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Sgambati: Symphony No 1 / La Vecchia, Rome SO

Sgambati / Orchestra Sinfonica Di Roma / Vecchia
Release Date: 12/18/2012 
Label:  Naxos   Catalog #: 8573007   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Giovanni Sgambati
Conductor:  Francesco La Vecchia
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Rome Symphony Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Length: 1 Hours 1 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

SGAMBATI Cola di Rienzo: Overture. Symphony No. 1 in D, Op. 16 Francesco La Vecchia, cond; Rome SO NAXOS 8.573007 (61:23)

Giovanni Sgambati (1841–1914) is a generation too early to be lumped together with the so-called “La generazione dell ’80” group of Italian composers—Respighi, Pizzetti, Casella, and Malipiero being the primary members—but in one important respect, Sgambati did pave the way for them. At a time when opera Read more dominated the scene in Italy, Sgambati chose to channel his efforts into instrumental, chamber, and orchestral music. With violinist Ettore Pinelli he co- founded the Liceo Musicale di Santa Cecilia and the Società Orchestrale Romana in Rome, orchestral ensembles dedicated to fostering symphonic music.

Certain details of Sgambati’s life are not in dispute. He was born and died in Rome. His father, it’s reasonable to assume, was Italian, but his mother was English. He studied with Liszt, who entrusted Sgambati to conduct the premiere of his Dante Symphony . And he gravitated towards the German music of the time through his acquaintance with Liszt and then Wagner. Sgambati, however, did not become a devoted follower of the “New Music” school. His “alleged” meeting and subsequent friendship with Brahms ultimately proved more influential in guiding Sgambati to his true calling as a composer mainly of chamber music and symphonic works. “Alleged” is in quotes, because that’s what one source on Sgambati that I came across claims; yet Peter Clive’s Brahms and His World: A Biographical Dictionary names every single person of note that ever crossed paths with Brahms, and Sgambati’s name is conspicuously absent from the index, suggesting the two men never met. Nonetheless, the notes to the current Naxos CD state that Sgambati “took Brahms as his benchmark.”

It never ceases to amaze me how inconsistent supposedly authoritative sources can be when it comes to documenting music history. In any other discipline, we would simply not accept the surfeit of conflicting data parading as facts that one encounters in various articles, papers, and research documents on music. I’m reminded of the letters to the editor I inadvertently elicited when I once wrote in a review that Delius had worked on a grapefruit farm. More than one eager reader couldn’t wait to correct me in pointing out my error; obviously, everyone knew it was an orange plantation. But the thing is, you will find sources that say it was grapefruit.

That, of course, is not the most serious contradiction one will encounter in reading about composers and their music, and Sgambati is a case in point. The program notes to the current Naxos release state unequivocally that “Sgambati never composed an opera.” Yet, the author of a paper I’m unable to name or quote due to a copyright infringement warning just as unequivocally states that Sgambati wrote two operas but doesn’t name them; and neither does my New Encyclopedia of Opera by David Ewen. You wouldn’t think something like that should be difficult to verify one way or the other, especially since we’re not dealing with a composer from the obscure mists of prehistoric times, before there were music historians and scholars, universities, libraries, and sources of information other than hieroglyphs scrawled on cave walls. Sgambati, for heaven’s sake, lived into the 20th century. As I said above, we would never tolerate such a casual attitude towards factual data in other areas of historical research.

When it comes to Sgambati, however, there are even worse contradictions than whether he did or didn’t write any operas. His authenticated work catalog includes a Piano Concerto, two string quartets, two piano quintets, a Requiem, and three symphonies, along with numerous songs, pieces for solo piano, and other choral and instrumental works. But their numbering appears to have been devised by the Mad Hatter. The current Naxos CD assigns op. 16 to the Symphony No. 1. Grove gives Sgambati’s op. 16 as an Intermezzo for piano. No piece by that title even exists in imslp.org’s complete list of Sgambati’s works, and that’s particularly worrisome, since Grove has long been considered the authority to which other authorities turn for reliable information. Moreover, imslp.org gives op. 16 as a Suite in B Minor, though parenthetically allows that Schott published the Suite as op. 21.

So the next time a reader is moved to write a letter accusing Dubins of not knowing the difference between a grapefruit and an orange, just keep in mind that to no small degree the discourse you read on music is part fact laced with the wishful thinking and fantasies of the author. In part, I think, that’s what leads to such heated disagreements between music lovers. One person reads such and such in a purportedly “scholarly” paper and has no reason to disbelieve it, while another individual reads a contradictory statement in a different purportedly “scholarly” paper, and then the battle rages. When it comes to ascertainable facts—Sgambati either wrote an opera or he didn’t; he met and befriended Brahms or he didn’t—there really is a right and a wrong. It’s not a matter of opinion or speculation, and it shouldn’t be that difficult for some serious researcher to sort out the truth.

