Wolf-Ferrari: Orchestral Works / Schirmer, Munich Radio Symphony Orchestra

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WOLF-FERRARI Trittico. Arabesque on an Aria by Ettore Tito . Divertimento. Suite Veneziana Ulf Schirmer, cond; Munich RO CPO 777 567-2 (68:34)

For many years he was known only for his operas—and instrumental excerpts, at that; now Wolf-Ferrari’s non-operatic orchestral music is finally beginning to get a hearing. There’s a fair amount of it, too, mostly composed in the last two decades of his life. The four works on this album were all written between 1935 and 1937, all around the premiere of his opera Il campiello, which occurred at La Scala in 1936.

There are no stylistic surprises for those familiar with Wolf-Ferrari’s operas, but the expressive range and technical accomplishment of these pieces display aspects of the composer that were infrequently revealed. For example, the Trittico ’s striking first movement features variations on a slow, unison chorale theme (titled “In excelsis” in the Italian edition), serene and monumental, while its second movement, “To the Dead Heroes,” is a gloomy but powerful two-part threnody with curious chromatic side slips reminiscent of Reger. The Divertimento is to all intents and purposes a chamber symphony in Wolf-Ferrari’s 18th-century manner, reminiscent of his much earlier Le donne curiose, I quatro rusteghi, and Il segreto di Susanna , but the Arabesque on an Aria by Ettore Tito (a 20th-century Italian painter, rather than composer) concludes with a lengthy and elaborate fugue that is both academically correct and quirkily individual. The four-movement Suite Veneziana stands at a great distance from the usual musical picture-postcards of the canal-based city, with hints of popular melodic forms and rhythms turned autumnal, spectral, or threatening. Even the final section, “Festive Morning,” is more of a phantasmal serenade than anything else.

There’s little to criticize in Ulf Schirmer’s conducting or the Munich Radio Orchestra’s performances on this disc. I could wish for a bit more personal character in solo passages, but there’s a fine blend between the sections, and a technical polish that never fails. The only competition comes from the Oviedo Philharmonic under Friedrich Haider, on a disc that Paul Orgel thoroughly enjoyed ( Fanfare 33:6). Haider typically takes slightly faster tempos, and emphasizes rhythms a bit more, while Schirmer lingers over colors and chromaticism, preferring a more relaxed pace. The differences are greater than one might think in this often emotionally ambiguous music, with Haider seeing more of the light, Schirmer more of the shade, in these compositions.

If I were asked to choose between the two albums, frankly, I wouldn’t. Haider supplies more music—he adds four of those brief operatic instrumentals I alluded to at the start of this review—but Schirmer finds more depth in the Trittico and Suite Veneziana without ever becoming ponderous. One thing’s for certain: There’s much here to enjoy from a composer too often seen as little more than a pastiche artist.

FANFARE: Barry Brenesal


Much of this music appeared on a recent disc on the PhilArtis label. Those performances were serviceable, but there's no question that the music makes a much more positive impression on this release. As I mentioned in connection with that previous issue, there are some wonderful moments here: the ecstatic first movement of Trittico, and the finale of the Suite, which sounds like it wandered in from Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin. All of the music is pretty, to be sure, but it would be difficult to say that these are anything but slight works of a composer who devoted his main attention to opera. Still, Ulf Schirmer and his Munich players deliver performances of much greater incisiveness and polish than their predecessors, and so if you're curious about this composer's non-operatic music, this very well recorded disc represents your best bet.

--David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 777567-2

  • UPC: 761203756728

  • Label: CPO

  • Composer: Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari

  • Conductor: Ulf Schirmer

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Munich Radio Symphony Orchestra