Wolf-Ferrari’s Violin Sonatas

WOLF-FERRARI: Violin Sonatas Nos. 1-3 / Emmanuele Baldini, vln; Luca Della Donne, pno / Naxos 8.574297

Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari is best known for his operas, particularly Il Segreto di Susanna but also for I Gioelli della Madonna and Le donne curiose, but I first realized that he was a more vesatile composer after hearing the violin concerto that he wrote for the ill-fated Guila Bustabo in the 1940s. That was an outstanding work, and these violin sonatas, written between 1895 and 1943, are equally interesting.

One of the reasons why his music was richer harmonically and more interesting structurally than such contemporaries as Leoncavallo, Mascagni, Puccini and Giordano was that he went to Munich as a teenager, where he studied with Josef Rheinberger, whose own influences were Schumann and Brahms. Thus Wolf-Ferrari may be viewed as someone whose own musical style lay somewhere between the equally Brahms-influenced Giuseppe Martucci, who generally wrote instrumental works, and his opera-centric peers.

Thus although the first sonata presented here was written when he was only 19 years old, it is a surprisingly interesting and mature-sounding work. Wolf-Ferrari clearly absorbed music like a sponge and was able to construct music, even at an early age, that would be the envy of even many young composers today (taking stylistic changes over the past 125 years into account). There is absolutely nothing about this work that sound immature, precious or striving for something that he could not completely achieve. In fact, I’m rather stunned that this sonata, and the two that follow, have not become standard repertoire items.

As an Italian violinist, Emmanuele Baldini plays with a bright tone, but also with a certain amount of gravitas that brings out the full measure of the music. I would say that he understands what it is to play with half-light or chiaroscuro, bringing seriousness to each phrase without over-larding it with too much heaviness. And happily his musical partner here, pianist Luca Della Donne, is with him every step of the way. Listening to this early sonata, it’s easier to comprehend why Wolf-Ferrari’s operas have such a musically sophisticated sound.

Although written only six years later (1905), the second sonata is even more impressive and clearly an advance on the first. Here, Wolf-Ferrari uses fast, serrated motifs welded together to create a theme in the first movement, to which the piano complements them with his own similar figures. Moreover, Wolf-Ferrari continues this rhythmic play into the variations, creating a surprisingly complex polyphonic web of sound. Even more interestingly, he uses an upwards, stepwise figure in the slow movement which he sometimes reverses, which gives the music the odd sensation of occasionally “running backwards.”

The third sonata, written in 1943, thus does not surprise one with its sophistication. True, in this work Wolf-Ferrari was a more mature composer with decades of experience now behind him and had had success with his operas, but there is really no sign of growth because he was already a mature composer at age 19. The notes on the back cover refer to this sonata as “an enigmatic work, unlike any other in the repertoire,” but frankly I don’t hear it as enigmatic at all, just as a really good violin sonata slightly more advanced and complex than its forebear, but not so much so that the word “enigmatic” comes to mind. It’s just a very good piece, very much in line with what he was experimenting with in 1901. The fast third movement almost sounds as if it were based on one of Brahms’ Hungarian Rhapsodies.

All in all, then, a very satisfying disc. The pieces are really interesting and very well played. I strongly recommend that you investigate this CD.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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