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ClassicsOnline Home » MERCADANTE, S.: Flute Concertos Nos. 1, 2 and 4 (P. Gallois, Sinfonia Finlandia Jyväskylä)
Saverio Mercadante was one of Italy’s ground-breaking composers in the development of opera, admired by contemporaries such as Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini and Verdi. But during the years 1814 to 1820, inspired by fellow conservatoire students and their virtuoso teachers, he embarked on a series of works for the flute. They include seven concertos, happy exceptions to the rule in opera-obsessed Italy of the day. The solo writing is vividly characterised, full of technical demands perfectly adapted to the instrument’s then more limited capabilities and permeated with a rich bel canto lyricism.
Saverio Mercadante (1795–1870)
Flute Concertos Nos 1, 2 and 4
Saverio Mercadante was born in 1795 in the southern Italian town of Altamura. Between 1808 and 1819 he studied the violin, cello, bassoon, clarinet and flute, as well as composition (under Giovanni Furno, Giacomo Tritto and Nicola Zingarelli), at the conservatory of Naples, then known as the Royal College of Music. In 1816, having shown early signs of a talent for the art, he made his public début as a conductor, giving a series of concerts whose programmes featured some of his own works. He was praised by Rossini during a visit the latter made to the conservatory in 1817, and two years later was commissioned to write an opera for the Teatro San Carlo in Naples. The resulting work, L’apoteosi di Ercole, was given its première to considerable acclaim, and his burgeoning reputation as a star of the opera world was assured in 1821 by the triumphant première of his Elisa e Claudio at La Scala, Milan. In 1823 Mercadante was appointed musical director of the Teatro San Carlo and the following year undertook a tour of several European capitals, including Madrid, where in 1826 he accepted the post of director of music at the Italian Opera. He was to stay in the Iberian peninsula until 1830, working in both Lisbon and Cadiz as well as Madrid. His European travels continued into the early 1830s then, in 1833, he was appointed maestro di cappella of Novara Cathedral. He remained there until 1840, when he took up the directorship of the Naples Conservatory, a rôle he held until his death in 1870 (he continued composing to the end, despite having lost his sight in 1862). His more than sixty operas make up the most sizeable section of his catalogue, followed by his sacred music, and then the instrumental works, both orchestral and chamber. He earned the appreciation and admiration of eminent contemporaries (Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini and Verdi), as we know from his surviving and voluminous correspondence, and was seen by many critics as a major figure in the development of Italian opera.
In a period of around six years (1814–1820) Mercadante wrote a large number of instrumental works featuring a central rôle for the flute—music that was, without doubt, a happy exception to the rule in the opera-obsessed Italy of the day. Notable among these pieces were six concertos for solo flute and one for two flutes, several sinfonia concertantes for wind instruments, and various other chamber works, including the Three Quartets for flute, clarinet, horn and bassoon, Op 50 (1813), fifteen quartets for flute, violin, viola and cello (1813–18) and a trio for flute, violin and guitar (1816). The young composer’s interest in the flute, an instrument which at that time had yet to be fully technically developed, stemmed from his everyday life at the conservatory, where he was mixing with virtuoso teachers and fellow students—the best players around—from whom he could draw inspiration. These flautists included Pasquale Buongiorno, dedicatee of several of Mercadante’s compositions, and Sergio Nigri, both of whom became long-term members of the Teatro San Carlo’s orchestra and are seen as the founding fathers of the Neapolitan flute school. When they and Mercadante were students at Naples Conservatory, the curriculum placed considerable emphasis on instrumental music, seen as one of the keys to reforming the education system. To this end the institution had adopted study plans and teaching methods derived from the French school, and had established close bonds with its opposite number in Milan, thereby enabling the exchange of materials. It also programmed seasons of instrumental music in which the more advanced students would participate, as both performers and composers.
Mercadante’s Flute Concerto No 2 in E minor, Op 57, was written in 1814. Scored for “large orchestra”, the concerto was reworked by its composer several times, for at least three different kinds of ensemble. The original conception was presumably that for “quartet for terzino [soprano/tierce flute] with violin, viola and cello accompaniment”; a second version became the Quartet No 1, Op 53 of 1813; the third is Op 57 itself, the 1814 arrangement for large orchestra; and we also have a transcription labelled “Concerto in E flat for solo flute and ‘picciola orchestra’ ”, date unknown, but probably after 1830, which was realised by a copyist named Giannini, whose name appears on many of the Mercadante manuscripts held by the Naples Conservatory library.