The Overture to Cola di Rienzo is an early work by Sgambati, composed in 1866 while he was still under the sway of Liszt and Wagner. The piece falls into the category of incidental music, though it wasn’t written for the production of a play. Rather, it was intended to accompany the reading of a dramatic poem by Pietro Cossa. Its heroic character, Rienzo, is the same historical figure that inspired Wagner’s opera, Rienzi , some 25 years earlier.

According to the album note, Sgambati’s overture was lost for many years, was never published, and there is no record of its ever having been performed. A copy of the score was “recently” discovered in Rome’s Biblioteca Casanatense, or so we’re told by note author Marta Marullo, but “recent” in this case doesn’t mean last week. The piece has been recorded before, as far back as 2000, by Fabrizio Ventura conducting the Nuremberg Philharmonic for ASV, and it was reviewed twice in these pages, first by Ian Lace in 25:2, and then by Barry Brenesal in 25:3. So again, we’re faced with another incongruity. When were the album notes to this 2010 Naxos recording written that their author should refer to a work recorded some 13 years ago as “recently discovered?” And what in this context is the definition of “recent.”

It’s not clear from the program note whether Sgambati provided additional music beyond the Overture, as would be expected if the piece was intended as background to a dramatic reading, or if the score is a stand-alone symphonic overture along the lines of Brahms’s Tragic Overture . Clearly, Sgambati’s opus is more than long enough—18:20—to fall into the latter category; either that, or Cossa’s poem is of epic length. Whatever the case, the wide-ranging moods of the piece and the sense of an unfolding dramatic narrative it projects give the feeling of a tone poem more than that of an overture.

Liszt’s tone poems are surely an influence, but even more so, I think, the work anticipates the tone poems that Tchaikovsky was yet to write. The free melodic sweep, colorful and luminous orchestral scoring, and the almost balletic swirling passages are sounds and textures one associates more with Tchaikovsky than with Liszt. And, unlike the alleged Brahms connection alluded to above, it’s an established fact that Sgambati toured Russia; plus, there exists a letter dated 1890 from Tchaikovsky to Sgambati, so the Tchaikovsky connection is not a figment of someone’s imagination. Sgambati’s Overture is a very impressive and very beautiful piece of music.

Even more impressive is the composer’s Symphony No. 1 in D Major, completed in 1881. It’s in five movements and fuses a lyrical Italianate melodic style and a Germanic approach to form. If it has been previously recorded, it hasn’t been reviewed in Fanfare , and I find no other current listings for the work beyond this new Naxos release. Since most record companies are eager to trumpet a world premiere coup, and in this instance, Naxos doesn’t, I’m guessing the symphony has received one or more previous recordings. The heart of the work is the gorgeous second movement, marked Andante mesto . The mood is not really what I’d call mournful, but pensive perhaps, and of an exquisite loveliness.

Based solely on the two major orchestral works on this disc, I’d have to say that Sgambati is a sorely neglected and unjustly underrated composer. Fortunately, these performances by Francesco La Vecchia and the Symphony Orchestra of Rome are nothing short of magnificent and are guaranteed to stimulate the appetite of anyone who acquires this CD for more Sgambati. It’s urgently recommended to all.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins

Giovanni Sgambati (1841-1914) was a disciple and friend of Liszt, and one of the first Italian composers to focus on creating instrumental music. His First Symphony dates from 1881 or thereabouts, and it’s a masterpiece. Containing five movements arranged in a perfect “arch” form (fast, slow, fast, slow, fast), there’s nothing that sounds quite like it in the entire 19th century literature. The scoring, for standard forces plus two harps, piccolo, but no extra percussion or other exotica, is pellucidly clear and “alive”. It wouldn’t surprise me a bit if the fourth-movement Serenata, for small forces, acquired independent popularity. Furthermore, the outer movements really move; they have no dead spots and no single movement outstays its welcome.

Sample below the gorgeous melody from the second movement (Andante mesto) for strings (initially) and harps. Here is true Italian lyricism in a symphonic context—just lovely. There is absolutely no reason why this piece should not become as popular as the contemporaneous symphonies of Dvorák, Brahms, or Franck—it’s that distinctive. Cola di Rienzo, on the other hand, is a bit more of an acquired taste. Predating the symphony by about a decade and a half, this overture on the subject of Rienzi (to use Wagner’s better known designation) is nearly 20 minutes long and, while attractive moment by moment, it doesn’t hold together in the same way that the symphony does. Still, it reveals a composer of considerable seriousness and ability, while the confident scoring foreshadows the music to come.

