The two Piano Concertos
Variazioni sulla “Follia di Spagna”
Les Horaces & Semiramide Overtures
Pietro Spada, piano and conduction
Almost everybody knows the name of Antonio Salieri, the Italian-born composer who, being a key figure of the Viennese classical period and one of the most revered composers of the Habsburg capital during his lifetime, had bad fortune to be remembered after his death chiefly for the false accusation to have murdered Mozart out of envy, a slander that seemed to find its definitive affirmation thanks to Puskhin’s Mozart and Salieri and that only in relatively recent times it has been seriously contested.
Salieri’s musical achievement was virtually forgotten for a long time and even now that his good name has been restored by important monographies such as John A. Rice’s Antonio Salieri and Viennese Opera and Rudolph Angermüller’s Antonio Salieri and that some recordings of his works have been released, he remains for the wide audience a mediocre representative of a golden age, underestimating both his relevance as operatic composer (he was the connection between the age of Gluck and that of Mozart) and as a talented teacher, counting among his pupils celebrated coloratura sopranos as Catharina Cavalieri and Therese Gassmann and, more relevantly, several young boys as Beethoven and Schubert who, it is superfluous to add, were to become the major composers of the next century.
Albums that help to re-establish a reliable image of Salieri are for these reasons more than welcomed and the present collection of orchestral pieces is a gem by its own right. It collects Salieri’s two only concertos for piano (both written in 1773), together with two overtures from the operas Les Horaces (1786) and Semiramide (1782) and the fabulous Variazioni sulla “Follia di Spagna” (1815). This was Salieri’s last work and it is worth quoting few lines from the booklet notes, written by Pietro Spada, in which the Variazioni are considered «a sort of brooding soliloquy but, at the same time, something of a massive study in timbre and instrumentation, much as Ravel’s Bolero was to be in the 20th century. Nothing of this calibre was to appear in variation form again until Brahms’ Variations on a Theme of Haydn» – just to give you a sample of Salieri’s skill.
Pietro Spada is the conductor and pianist of the present recording and offers an extraordinary performance of the Salieri’s works together the Philharmonia Orchestra. He shows such energy and strength, not disjoint from a sensitive intuition, that all the works are presented in an electrifying, never boring way, and, even if some of them are not among the most entrancing compositions ever heard, there is still the chance to praise the music together with the musicians. I am referring in particular to the piano concertos, two old-fashioned but charming works, echoing (especially the second) Mozart’s style in an imperfect way, that Spada conducts and plays with zest and nerve. What is really valuable of the concertos is the luminous colour and the exquisiteness that, in my humble opinion, give them a patina that improve them despite their reference to outdated models.
The two overtures from the opera Les Horaces and Semiramide and the Variazioni sulla “Follia di Spagna” are definitely the works for which it is worth listening to this recording, also because the overtures offer a glimpse on the most considerable (for quality and quantitaty) part of Salieri’s catalogue: the operatic music. Spada conducts these works with irresistible charisma, found for the first time in Les Horaces (the work that opens the album) and that returns in some of the variations at the other end of it. The overture from Les Horaces is an energetic, not martial but nonetheless heroic work, easily reminding of the Roman subject of the opera, and it is performed accentuating these features in a way that make them immediately recognizable. The overture from Semiramide is vaguer from this point of view, but its elaborate, grandiose music, tinged with melancholic accents in the middle section, reminds of the best tradition of the opera seria.
The Variazioni sulla “Follia di Spagna” are the last but, in a certain sense, the most awaited work. In Salieri’s “farewell” to music, there is the chance to listen to all the colours, all the feelings that it is possible to imagine (there are twenty-six variations, after all!) and Spada stresses them with attention, giving to each its peculiarity, from a resigned, gloom beginning to the “agitato” of the middle variations to end with a solemn and optimistic conclusion.
This is one of the best recordings on little-known works written by a misinterpreted composer and a way to approach him in the right way after two centuries of disregard.