A few years ago whilst browsing on Amazon I stumbled across this disc by a composer I had never heard of. After reading a critique by a certain Amazon reviewer who always impresses me, I was excited and literally 'sold' on this wonderful recording. Hearing the samples, while barely 20 seconds, actually made quite an impression.
Franco Alfano's fame has always been chiefly bound up with his completion of Turandot, a completion with which Toscanini famously and crudely expressed his dissatisfaction-to put it mildly-by walking out on the opening night at La Scala in 1926 at the very point where Puccini's music ended and Alfano's began. Alfano's own work as an opera composer-notably in "Risurezzione" (1904), "La leggenda di Sakùntala" (1921) and "Cyrano de Bergerac" (1936)-has done rather more for his reputation. Franco Alfano's instrumental music finally is receiving some reassessment (this Naxos disc is an important contribution indeed) although there's much more to survey. CPO (owned by Naxos as most will know) released a recording of Alfano's first and second symphonies, which I own, but to be honest I cannot recall what I thought; I listened only to part of the disc (was rushing someplace, who knows) and then it ended up in a pile, and I still need to find it. I have a third disc also, but I cannot recall what it is.
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 colors. Running over half an hour in performance, it is a work of real substance. Alfano's intriguing writing and strong sense of design (along with the very fine performance), means 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 colors on the cello; angry at one moment, more optimistic at another, and ultimately falling away as if all passion has been spent. The sonata as a whole is a fine work which deserves to be much better known.
The "Concerto for Violin, Cello and Piano" I like as much or perhaps more. It's 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, however that doesn't mean that the music of the two composers would be 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 fantastic', which I cannot seem to get enough of-there are splendid instrumental dialogues, conversations conducted across and around rhythms which appear to owe much to basque and gypsy traditions. The final 'Presto' has more than a little of the ceremonial about it; indeed, in the 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 great performance. All around a great discovery!!