Rossini, Donizetti, Ponchielli, Catalani: 19th-Century Italian Music for Piano 4-Hands


Official release: 17 September 2021

  • Artist(s): Duo Morelli-Simonacci
  • Composer(s): Alfredo Catalani, Amilcare Ponchielli, Francesco Cilea, Gaetano Donizetti, Gioacchino Rossini, Polibio Fumagalli, Stefano Golinelli
  • EAN Code: 7.46160912790
  • Edition: Da Vinci Classics
  • Format: 1 Cd
  • Genre: Chamber
  • Instrumentation: Piano
  • Period: Romantic
  • Publication year: 2021
SKU: C00447 Category:

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The Four-Hand Piano Duet in Nineteenth-Century Italy

A bird’s eye view on the world of nineteenth-century Italian pianism is rich in pleasing and interesting surprises and reveals high-quality works, frequently not entirely known by the average audience.
Of course, today we know the fertile pianistic output gathered by Rossini under the name of Péchés de vieillesse; yet we know much less about pianists-cum-composers such as Golinelli, Fumagalli, van Westerhout (fully Italian, in spite of his Dutch origins), Palumbo, Rinaldi, Rendano and many others.
Martucci and Sgambati, the two best-known composers of piano music (and not only of that!) probably enjoy greater fame, even though their output is not as disseminated as it ought to be.
Composers such as Busoni, Casella, Respighi, Pizzetti and Malipiero, who were born in the second half of the nineteenth century, cannot be counted among those driven by a “Romantic impulse”, since their music actually tends to the twentieth century.
If we turn our gaze towards the specific output for four-hand piano duet in that historical period in Italy, we can observe and record some curious aspects. For example, we note that many Italian operatic composers devoted their energies into the composition of works destined for this instrumental ensemble, typical of the salons. If Verdi wrote nothing for it, Rossini, Catalani, Ponchielli, Mercadane and Cilea did, to cite but the best known; and we may add Franco Faccio, with his great Suonata sinfonica of 1861.
For his very witty Petite fanfare, composed in 1867 and comprised within the 9th volume of the Péchés, Rossini wrote: “Je prie mes interprétes de vouloir executer avec amour (des mains et des genoux) ma petite fanfare” (“I beg my performers to kindly play my little fanfare with love – of their hands and knees”). Gaetano Donizetti authored numerous piano works; we should cite, out of his four-hand duet works, at least the seven splendid Sonatas in one movement, along with the two pieces recorded in this album (composed in 1816). Of these, it is expedient to point out the elegance of the Larghetto and the sober profoundity of the Marcia funebre.
The sparkling Sinfonia in G minor was composed in 1848 by a fourteen-years-old Amilcare Ponchielli, who, at the time, was a student at the Conservatory of Milan. Some years later, the composer realized an orchestral version of this Symphony which was originally for four-hands piano duet. The Divertimento Ricordanze dell’opera “La Traviata” di Verdi contributes, with grace and intelligence, to the large harvest of Fantasies on operatic theme, to which virtually no Italian composer of instrumental music of that time renounced.
Young Cilea, prior to dedicating himself to his overwhelmingly operatic output, wrote several instrumental works, among which piano music has a certain weight. Among his works for four-hand piano duet, Amour joyeux shines for its sincere evocation of sweet amiability.
Stefano Golinelli and Polibio Fumagalli are the only two non-operatic composers whose works are included in this album. The Bolognese Stefano Golinelli was an appreciated concert pianist, and wrote about 300 piano works, among which only two pieces for four-hand piano duet are found: they are his Divertimento sulla “Lucia di Lammermoor” op. 3 and La buona fanciulla – Sonatina op. 97, full of tenderness and of joyful liveliness.
Among the four Fumagalli brothers – Disma, Adolfo, Polibio and Luca, all of them pianists-cum-composers – the most famous at their time was doubtlessly Adolfo (1828-1856), an acrobatic pianist (praised by Thalberg himself) and composer of several piano works. In his Divertimento sull’opera “I Puritani” di Bellini op. 92, Polibio shows us a nice example of architectural organization, in his reinterpretation of the intense melodies by the “Swan of Catania”, i.e. Bellini.
A composer endowed with a very refined harmonic concept, on which melodies of a sophisticated singing style soar, with his Serenata, Tempo di Walzer and Ricordi campestris (written between 1879 and 1891) Alfredo Catalani invites us to savour intimate Romantic atmospheres. He opens up a narrative full of nostalgia, which finds its broadest and truest realization in the important symphonic poem Ero e Leandro (1884). This work would be worth of a livelier dissemination in its original version, along with the interesting autograph transcription recorded here.
“Night was serene, tranquil the sea. – Ero, the virgin from Abito, alone in her tower, waited; she waited for her Leandro to come, that night once again, swimming from the opposite shore of the Hellespont, bringing her his kiss of love. – In the meanwhile, the sky darkened and the sea, rumbling, threatened the arrival of a storm. – And her Leandro did not come; thence she cried, she called him, and invoked the gods’ piety on him. – And the storm raged. – And lo, under the lightning’s glare, Ero sees far away, in the sea, a human shape moving, fighting the waves, and approaching. It is him, it is him! She encourages him with her voice… he swims… swims. Finally he arrives! Oh, who will be able to narrate the sweet love words, the ecstasy, the sighs of those loving souls! O, the incautious ones! They forget everything: the time, the sky, the sea. The day arises, and the storm has not subsided. And Leandro must leave his Ero. What can he do? … Leandro boldly plunges himself in the waves, challenging their fury; but in the fight, he succumbs”.

