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Giovanni Sgambati: Piano Concerto and a World Premiere

Giovanni Sgambati: Piano Concerto and a World Premiere
Giovanni Sgambati: Piano Concerto and a World Premiere
Giovanni Sgambati: Piano Concerto and a World Premiere

Giovanni Sgambati (1841-1914), a favourite student of Liszt, was admired by Wagner: that’s quite a CV. Here we have two works: the large-scale Piano Concerto in G minoring the Sinfonia festiva.

Sgambati is probably best known for his arrangement of Gluck’s “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” from Orfeo ed Euridice: here’s one Sergei Rachmaninov:

Sgambati in a sense went against the Italian tide: instead of opera, his concentration was on instrumental music (Martucci was another). Sgambati’s Piano Quintet impressed Richard Wagner, who recommended Sgambati to his publishers (Schott, Maunz). Sgambati studied with Liszt, and one can hear that in the orchestration sometimes (note to self: I really must do a post on Liszt tone-poems …).

The two works on this new ax’s disc follow on from each other nicely (the Overture dates from 1878/9 and the Concerto from 1879/80). The Sinfonia festiva (“Overtire de fête”) is a World Premiere recording. There are moments where it’s like a Mendelssohn with the scoring bolstered; at others it holds real late-Romantic power (Mendelssohn was a composer Sgambati was fascinated with in his early days). Not much is known about this work, which we do know is his Op. 36, but it is a fine, well-structured piece heard here in a committed performance from the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma conducted by Massimiliano Damerini:

The Piano Concerto’s most famous recording was by Jorge Bolet, but that appears to be hard to come by in physical format (and included some cuts). Damerini’s recording dates from 2013 (sadly, Damerini died in 2023) and is uncut. Francesco La Vecchia conducts a filly honed and concentrated orchestral; contribution, and the Ochestra Sinfonica di Roma is on fire. The music is quite gestural in the long (24-minute) first movement, but take it on its own terms and there is much to enjoy. Damerini clearly enjoys the technical challenges, and he delivers the long second subject beautifully. The cadenza around ten and a half minutes in is really quite startling: suddenly the musical language seems to change before resetting itself into an almost Rachmaninov-like climax (think that composer’s Third Piano Concerto first movement cadenza). Sgambati’s re-introduction of the orchestra (woodwind, here) is magic and very clever, too:

The central Romanza (an Andante sostenuto) begins in something of a bare-bones way, but how it fleshes itself out. Sgambati’s writing is fascinating, and unique. This is not quite an idyll of respite:

The finale is a rondo-sonata, its theme stompingly good and with an inflection often Slavic about it. The writing for piano is difficult, but so are some of the rhythmic challenges in co-ordinating soloist and woodwind, nicely negotiated here:

There is some good news, too: the Bolet performance – and this piece plays to all of that great Lisztian’s strengths – is available on YouTube, and so is given below. The Nuremburg Symphony Orchestra is conducted by Anslee Cox:

Tracks: 00:00 Moderato Maestoso 20:31 Romanza. Andante Sostenuto 27:34 Allegro Animato

Well worth investing in, then. There is another modern version, on Tactus, curiously also with the Nuremburg orchestra, but Damerini is more alive to Sgambati’s quirky, quixotic world.

Do give this a try: Sgambati’s music is involving and unique.

The disc is available from Amazon here.

Sgambati: Sinfonia festiva & Piano Concerto | Stream on IDAGIO
Listen to Sgambati: Sinfonia festiva & Piano Concerto by Francesco La Vecchia, Massimiliano Damerini, Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma, Giovanni Sgambati. Stream now on IDAGIO
Giovanni Sgambati: Piano Concerto and a World Premiere

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