Ponchielli piano music Brilliant 96969

Amilcare Ponchielli(1834-1886)
Piano Music
Ester Fusar Poli (piano)
rec. 2021, Teatro Ponchielli, Cremona, Italy
Brilliant Classics 96969 [74]

I imagine for many of us the name Ponchielli is synonymous with la Gioconda, the tragic opera first staged Milan in 1876 and its ballet, the Dance of the hours is so ingrained in my consciousness that it seems I was born knowing it – I probably first heard it in Disney’s Fantasia and its inclusion in that film shows just how popular it was. I have to be honest and confess that hitherto that was the full extent of my knowledge of Ponchielli’s music; I didn’t imagine my knowledge would be increased by a recital of piano music, but here it is. This is not a complete survey; the booklet says there are just over thirty compositions for piano solo and, as with many composers who were writing for the domestic market rather than the concert stage, there are popular dances and genres of the time – nocturnes, either by name or nature, romances and elegies.

Amilcare Ponchielli was born in Cremona and at the age of nine he entered the Milan Conservatory. Early promise failed to bring the expected success and he spent some time as a band master in various Italian towns, composing all the while, though it was only his band music that had any success; his early operas attracted no interest and it was only when an 1872 revision of his 1856 opera the betrothed was successful that music publisher Ricordi offered him a contract. La Gioconda was first staged in 1876 bringing him the renown that had previously eluded him. He went on to a professorship at the Milan Conservatory, where his pupils included Giacomo Puccini and Pietro Mascagni. He died of pneumonia in 1886.

The disc opens with his most famous work, the Dance of the hours in its piano version. Ponchielli evidently struggled to write this light-hearted ballet interlude after all the ‘serious’ work of the opera proper and was actually completing it in the foyer while opera rehearsals were underway. It can be enjoyed here in Fusar Poli’s committed and sprightly performance which begins at the hours of the day, the most familiar section and continues without a break to the galop finale. This is no concert transcription, rather it is a straightforward arrangement that is identical to the version in the Ricordi vocal score in the piano reduction by Michele Saladino (1835-1912) a tutor and composer at the Milan Conservatory. The other dances on this album would actually fit very well in this light ballet mode, though Ponchielli evidently saved his more memorable tunes for the Dance of the hours; they make for enjoyable listening nonetheless. Amicizia is a gentile mazurka in several sections while the Gavotte poudrée, a powdered gavotte, is a charming example of the mock-baroque writing that made a piece like Paderewski’s Minuet in G so popular. Tutti ebbri is a galop in much the same vein as the Dance of the hours finale; it was written for festivities held in the Lombardy town of Gamboló as was the second of two polkas here, La staffetta di Gamboló. The other polka is the Saltellina Polka, full of skipping grace notes and with a less hectic middle section. It dates from a period when Ponchielli was supporting himself writing dances for the theatre and his years of experience allowed him to write these engaging incidental pieces for a public that was not looking for profundity. His Improvviso, continuing the dance theme, is a very brief and unassuming minuet.

There is plenty of depth of feeling in the more lyrical works which include T’ameró sempre and Il Primo affetto; the former is quite interesting in that its opening melody, which soon gives way to some dramatic writing, is reprised with a fair amount of decoration and the whole has something of the feel of Liszt Liebesträume. Il Primo affetto has shades of Chopin though he doesn’t imitate the Polish master’s style as so many were wont to do in the years following his death. The Notturno Op 93 which, like Il Primo affetto was published posthumously, is even more Chopinesque though its melodies give it more of an Italianate sentiment, perhaps even a gondolier’s serenade. More intense emotions are stirred in the remaining works on the disc, three élégies and a funeral march. The oddly titled Elegia, Add9 was written in memory of a young concert master, just seventeen when he died; it has a slightly halting Chopin-like melody over a triplet accompaniment, its sadness tempered with more optimistic moods. The same can be said of the elegia op.92 which features a long cantilena over a triplet accompaniment, very much in the style of a Mendelssohn Song without words. Felice Frasi, the dedicatee of the Elegia funebre Op 89 was Ponchielli’s composition tutor and as the title suggests this is a funereal and tragic work though its second half features a sudden change of mood when a bright melody begins over a walking staccato bass. It was written for the inauguration of a monument in Vercelli, Frasi’s adopted home, two years after his death. The Marcia funebre per I funerali di Francesco Lucca on the other hand was written to accompany the coffin of publisher Francesco Lucca, the first to have faith in the young Ponchielli and who published some of his early works. At over 16 minutes it is by far the longest work here and like the elegia funebre it was originally composed for band, just two of a huge number of works that Ponchielli wrote in his years as a band leader. It opens with a subdued march with rumbling timpani, which slowly builds in intensity before giving way to a more lyrical passage. The march returns, but it is now more sustained and dies away reluctantly. At what seems to be the end, the mood suddenly changes to what could almost be a comic opera chorus, creeping in with whatever the Ponchielli equivalent of with cat like tread is. This episode does not last long however before the opening music returns for a full reprise. Fusar Poli certainly does it justice, bringing out the dramatic elements and contrasting moods effectively. She has chosen a good cross-section of his styles and I am especially taken with his more lyrical music; T’ameró sempre, Il Primo affetto and his notturno are attractive and beautifully crafted works. It seems fitting that Fusar Poli has brought these works to life from the theatre named after Cremona’s illustrious son.

Rob Challinor

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La Gioconda – Danza delle ore (1876)
Il Primo affetto, Op 94 (pub.1906)
Amicizia – Mazurka, Op 95
T’ameró sempre, Op 87 (1866)
Tutti ebbri, Op 90 (1882)
Elegia, Add9 (1872)
Improvviso (1880)
Notturno, Op 93 (posth.1906)
Gavotte poudrée, Op 91 (1884)
Elegia, Op 82 (pub.1906)
Saltellina-polka, Op 98 (1868)
Elegia funebre in onore di Felice Frasi, Op 89 (1881)
La staffetta di Gamboló, Op 88 (1881)
Marcia funebre per I funerali di Francesco Lucca, Op 112 (1872)