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Daily album review 35: The enchanting symphonic world of Italian Giovanni Sgambati

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sgambaticdMy last daily album review — and last review of 2012 — is a real ear-opener: a four-movement symphony and incidental music by Italian composer Giovanni Sgambati (1841-1914).

It’s easy to become jaded about forgotten or obscure music, figuring that there’s a reason for the obscurity.

That’s hardly the case for a hot-off-the-press Naxos album featuring Symphony No. 1 (premiered in 1888) and a recently discovered, previously unpublished 1866 score of a sprawling Overture for the play Cola di Rienzo, the same work that had earlier inspired Wagner’s opera Rienzi.

A fantastic performance by the 10-year-old Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma under Francesco La Vecchi brings this harmonically rich, thematically astute, expansive music to brilliant life.

Something new and wonderful appears in the score with each new listen.

I’ve been impressed most by the sense of carefully measured, seamless progression in the overall narrative that would appear to be a direct product of Sgambati’s years of study with Franz Liszt and affection for and professional links with Richard Wagner (the German composer was a champion, setting Sgambati up with the publisher Schott).

Here is a composer who transforms and evokes with a multitude of little musical motifs interwoven with a melolic arc, rather than using traditional themes and developments.

sgambatiThe music has opened a door to what turns out to be a fascinating figure in Italian musical history.

It turns out that Sgambati was an accomplished pianist and composer whose main professional motivation was to see instrumental music reclaim its audience in opera-obsessed 19th century Italy.

I suspect I’m going to have a longer, salon-des-oubliés feature on Sgambati in the near future.

In the meantime, check out this wonderful music. You’ll find all the details here.

One of Sgambati’s pet peeves was that Italians in his day were experiencing the great German symphonies through piano duo reductions, not full orchestra.

So, since he’s dead and the world might end at any moment, here’s the first movement of his Symphony No. 1, in Sgambati’s own two-piano arrangement, beautifully rendered by two Francescos, Libetta and Caramiello, followed by a proper symphony orchestra playing the enchanting third movement, marked Serenata:

John Terauds

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