Mercadante: Flute Concertos Nos. 1, 2 And 4 / Gallois, Sinfonia Finlandia Jyvaskyla
MERCADANTE Flute Concertos: No. 2 in e, op. 57; No. 4 in G; No. 1 in E, op. 49 • Patrick Gallois (fl, cond); Snf Finlandia Jyväskylä • NAXOS 8.572731 (57:34)
Saverio Mercadante’s flute concertos are apparently more popular than I’d have thought—the one in E Minor especially—for not a few recordings of them have been previously reviewed in these pages. How memorable are they? Well, for me, they must not have made any lasting impression at all, for it wasn’t until I checked the Fanfare Archive that I realized I had reviewed a two-disc set of the composer’s flute concertos on Dynamic, performed by flutist Mario Carbotta. What’s interesting, though, is that in only three instances, going back to the early 1990s, have these works been taken up by players with names familiar enough to be recognized by general listeners outside of flute circles: James Galway, Jean-Pierre Rampal, and Peter-Lukas Graf. This new release on Naxos thus appears to be the first in two decades to feature an internationally renowned flutist with a name readers are sure to know, Patrick Gallois.
Giuseppe Saverio Raffaele Mercadante (1795–1870) was primarily a composer of operas. No surprise there; if you were a composer in 19th-century Italy, that’s what you did for a living, and Mercadante must have lived well, for his output of operas was prodigious—at least 60 that we know of. He was also long-lived enough to have witnessed the comings and goings of Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti, and to have been around for a good portion of Verdi’s life. While in Paris at Rossini’s invitation in 1836, Mercadante attended performances of operas by Meyerbeer and Halévy, and is said to have been strongly influenced by the French emphasis on grand, dramatic spectacle. After spending some time in Vienna, Spain, and Portugal, Mercadante returned to Italy, settled in for the long haul, and set to work.
Unlike most of his opera-composing Italian contemporaries, Mercadante seems to have had more than just a passing interest in instrumental music. His flute concertos and chamber works that include a flute can be explained by his majoring in the instrument as a student at the Naples Conservatory, but orchestration became a lifelong passion for him. He took special pains with the instrumental scoring in his operas, and during the last 30 years of his life, while director of the Conservatory at which he’d been a student, Mercandante composed a goodly number of non-operatic works. During his last seven years, from approximately 1863 on, he became nearly totally blind.
Sometimes it’s harder than other times to intuit why one composer’s works survive while another’s lose their appeal. Certainly, in his day, Mercadante rivaled Rossini and Donizetti in the field of opera. But for the very first time ever in these pages, I reviewed an opera in 36:6, and that opera happened to be Mercadante’s Don Chisciotte alle nozze di Gamaccio , categorized as a melodramma giocoso . I didn’t come away from it with a very positive opinion, describing the piece as “an Italian singspiel , and not a very good one, with nary a single memorable tune in this over an hour-and-a-half-long jocularity fit for whistling while you work.” I’m sure it’s not fair to judge Mercadante by this one opus, especially since it may not be representative of his operatic output as a whole, but in a 14: 4 review of Mercadante’s Il reggente , David Johnson wrote: “He was a composer of great gifts, but they were not great enough to survive direct comparisons with the triumvirate of Rossini, Donizetti, and Verdi, whose styles are all reflected in his operas. And he had the unlucky fate of choosing subjects that other composers had or were about to treat more memorably.”
To the extent that Mercadante is remembered today it’s mainly for his seven or so flute concertos, which, in their musical style and virtuoso demands on the soloist, are strongly reminiscent of Paganini’s violin concertos. If the flute could only play double-stops and chords and had the range of a violin, you could almost substitute one for the other. Each begins with an imposing introductory exposition that prepares for the grand entrance of the prima donna. Only in this case, she turns out to be a slip of a thing, a mere mouse, compared to the lioness the orchestral set-up has led us to expect. No disrespect intended towards Patrick Gallois and his brilliant fluting, but there’s something almost comical when the soloist enters twittering and tweeting away after such grandiloquent promises of things to come. It reminds me of the LOL jew’s harp concertos by Albrechtsberger.
Anyway, if you’re a flute fancier, you are guaranteed to find Mercadante’s concertos scintillating entertainment, and Gallois’s performance of them will take your breath away. It’s a miracle they don’t take his breath away, as he twirls and twizzles his way through a seemingly endless triathlon of rapid runs, arpeggios, and register leaps without ever once missing a beat or showing the least sign of strain. This is flute playing on an epic scale, and it’s matched in kind by the 38-member-strong Sinfonia Finlandia Jyväskylä, amazingly well-led by Gallois as he’s playing.
Truth be told, the flute is not high on my list of favorite instruments, but if even I can appreciate the works on this disc and marvel at the execution, think how much you’ll love it if you actually like the flute. A two-thumbs-up recommendation.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
Catalog Number: 8572731
Composer: Saverio Mercadante
Conductor: Patrick Gallois
Orchestra/Ensemble: Sinfonia Finlandia
Performer: Patrick Gallois