sensual lyricism. The contagious and irresistible joy of the teasing and jazz-inspired second movement finally gives way to a third movement marked by a finale containing traces of fin de siècle orientalism. The Quintet exudes the sheer joy of music making. Alfano hoped the work would enter the concert repertory at the earliest occasion. Let us hope that it has now finally done so.
Dr Konrad Dryden is author of the recent monograph Franco Alfano: Transcending Turandot as well as Ruggiero Leoncavallo, Life and Works and Riccardo Zandonai, A Biography.
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