Liner Notes © Giancarlo Simonacci
Translation: Chiara Bertoglio


Duo Morelli-Simonacci: Gabriella Morelli and Giancarlo Simonacci both studied at the “Santa Cecilia” Conservatoire in Rome, where they were born, later specializing with Carlo Zecchi at the Mozarteum in Salzburg.
Since their firt appearance together, alongside the traditional repertoire they have made a name for themselves as promoters and interpretes of lesser-known works. As such they have often provided listeners with the first ever perrformances in modern times. They also pay particular attention to contemporary music, and many of today’s composers have dedicated works to them.
They regularly perfom at important festivals and concert cycles, both in Italy and abroad. They have numerous recordings for RAI, Discoteca di Stato italiana, Vatican Radio, and for the Fonotipia, Edipan, Irtem. Mr. Classic, Domanimusica and Brilliant Classics.
They have taught at the Conservatoires of Sassari, Frosinone and Rome.


Amilcare Ponchielli: (b Paderno Fasolaro [now Paderno Ponchielli], 31 Aug 1834; d Milan, 17 Jan 1886). Italian composer. He was the most important opera composer (Verdi apart) between the mid-19th century and the advent of the so-called ‘Giovane Scuola’.

Francesco Cilea: (b Palmi, Reggio Calabria, 23 July 1866; dVarazze, nr Savona, 20 Nov 1950). Italian composer and teacher. The son of a prominent lawyer, he was intended by his father for the same profession; however, the influence of Francesco Florimo, the famous archivist and friend of Bellini, procured him entry to the Naples Conservatory in 1879, where his teachers included Paolo Serrao, Beniamino Cesi and Giuseppe Martucci, and his fellow pupil Umberto Giordano. There he made rapid progress, becoming a maestrino in 1885. His Suite for orchestra (1887) was awarded a government prize and on 9 February 1889, his final year, his opera Gina was performed at the conservatory. Despite a poor libretto the editor Sonzogno thought sufficiently well of it to commission from him an opera on a fashionable low-life subject. La tilda was given with moderate successs at the Teatro Pagliano, Florence, with Rodolfo Ferrari as conductor and with Fanny Torresani in the title role. Sonzogno included it in his Italian opera season mounted later that year in Vienna, where it earned the gratifying approval of Hanslick. Cilea spent three years on the composition of his next opera, L’arlesiana, to a libretto based on Alphonse Daudet’s play, for which Bizet had supplied incidental music. The text of Rosa Mamai’s aria (‘Esser madre è un inferno’) was provided by Grazia Pierantoni, the wife of the senator in whose house Cilea was staying at the time. The opera was well received at its première at Sonzogno’s Teatro Lirico, Milan, where it helped to launch Caruso on his international career. Not until the following year, however, did L’arlesiana achieve its definitive three-act form.