The performances are very good. Francesco La Vecchia shapes the symphony quite effectively, choosing tempos that convey the music’s easy-going energy and winning lyricism with complete confidence. As with previous releases in this series, the Rome Symphony Orchestra plays quite well, especially the woodwinds, who have a lot of important solo work. The engineering, however, is not the best from this source. It has a sort of “empty auditorium” resonance that’s particularly unflattering to the violins and cloudy in tuttis. Still, don’t let that put you off. The music is too attractive miss.

-- David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com
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Works on This Recording

Symphony in D minor, Op. 16 by Giovanni Sgambati
Conductor:  Francesco La Vecchia
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Rome Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Cola di Rienzo Overture by Giovanni Sgambati
Conductor:  Francesco La Vecchia
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Rome Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1866; Italy 

Customer Reviews

Average Customer Review:  3 Customer Reviews )
 Beautiful -- Good Sound March 11, 2017 By L. Wilborn (Richwood, TX) See All My Reviews "Beautiful romantic style compositions, excellently performed. Recorded sound is good. Naxos budget priced. Recommended." Report Abuse
 Excellent Throughout October 19, 2014 By Henry S. (Springfield, VA) See All My Reviews "Naxos is to be commended for its ongoing Italian project, which brings high quality recordings of Italian orchestral works to our attention. Note that we are not talking about the great Italian operatic tradition here, rather Italian symphonic composers who may not be as well known their operatic compatriots, but who nevertheless produced some really fine works. Giovanni Sgambati's smooth, dynamic, and thoroughly enjoyable First Symphony is a case in point. With Francesco LaVecchia leading the excellent Rome Symphony Orchestra, Symphony # 1 emerges as a major force, an ebullient expression of late European Romanticism. I immediately like this recording after only one hearing, and I think you will as well. Recommended." Report Abuse
 Wonderfully individual music by a neglected compo January 23, 2013 By ben cutler (somerville, NJ) See All My Reviews "This is my introduction to Sgambati. He has a fascinating musical mind as this symphony blindingly makes known. He claims it is absolute music, but that clearly is not the case for this remarkable music. Although I must caution you, Sgambati, like his counterpart Martucci, reveals his musical secrets slowly. Sgambati was "discovered" by Franz Liszt who had recently moved to Rome. Liszt took Sgambati to Germany where Sgambati was exposed to the very great musical ferment that was then going on there. One result of this was that Sgambati came back to conduct the first performances of Beethoven's 3rd and 7th symphonies ever performed in Italy in the late '60s. Liszt has to be regarded as the main influence on Sgambati's musical development although, at least in the symphony on this record Sgambati never "sounds" like Liszt. Part of the reason for this is that Sgambati's use of motives is quite different from what Liszt does in his works. The first movement (like the first movement of Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony) has no less than 7 distinct musical ideas. The opening chromatic motiv returns a minute later as a full fledged "theme" and it is this form that is the true "theme" as a false recap towards the end of the development section and the true return in the climax of the movement make clear. The development begins with new music, a fanfare in the brass twice repeated that (at least here) goes nowhere. This movement in particular often has passages that are radiantly beautiful. The second movement is a very serious nocturne in the middle section of which the fanfare motiv returns and is expanded into a chorale in the woodwinds and brass. After the chorale passage the nocturnal procession returns and recedes into absolute darkness. The movement ends with a cry of pain, totally unresolved. One wonders whether this strange music was inspired by Goethe's "Faust" just as Liszt's own "Nocturnal Procession" was. An enigmatic scherzo follows, both in its shape and its strange expressiveness. It is followed by a trio that reshapes the chorale music from the preceding movement. Then the "piece de resistence" of this symphony follows; another nocturnal movement. But this one is a free flowing aria for the violins accompanied by the rest of the orchestra. If this were in an opera by any other composer it would be regarded as an (perhaps "the") expressive moment of the opera. It is both striking and original. The movement ends with a recitatif like passage. The last movement is an active movement based upon 3 ideas which appear to be unique to this movement. Although I note with interest when the music virtually comes to a stop in the middle of the movement it is the recitativ music from the preceding movement that starts things flowing again. I am still, after half a dozen hearings of this often beautiful music, learning new things about it. Bring on the second symphony, by all means!" Report Abuse
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