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Italian composer's concerto is a jewel yet to be admired

The CBSO give the UK premiere of a rarely-performed piece of work by Venetian composer Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari, Christopher Morley talks to soloist Francesca Dego

Francesca Dego(Image: © Davide Cerati)

The name Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari is best-known to concert-goers for the overtures to his operas Susanna’s Secret (her secret was that she was a closet cigarette-smoker) and Jewels of the Madonna.

But this Venetian composer also produced orchestra, chamber and choral works, rarely performed outside his native Italy, and on March 8 the CBSO gives the UK premiere of his Violin Concerto, composed as a love-letter in 1944, as soloist Francesca Dego tells me.

“In 2014 a wonderful Russian Orchestra (the Tatarstan Symphony) asked me to choose and perform a rare Italian concerto, so I started researching different possibilities and was amazed at how much wonderful overlooked symphonic repertoire there is.

“When I came across the Wolf-Ferrari and discovered there were almost no available recordings I became very curious. It’s difficult to say why his music virtually disappeared from the concert circuit but it definitely has to do with his nostalgic style, which looks to the past in a period in history when breaking with tradition was mainstream.

“The concerto was written in the early 1940s and dedicated to Guila Bustabo (exactly my age at the time) with whom the composer had become infatuated. I think this explains the extremely lyrical and romantic writing, which could also be seen as a sort of psychological escape from the horror of World War II.

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“I’m in no doubt that this concerto is a jewel that unfortunately most of the public has not had the opportunity to admire. The fact that in March I will be performing the UK premiere with an orchestra of the calibre of the City of Birmingham Symphony fills me with pride. This is 2017 and we are talking about a Concerto written 73 years ago! The concert with the CBSO will become a CD for Deutsche Grammophon which will be released next autumn coupled with my favourite showpiece, Paganini’s first concerto.”

Italo-American, Francesca Dego recalls her concerto debut, at the age of 7.

“It was Bach’s double concerto in San Diego, California, where we were living at the time (my mother’s American). I have an hilarious video of the concert, I had this white-wedding-cake dress and looked tiny next to the other soloist, who was in her teens.

“But the cutest part is that I didn’t seem to be concentrating on what I was doing at all! I basically stood there curiously scanning each face in the audience with mild amusement while playing my part with total control. I don’t know where and when I lost that capacity but it’s very clear I didn’t know the meaning of stage fright.”

Francesca also played the Beethoven Concerto at the age of 14, and the Brahms at 15. Would she change any of these interpretations now?

“Of course! I consider every performance a sort of photograph of a specific moment and I think one of the best aspects of growing up with a piece is how it evolves and changes with you in time. I don’t agree with the theory one should wait until 40 to play the Beethoven and Brahms Concerti because to debut such masterpieces at that point would possibly mean being overwhelmed by one’s own expectations.

“I may have exaggerated in the other direction but after so many years on stage with these incredible works I feel confident and even more eager to learn from every orchestra and conductor I work with. I have fond memories of those first performances and, listening to recordings of them I’m always amused and a bit envious of how natural everything sounds, albeit definitely naive in many ways.

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Away from concerto-playing, does Francesca also perform in chamber-music?

“Chamber music has always been a very important part of my musical life, especially my 12-year-and-counting duo with wonderful pianist Francesca Leonardi (yes, I know, two Francescas!),

“We started in school and became best friends somewhere along the way which is a great advantage considering endless flights and occasionally being stranded in airports for days. There is really something special in an ongoing musical relationship because at this point we have such a large repertoire and are so used to each other that we breathe together and can really understand one another’s musical intentions without saying a word.”

Francesca is married to Daniele Rustioni, who will conduct this CBSO concert, and who is himself establishing an illustrious international career, including an already impressive portfolio with Welsh National Opera. She tells me about the beneficial spinoffs.

“One of the perks of being married to a conductor is that I get to see lots of extra concerts and especially opera performances, which I love and don’t involve me in any professional way, making it carefree and just plain fun.

“I’m fascinated by how complex theatre is and how when the quasi-magical mechanism starts to work every little piece of the puzzle fits perfectly. I’ve always felt inspired by singing so listening to opera is wonderful and gives me all sorts of great phrasing and pacing tips. The downside is that when I’m not travelling for my own work I’m travelling for my spouse’s! So it’s very important to know how to be alone and not die of boredom while on the road.

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“My refuge is definitely reading and binge-watching period dramas on Netflix… I rarely part from my violin; I even took it along for a vacation in the Maldives. I started to have second thoughts when we landed on water and I practically had to jump onto a boat from the seaplane. It’s a gorgeous 1697 Cremonese instrument made by Francesco Ruggeri and I always wonder if it’s already been to the exotic places I travel to. I’m guessing I may be the first owner in 300 years to have dragged it all the way to Patagonia and Thailand.”

* Francesca Dego performs with the CBSO at Symphony Hall on March 8 (7.30pm).

Upcoming Concerts

Sunday: Baritone Roderick Williams is joined by accompanist par excellence Iain Burnside for Schubert's ardent song-cycle Die Schone Mullerin.(Malvern Festival Theatres, 3pm).

Sunday: Ex-alumnus Jamie Phillips conducts the CBSO Youth Orchestra in Britten's Piano Concerto, Steven Osborne the soloist, and Vaughan Williams' London Symphony (Symphony Hall, 7pm).

Wednesday: Roddy Williams reappears, this time with the CBSO in a lovely programme of English music conducted by John Wilson (Symphony Hall, 2.15pm).

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