In 1900 Cilea began work on his most famous opera, Adriana Lecouvreur, whose subject appealed to him because of its 18th-century ambience and its mixture of comedy and pathos. The première proved another triumph for Caruso as well as for the composer. At a season of operas mounted by Sonzogno at the Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt, Paris, in 1904, Alfred Bruneau singled out Adriana Lecouvreur as the worthiest product of the Italian ‘giovane scuola’. A projected collaboration with Gabriele D’Annunzio on Francesca da Rimini came to nothing owing to Sonzogno’s unwillingness to meet the poet’s financial demands. In his search for a subject that would offer a choral dimension Cilea turned to Gloria, a story of star-crossed lovers set in 14th-century Siena at the time of the siege. Despite the advocacy of Toscanini the opera was cooly received and failed to circulate; nor did a revised version of 1932 to a new text by Ettore Moschini fare substantially better. A last operatic attempt,Ritorno ad amore, foundered on Renato Simoni’s failure to complete the libretto. From then on Cilea ceased to compose for the stage. His only other large-scale work was the ‘Poema sinfonico’ Il canto della vita for tenor, chorus and orchestra, written to a text by Sem Benelli in commemoration of the Verdi centenary in 1913. The previous year Leopoldo Mugnone had conducted a revival of L’arlesianain Naples, for which he had persuaded the composer to enlarge the part of Vivetta and cut the aria of Rosa Mamai and her scene with L’Innocente. The result so disappointed Cilea that he withdrew the score from circulation for the next 20 years. It was not heard again until a radio transmission in 1932. The Museo Cilea in Palmi contains the manuscript of an unpublished ‘Intermezzo arlesiana’ dated 1938.

Until his retirement in 1935 Cilea pursued a distinguished career in musical education. He taught harmony and the piano at the Naples Conservatory from (1890–92), and held the chair of harmony and composition at the Istituto Reale (later the Conservatorio Luigi Cherubini) in Florence (1896–1904). In 1913 he assumed the directorship of the Palermo Conservatory, moving to that of the Naples Conservatory, a post which he held for nearly 20 years. He was elected to the Academy in 1938. Though justifiably proud of his record as a teacher, he regarded it as secondary to his operatic career, which he believed to have been blighted by the intrigues of others.

More of an all-round musician than most of his colleagues of the ‘giovane scuola’, Cilea shows a lighter touch. Besides Bellini, his chief gods were Bach, Beethoven and Chopin. An accomplished pianist, his keyboard writing is always inventive, and several of his pieces composed between the wars show an attempt to come to grips with the styles of Ravel and Casella. If his operas conform to the manner of Mascagni and his school, they never descend to brutal excess. Thematic recurrence plays an important part in them, even though the motifs themselves are rarely very theatrical. If Adriana Lecouvreur remains his most popular opera, largely due to its appeal to the aging prima donna, his best-loved single aria is the ‘Lamento di Federico’ from L’arlesiana, to this day one of the gems of the tenor repertory.

