Official Release: 21 January 2021
The experience most of us have of the world is heavily conditioned by our sight. The term “paradigm of the visual” has been coined for indicating our reliance on sight above all other senses. Yet, we all know the power of a flavour or a scent to immediately evoke a specific time and place, frequently bringing back memories we thought we had completely lost. Memories bound to sound are even richer and more detailed, and their power to evoke feelings and emotions, along with narratives, is undeniable.
When we admire a museum or a palace where historical settings and furniture have been carefully reconstructed, we may feel we entered a time capsule, and imagine the movement of people, their chatter and their encounters; we enliven the buildings through our imagination. However, the impression would be much stronger and more accurate if we could add aural impressions to the visual ones, and hear the “soundscape” of time past. Those beautiful palaces of the nobility were permeated by sounds, and many of them were musical.
This Da Vinci Classics album is much more than an aural museum, since it does not merely aim at an artificial reconstruction, but rather at highlighting the artistic value of a forgotten repertoire. Still, even if considered merely as a document, this living memory of another century will not fail to impress its listeners.
The protagonist of this recording is the harmonium “d’art”. The specification is necessary, lest one mistakes the prince for the pauper, as we will shortly see. The setting evoked by this recording is unashamedly elitist; we are invited to admire the magnificent, princely palaces and manors of the wealthy nobility of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Although few of us would have belonged in that world, had we lived a century earlier, we are still entitled to gaze in awe and reverently to this refined, sparkling and cultivated society and to the places their inhabited.
The wealthy aristocracy of the era could afford to buy the most expensive musical instruments and to invite the most prominent composers and musicians of the era. One of the luxuries they prized was the possibility of listening to high-quality music within the comfort of their homes – a luxury we all have, today, thanks to digital audio reproduction.
Their soirées were frequently spent at operatic theatres or auditoriums, where the newest operas by Verdi could be performed, or the great symphonies by Schubert or others were heard. However, music is best enjoyed when it is already known, at least partially; moreover, even the greatest cities and their theatres could not perform the entire repertoire in one season. Thus, these rich amateurs wished both to prepare themselves prior to a theatrical performance, and to listen time and again to the tunes and scenes they had already heard.
The basic option was to play piano transcriptions (frequently for four-hand duet) of the most beloved airs and overtures. However, some of these transcriptions vastly exceeded the skill of amateur musicians; and, more importantly, the piano was only partially satisfactory as a replacement for a symphonic orchestra.
The piano, of course, has the possibility of recreating very thick musical textures, especially when the two pianists’ twenty fingers play together. It possesses dynamic variety, and can reproduce a feeble murmur as well as thunderous chords. However, one of its dramatic shortcomings is the impossibility to sustain, let alone modulate, a sound once the key has been pressed. The piano’s sound is doomed to decay, and this is a serious problem particularly when playing long and slow melodies. And if accurate pedalling can somewhat lengthen the piano’s sound, the possibility of increasing a note’s volume while it sounds is the forbidden dream of all pianists.
Unsurprisingly, chamber music ensembles where the piano is flanked by bowed string instruments were increasingly popular in the nineteenth century. The piano could provide the symphonic texture, whilst the most expressive nuances of the singing tone were entrusted to violins and cellos, which are fully capable of realizing the messa di voce.
However, the most refined palates would still miss something. Neither the piano nor the bowed string instruments could provide a satisfactory evocation of a wind band, with the expressive sounds of reed instruments, the mellow tones of the woodwinds, the powerful and brilliant sound of the brass.
Enter the harmonium. Nowadays, this instrument is deeply misunderstood. Typically, one imagines it in a dusty corner of a country church; it is played by an amateur pianist (perhaps the sexton), it has a rattling and asthmatic sound, and it supports a choir of elderly ladies with defective intonation. It is the organ’s poor relation, and it has no artistic ambition at all.
As previously hinted, this portrait does correspond to some harmoniums (disdainfully called harmonium ordinaire in French), but they are the paupers, not to be taken for the princes. The prince is the harmonium “d’art”, proudly claiming its dignity as not just an art instrument, but rather as one of the masterpieces of instrument manufacturing and building of the era.
