Violinist Champions Neglected 'Gem' In New Recording

May 14, 2018

History, that capricious dispenser of fate, remembers some people well, others not so well and still others not at all. The same is true for musical works — some of which enjoy immortality, while others languish in obscurity, waiting for heroes to bring them back to light.

Italian violinist Francesca Dego may well go down in history as the heroine of a lesser-known violin concerto by 20th-century composer Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari. It's a gorgeous work she justly calls a "gem" and an "Italian opera for the violin" that fell into neglect as victim to some of history's darker, crueler twists of fate.

Dego's debut concerto album features Wolf-Ferrari's Violin Concerto in D alongside Niccolo Paganini’s Violin Concerto No. 1, with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Daniele Rustioni, a rising star on the opera and concert podiums.

The Deutsche Grammophon recording could help bring Wolf-Ferrari's Violin Concerto into the major violin concerto repertoire. And this work deserves a place in the repertoire, for the simple reason that it is a masterpiece, a technical tour de force in the service of drama and expression and cloaked in warm and opulent tones from beginning to end.

The concerto's first movement is a dreamy "Fantasia" full of beautiful melodies and virtuosic passagework for the violin. In the second movement, "Romanza," the solo violin soars in bel canto melodies above a light, pared-down orchestra. The third movement, "Improvviso," borrows the drama of accompanied recitative from the world of opera in a dynamic array of episodes across the emotional spectrum.

A brief solo violin cadenza at the end of "Improvviso" leads to the final movement, a "Rondo" reminiscent of the cabalettas of Vincenzo Bellini, Gaetano Donizetti and later masters of Italian opera.

So, if Wolf-Ferrari's violin concerto is so glorious, why have you never heard of it?

The concerto's reputation may have been tarnished by the Nazi associations of the violinist who gave its first performances during World War II, by the heritage of the concerto's composer and even by the style of the music itself.

Lost in the War: Guila Bustabo and Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari's Violin Concerto in D

The son of German painter August Wolf and a Venetian mother, Wolf-Ferrari composed his violin concerto for American violinist Guila Bustabo, a Wisconsin-born child prodigy who studied at the Juilliard School, made her Carnegie Hall debut at age 15 and started touring overseas at 18.

The roster of conductors with whom Bustabo worked reads like a Who's Who of early 20th-century classical music. During the 1930s, Bustabo's career as a concert soloist and recitalist skyrocketed, establishing her as one of the major concert violinists in Europe.

While Nazism was engulfing Europe, Bustabo was enjoying the zenith of her career. Bustabo's mother, Blanche, reputedly controlled her daughter's career tightly, even after Bustabo had reached her late 20s. At the advent of World War II, when many American artists were returning to the U.S., Bustabo followed her mother's plans and stayed in Europe.

Bustabo met Wolf-Ferrari in Paris in 1940, before the city fell under Nazi occupation in May of that year. He wrote his concerto for her in the 1940s, and the two performed concerts together around Europe.

In October 1940, in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam, Bustabo performed a concerto with the Concertgebouw Orchestra and Willem Mengelberg — a conductor who gave performances in Germany and other Nazi-occupied countries throughout World War II. Bustabo also performed with Austrian conductor Oswald Kabasta, an open supporter of the Nazi regime.

Hear Bustabo playing the fourth movement of Wolf-Ferrari's Violin Concerto:

At the end of the war, the Netherlands banned Mengelberg from conducting in his native land for five years. Bustabo returned to Paris after the city’s liberation in 1944. U.S. Army General George Patton invited her to perform for U.S. troops but, after learning of her association with Mengelberg during the war, retracted the invitation and had her arrested.

Bustabo was eventually able to continue performing as a soloist in Europe during the 1950s and '60s, but U.S. orchestras declined to engage her. She served on the faculty of Innsbruck's music conservatory in the 1960s, leaving in 1970 and returning to the U.S., where she played for five years in the violin section of the Alabama Symphony Orchestra.

Violinist Francesca Dego performs Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari's 'Violin Concerto in D' and Paganini's 'Violin Concerto No. 1' with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.
Credit Deutsche Grammophon

Rescued from Oblivion: The Recording Legacy of a Lost Concerto

After the war, Wolf-Ferrari's violin concerto fell out of favor in Italy. The composer died in 1948, at a time when some already viewed the lush, post-Romantic style of the piece as outdated and belonging to a simpler world that the war had destroyed.

It's possible also that Wolf-Ferrari's German heritage and name didn't help him or his violin concerto in post-war Italy. And as the violinist who first performed Wolf-Ferrari's concerto and to whom he dedicated it, Bustabo certainly moved forward in her career under the dark cloud of her Nazi associations.

Francesca Dego's recording of Wolf-Ferrari’s violin concerto is not the first recording of the piece. Bustabo recorded it twice, and violinists Benjamin Schmid and Ulf Hoelscher have also committed their interpretations to disc.

But today — more than 70 years after the end of World War II — might just be the concerto's moment. Enough time has now passed for Wolf-Ferrari's violin concerto to be cleansed of the political tarnish of its early life and, in an age of true musical eclecticism, to be freed from any stigma associated with its style.

Only time will tell whether Dego's new recording will help reverse the trend of the concerto’s neglect, in her and Wolf-Ferrari’s native land and elsewhere. This recording — a beautiful rendition by a gifted violinist, and released on a major label — certainly gives the piece a fighting chance.

Join Jennifer Hambrick from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Thursday, May 17 for the Classical 101 premiere of Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari’s Violin Concerto in a new recording by violinist Francesca Dego.