From The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians

Gaetano Donizetti: (b Bergamo, 6 Nov 1788; d Constantinople, 12 Feb 1856). Italian teacher and composer. He was the elder brother of Gaetano Donizetti, and studied the flute with an uncle. From 1806, after being turned away from the Lezioni Caritatevoli di Musica for being too old, he took lessons from Mayr. In 1809 he enrolled in the Italian army as a musician, and subsequently played in battalions on the island of Elba and in the Sardinian army. He was highly regarded as a bandmaster, and when Sultan Mahmud II asked for a musician to reorganize his imperial band, Donizetti’s name was put forward by the Italian ambassador in Constantinople. He arrived there in 1828, and was made General Instructor of Imperial Ottoman Music with a generous stipend of 8,000 francs a year.

Donizetti coached the players, acquired Italian instruments and taught Western notation. The band was immediately successful, and Donizetti took charge of the other army bands. Through his influence the first school of Western music in Turkey was opened in 1831. In addition to conducting band music on ceremonial occasions, and orchestral programmes at the court theatre (in the harem), he mounted productions of short Italian operas.

Donizetti’s importance lies above all in his work as a teacher and organizer. His compositions, mostly occasional pieces (marches and anthems) for Mahmud II and Abdul Medjid, rarely depart from a consciously conventional and celebratory style. Nevertheless, at least one of the imperial marches found some contemporary popularity: Liszt wrote a Grande paraphrase de la marche de Donizetti composée pour Sa majesté le sultan Abdoul-Medij-Khan (Berlin, 1848). He was made an honorary general in the Turkish army in recognition of his services, and in 1842 the French government made him a knight of the Légion d’Honneur.

Gioacchino Rossini: (b Pesaro, 29 Feb 1792; d Passy, 13 Nov 1868). Italian composer. No composer in the first half of the 19th century enjoyed the measure of prestige, wealth, popular acclaim or artistic influence that belonged to Rossini. His contemporaries recognized him as the greatest Italian composer of his time. His achievements cast into oblivion the operatic world of Cimarosa and Paisiello, creating new standards against which other composers were to be judged. That both Bellini and Donizetti carved out personal styles is undeniable; but they worked under Rossini’s shadow, and their artistic personalities emerged in confrontation with his operas. Not until the advent of Verdi was Rossini replaced at the centre of Italian operatic life.

Stefano Golinelli (b Bologna, 26 Oct 1818; d Bologna, 3 July 1891). Italian composer and pianist. He studied the piano and counterpoint in Bologna with B. Donelli, and also had brief instruction in composition with Vaccai. In 1842 Ferdinand Hiller was passing through Bologna and advised Golinelli to take up a concert career; he considered him to be the best Italian pianist of his day and also praised him as a composer. Schumann himself was interested in Golinelli’s music and commended his 12 studi in the 1844 Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. Golinelli subsequently made brilliantly successful concert tours of Italy, performing in Naples, Florence, Milan, Genoa and Palermo; he also toured France, Germany and England, where he performed with Piatti and Sivori at the London Musical Union in 1851. He acquired a reputation throughout Europe both as a performer and as a composer, reaching his peak during the years 1845 to 1855; some acclaimed him ‘the Italian Bach’. In 1840 Rossini nominated him professor of piano at the Liceo Musicale in Bologna, a post that he held until his retirement in 1870, after which he devoted himself entirely to composition.

One of the leading exponents of the 19th-century Italian piano school, Golinelli wrote more than 200 piano pieces. They are elegant and melodically inventive, particularly when cast in a short, even miniature, form. Their graceful lines and fresh harmonies contribute to their lyrical, Romantic character not immune from elegiac sentimentality and recalling some of Chopin’s more overworked devices. The longer works show a closer and at times overwhelming similarity to German models; in other works the rapid, manneristic sketch predominates. In the whole of his output a didactic aim is often apparent, with a pseudo-Classical, rather solid pianistic style that recalls Clementi and Beethoven. Golinelli was one of the first to repudiate the vacuous tricks of virtuosity particularly prevalent at the time in fantasias and variations on opera themes; his main achievements were to forge musical links between northern European and Italian cultural spheres, and to restore to Italian music a certain classicism and sense of tradition.