The dream of uniting the piano’s extreme potential to play many notes together with the wind instruments’ expressivity had been cultivated for decades, and various attempts had been made- notably, by one Professor Kratzenstein who inspired the creation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Through a series of other instruments, one of which was the orgue expressif created by Gabriel Joseph Grenié, and another the Viennese Physharmonika, in 1840 the harmonium was created and patented by Alexandre Debain. Some of the most refined harmoniums could be as expensive as a luxury flat or a small house; they were played by musicians in the class of Camille Saint-Saëns or César Franck, the greatest organists of the era. These instruments were particularly prized not only for their capability to modulate sound, but also because they could reproduce the faintest whisper and the most powerful fortissimo: their dynamic range was perfectly suited for the aristocratic salon. Even though these salons could be very large and crowded, still they were utterly different from operatic theatres which could seat thousands. What could be heard and appreciated in a salon was much more refined than the minimum sound perceptible in a great theatre.
Ensembles such as those employed in this Da Vinci Classics recording were deemed as ideal for recreating the theatre’s magical atmosphere at home – or rather at palace. The bowed string instruments stood for the ranks of violins, violas, cellos and double basses; the harmonium replaced the whole wind section; the piano filled the harmonic texture and interacted with its partners.
The repertoire recorded in this album splendidly epitomizes the variety of works which could be adapted – at times by great musicians – for this or for a similar ensemble. In the CD we find the most august representatives of the Viennese tradition. Two works by Schubert embody the two souls of this great musician: his lyrical side, perfectly expressed in the masterly construction of the contrasted first movement of his Symphony in B minor (“Unfinished”), and his brilliant, genial aspect, epitomized in the serene Great Rondo. The sound of the Unfinished Symphony is really surprising, and it beautifully renders the complexity of this work.
The fairy and enchanted settings of Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy’s Midsummer Night’s Dream is brought to light thanks to the variety of sounds this comparatively small ensemble is capable of producing. The haunted, mysterious and anguished forebodings of Mozart’s Don Giovanni Overture become almost unearthly and therefore powerfully expressive in the version recorded here. At the same time, the other side of this Mozartean masterpiece – the protagonist’s lightheartedness, his inexhaustible amatory powers, his seducing voice – are also evoked in the other two transcription.
Against the demonic atmospheres of the darkest Mozart, the lyrical Intermezzo from Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana provides for a moment of respite. The refinement of its melodic lines and the spiritual intensity of its texture are beautifully embodied in this noteworthy transcription.
Other representatives of the great tradition of Italian opera are also found in this fascinating itinerary through styles and eras; in particular, the full palette of Verdi’s genius is distilled, from the sparkling to the mystical, from the heroic to the exquisitely tender. The intensity of Rossini’s Mosè comes to light in the famous prayer, whose pleading lines intertwine transparently and profoundly with each other, whilst the enchanted levity of Čajkovskij’s fairy-tale is fascinatingly portrayed in the transcription for a curious hybrid instrument.
The sacredness of Sgambati’s Te Deum completes with its solemnity and spiritual imagery this varied and surprising itinerary. Throughout this compilation, the diverse tastes, the immense possibilities, and especially the omnivorous desire for music of the haute société have been recreated for us; and when the doors of this aural museum close behind us, we find ourselves enriched by new feelings and experiences, directly coming from the past.
Chiara Bertoglio © 2021
Andrea Noferini: Considered by the international press as one of the most eminent cellists on the world scene, ANDREA NOFERINI is particularly renowned for his virtuosic repertoire, winning multiple awards, while his CD with Piatti’s Capricci op. 22 & op. 25 is considered "... a new yardstick for technical comparison on the cello". Always engaged all over the world both as a soloist and in the most varied chamber groups, he has performed in concert a huge number of compositions from every era. He recorded several dozens of CD and he has participated in a large number of television and radio broadcasts. Son of art with his mother pianist and father composer and former Director of the Bologna Conservatory of Music, Andrea Noferini trained instrumentally in Brussels under the guidance of the great violinist Arthur Grumiaux, graduated with laude and honor-mention at the Conservatory of Milan in 1987 and studied with Antonio Janigro, then perfecting himself with Andrè Navarra, Paul Tortelier and Yo-Yo Ma. Since 1991 he’s the First Cello Soloist of Teatro dell'Opera di Roma.