The composer was obviously particularly fond of this piece, and performers and audiences must surely have shared his affection for it as well. Its solo writing is demanding and virtuosic, and well adapted to the instrument’s technical capabilities. The Op 57 orchestral forces include sizeable wind and brass sections (pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns and trumpets, and trombone), proof of the composer’s enthusiasm for and mastery of orchestration.
Mercadante’s music in general is notable for its melodic inspiration and bel canto style, aspects that come to the fore here, not only in the Largo, but also at various points in the faster movements either side of it, providing an effective contrast to the more acrobatic writing and brighter rhythms. In the Allegro maestoso, the most demanding of the movements from a formal point of view, orchestral interludes separate three substantial passages in which the soloist is called on to play all kinds of embellishments, high-speed passages (including octave leaps, extended chromatic passages, ascending and descending scales of several octaves and arpeggios) and a wide variety of rhythmic patterns (irregular groupings, repeated and prolonged syncopations, unusual articulations with displaced accents), and to employ the whole range of notes available to the flute. The orchestra is slimmed down while the soloist is playing, but its full forces are used in the introductory, intermediary and concluding sections. The Rondò russo finale, still very much a favourite among flautists today, not only reveals the composer’s love of dance, but is a one-off in terms of its inspiration: Mercadante creates a Russian flavour by means of frequent and effective shifts between major and minor, and by the thematic quality developed within its rondo-sonata structure.
One of a number of exercises and compositions contained in an 1816 notebook, the Fourth Concerto in G is evidence of Mercadante’s continuing interest in the solo flute. By this time one of the conservatory’s more advanced students, he was receiving composition lessons from its director, Zingarelli. Here again the characteristic features of his talent and inventiveness can be heard: the lively melodic vein, clarity of structure, and virtuoso acrobatics for the soloist. As well as the strings, the orchestra also comprises flute, two oboes, two clarinets and two horns, the latter used intermittently.
No tempo indication is given for the first movement, but it is reasonable to think of it as another Allegro maestoso. Structurally, it follows the same pattern as the equivalent Op 57 movement: the orchestra introduces, links and concludes, leaving the soloist to state the main themes and indulge in virtuosic display. Similarly, in the Largo espressivo the orchestra intervenes in the opening and closing sections, while the strings alone provide harmonic and rhythmic support to the lyrical flute line, whose wealth of bel canto flourishes are interspersed with more tranquil passages. The third movement is a Polacca brillante (a Mercadante favourite), in which the soloist plays from the start, in the first of no fewer than five entries, one of which (the second) introduces a new theme and another (the fourth) sees a modulation to the minor. These five sections alternate with four brief orchestral interludes, reduced in both scale and significance.
The title-page of the Flute Concerto No 1, Op 49, gives both its date of composition, 1813, and the name of its dedicatee, Mercadante’s fellow student Pasquale Buongiorno, here dubbed a “famous dilettante”. Buongiorno became a member of staff at the Naples Conservatory in 1820, joined the Teatro San Carlo orchestra in 1827, and wrote a number of works for the flute himself.
The eighteen-year-old Mercadante scored his First Flute Concerto for a substantial ensemble, including a large wind section, and wrote a solo part whose intensely demanding nature persists throughout all three movements (Allegro maestoso, Largo, Polacca brillante), including the orchestral passages. To highlight the flute’s capabilities, he again employs a range of virtuosic techniques (octave leaps, arpeggios with varied articulation, scales, doubling of the melody in either the upper or lower register), as well as paring down the orchestration during the solo episodes. After the challenges of the opening Allegro, the Largo unfolds into an extended piece of bel canto coloratura writing, as the original melodic line is continually varied and embellished. The Polacca brillante finale comprises three significant solo episodes interwoven, sometimes in unconventional manner, with orchestral interludes. An attractive vein of melody and skilfully placed surprise elements (sudden changes of key, unexpected suspensions) make this a movement full of musical variety and interest.
Autograph copies of these concertos are held by the Naples Conservatory library. While the manuscripts of the First and Second, however, are complete and fully orchestrated, the Fourth is a different matter—some sections exist only in sketch form, others are incomplete, lacking essential detail as to the intended instrumentation. The performances recorded here are based on recently realised critical editions of the three flute concertos.
English translation by Susannah Howe
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MERCADANTE, S.: Flute Concertos Nos. 1, 2 and 4 (P...