Claudio Brizi: Organist and keyboardist, has held over 2000 guest concerts at prestigious musical institutions. As a soloist and soloist-director he has interpreted the most important compositions for organ or harpsichord and orchestra and is regularly invited by international orchestras and festivals. The chamber music activity, an important space in his musical expression, leads him to collaborate regularly with well-known musicians. Also active as a composer and arranger, he pays particular attention to the musical languages of our time. He has recorded over 120 CDs ranging from the late Renaissance to the avant-garde. The specialized press has expressed the most flattering judgments on his work. For many years he has been committed to deepening the field of knowledge regarding hybrid keyboard instruments such as, for example, Claviorgano, Harmonium-Celesta, Harmoniumklavier of which he is also a passionate collector. He teaches Organ at Perugia Conservatory and has held masterclasses all over the world. Since the year 2000 he has been Professor of Organ and Harpsichord at the “Kusatsu Summer Music Academy” in Japan.
Giulio Giurato: Graduated in piano with Valeria Cantoni at the Bologna Conservatory, he studied with Jörg Demus and, among others, with Sergio Perticaroli, Riccardo Brengola and Boris Bekhterev. Since 1984 he has been performing concerts both as a soloist in recitals, guided concerts and in poetry and music shows with great theater and cinema actors such as Riccardo Cucciolla, Giancarlo Giannini, Ugo Pagliai, and as a chamber musician in various ensembles. He has performed in various Countries and in the main Italian cities, collecting important awards everywhere. He has played four hands several times with Jörg Demus, a collaboration that has profoundly marked his musicality and has aroused great appreciation from audiences and critics. He teaches Chamber Music at Parma Conservatory. With the SchuberTrio, founded in 2000 with the Noferini brothers, he performed the Beethoven Triple Concerto with great success and recorded several highly appreciated recordings, including Schubert's piano trios and Marco Enrico Bossi's complete chamber opera in five CDs.
Roberto Noferini: Graduated cum laude in the Milan Conservatory with Gabriele Baffero, then studied with Arthur Grumiaux, Salvatore Accardo, Corrado Romano, Dora Schwartzberg, Pavel Vernikov and Dario De Rosa. He won numerous first prizes and special prizes in important international competitions. His debut at the age of 12 at the Teatro Comunale in Bologna was followed by an intense concert activity that led him to perform in prestigious festivals and for important concert institutions in Italy and abroad. Marked by numerous critics as one of the most brilliant violinists of his generation, he has played as a soloist some of the major violin concertos and collaborates in chamber ensembles with eminent musicians. He deals with the Baroque and classical repertoire with violin and period bow and devotes himself with attention to the contemporary repertoire. Among his recordings, in addition to those with the SchuberTrio, stand out those in duo with Bruno Canino, Messiaen's Quatuor pour la fin du temps, Paganini's 24 Capricci on a period violin, the complete Sonatas by Giuseppe Sarti and Johann Sebastian Bach with Chiara Cattani on the harpsichord. He teaches violin in the Pesaro Conservatory.
(b Hamburg, 3 Feb 1809; d Leipzig, 4 Nov 1847). German composer. One of the most gifted and versatile prodigies, Mendelssohn stood at the forefront of German music during the 1830s and 40s, as conductor, pianist, organist and, above all, composer. His musical style, fully developed before he was 20, drew upon a variety of influences, including the complex chromatic counterpoint of Bach, the formal clarity and gracefulness of Mozart and the dramatic power of Beethoven and Weber.
Mendelssohn’s emergence into the first rank of 19th-century German composers coincided with efforts by music historiographers to develop the concept of a Classic–Romantic dialectic in 18th and 19th-century music. To a large degree, his music reflects a fundamental tension between Classicism and Romanticism in the generation of German composers after Beethoven.
Franz Schubert: (b Vienna, 31 Jan 1797; d Vienna, 19 Nov 1828). Austrian composer. The only canonic Viennese composer native to Vienna, he made seminal contributions in the areas of orchestral music, chamber music, piano music and, most especially, the German lied. The richness and subtlety of his melodic and harmonic language, the originality of his accompaniments, his elevation of marginal genres and the enigmatic nature of his uneventful life have invited a wide range of readings of both man and music that remain among the most hotly debated in musical circles.
Giovanni Sgambati: (b Rome, 28 May 1841; d Rome, 14 Dec 1914). Italian composer, pianist and conductor. He first played the piano in public at the age of six and soon afterwards began to compose. After the death of his father in 1849 he moved with the family to Trevi, where he continued his musical studies with Natalucci, a pupil of Zingarelli. In 1860 he returned to Rome, where he quickly made his mark as a pianist, studied counterpoint with Giovanni Aldega and in 1866 received the diploma di socio onorario of the Accademia di S Cecilia. Meanwhile, in 1862, he had met Liszt, who at once recognized his talent, seriousness and receptivity to the various types of non-operatic music then neglected in Italy. He became Liszt’s pupil and protégé, and the two remained close friends until the older man’s death. This friendship was decisive for Sgambati’s development, and in return he did much to promote Liszt’s music (along with that of other important foreign composers). In 1866–7 he introduced the Dante Symphony to Italy and conducted the première of the first part of Christus.
In 1869 Liszt took him to Germany, where he met Anton Rubinstein and first encountered the music of Wagner, whom he was to meet in 1876 in Rome. On that occasion Wagner was impressed by Sgambati’s two piano quintets and recommended them to Schott for publication. By then Sgambati had become internationally known as a pianist; he played in England in 1882 and 1891 and in many other countries. In 1881 he was offered a teaching post at the Moscow Conservatory, which he refused. He evidently did not wish to uproot himself from Rome, where he had made lasting and important contributions to the city’s musical life. Notable among these was his founding (in collaboration with Ettore Pinelli) of the Liceo Musicale (later Conservatorio) di S Cecilia, linked to the much older Accademia. The Liceo began informally, as early as 1869, as a free school for poor piano students in Sgambati’s house; in 1877 it was put on an official basis, and he continued to teach there until his death.
Sgambati is of unquestionable historical importance as a leading figure in the late 19th-century resurgence of non-operatic music in Italy. Yet his works have endured far less well than those of his younger contemporary Martucci. He nevertheless had a fluent talent, and a movement such as the First Piano Quintet’s mercurial scherzo, which begins and ends in fast 5/8 time, shows that in his youth he was not without originality. Occasionally later pieces, too, reveal signs of independent thinking, as in the unexpectedly adventurous Prelude in the Suite op.16 (published as op.21), with its piquant, glittering dissonances. Nor was he without Italian characteristics, despite the influence of various foreign composers, from Mendelssohn, Chopin and Schumann to Liszt. Like Martucci’s, his music sometimes has a sunlit radiance reminiscent of Domenico Scarlatti (see, for instance, the Gigue published as op.23 no.6), and at other times there are reminders of Liszt’s consciously ‘Mediterranean’ side – the fifth Nocturne op.24 (op.31), with its languid cantabile melodies and its indolent diatonic dissonances, might almost be called a ‘poor man’s Sonetto di Petrarca’.
Even in compositions such as these, however, the danger of lapsing into facile, easy-going charm, with repetitive rhythms and figurations, is not altogether overcome, and such dangers weigh heavily on many other pieces. Moreover, Sgambati’s larger instrumental works (with the possible exceptions of the early quintets) do not indicate that he needed large abstract musical forms to embody his ideas. The D minor Symphony is more satisfactory than the Piano Concerto precisely because it is lighter and less pretentious. Even the once internationally popular String Quartet in C minor is too rhapsodic, and at times too turgid, to convince as a whole. Nevertheless, for all their shortcomings, these works played an essential part in preparing the ground for more durable Italian instrumental music; and special mention should be made of the Requiem, repeatedly used at Italian royal funerals, whose sober dignity and manifest sincerity can still impress, despite the extreme conservatism of the style.
Pietro Mascagni (b Livorno, 7 Dec 1863; d Rome,2 Aug 1945). Italian composer and conductor.
Piotr Ilich Tchaikovsky: (b Kamsko-Votkinsk, Vyatka province, 25 April/7 May 1840; d St Petersburg, 25 Oct/6 Nov 1893). Russian composer. He was the first composer of a new Russian type, fully professional, who firmly assimilated traditions of Western European symphonic mastery; in a deeply original, personal and national style he united the symphonic thought of Beethoven and Schumann with the work of Glinka, and transformed Liszt’s and Berlioz’s achievements in depictive-programmatic music into matters of Shakespearian elevation and psychological import (Boris Asaf’yev).
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: (b Salzburg, 27 Jan 1756; d Vienna, 5 Dec 1791). Austrian composer, son of Leopold Mozart. His style essentially represents a synthesis of many different elements, which coalesced in his Viennese years, from 1781 on, into an idiom now regarded as a peak of Viennese Classicism. The mature music, distinguished by its melodic beauty, its formal elegance and its richness of harmony and texture, is deeply coloured by Italian opera though also rooted in Austrian and south German instrumental traditions. Unlike Haydn, his senior by 24 years, and Beethoven, his junior by 15, he excelled in every medium current in his time. He may thus be regarded as the most universal composer in the history of Western music.