An Interview with Giacomo Di Tollo
It is relatively rare these days to get the opportunity to meet the artist who’s work appears on the recording. Tight schedules and commitments often prove a stumbling block but I was fortunate to talk to Giacomo di Tollo shortly after the recording was completed. I was intrigued by his unusual yet impressive choice of repertoire. It contains little-known piano transcriptions of operatic works written by 19th century composers whose names are relatively obscure and an unusual selection of pieces from famous operas that have been arranged by assorted musicians, some famous, others less so.
An Italian, di Tollo is well acquainted with Italy’s 19th century musical tradition. He begins by specifying that because his repertoire is one rarely played by great pianists it is extremely difficult to compare different styles and approaches. Di Tollo maintains that in spite of its previous neglect, his repertoire is gaining an ever increasing attention among both performers and audiences alike. Such works as Preghiera by Rossini. Transcribed for piano by Vincenzo De Meglio. Thalberg’s arrangement of Casta Diva, the heroine’s cantabile cavatina from Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma. Hexameron Variations on Vincenzo Bellini’s March from I Puritani by Frédéric Chopin.
‘It is interesting,’ observes di Tollo, ‘that Liszt also wrote variations, as did Thalberg, Pixis, Herz and Czerny.’ The list continues with Una Furtiva Lagrima from L’elisir d’amore by Gaetano Donizetti. Paul Wittgenstein’s left hand transcription of the Humming Chorus from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Fantasia on La Forza del Destino by Giuseppe Martucci and the left hand only version of “O Signore dal tetto natio” from “I lombardi ala prima crociata”, by Adolfo Fumagalli.
‘In such company,’ di Tollo says, ‘it would be unforgivable to leave out the name of Verdi.’ He therefor includes Mercè Dilette Amiche from The Sicilian Vespers in the piano version by Raff.
When questioned about this unusual choice of repertoire, di Tollo says, ‘My aims are to widen the horizons, to explore more fully the inherent musicality of transcriptions from orchestral and operatic forms, from the most complex to the most simple. Busoni said that all renderings are transcriptions and in this case it follows that I am making a transcription out of a transcription. The pianist has to ask himself two specific questions when playing this kind of music: shall I recreate a singer’s voice (with all the pros and cons) or shall I just take care of the pianistic aspects? The reply to this question may vary over time and may depend on extra-musical constraints. It is true that the singing voice of Thalberg, which is helped by a rich harmonic sustain, has to be treated differently from Wittgenstein’s piece which has no harmonic sustain. A similar idea holds for the orchestral texture. In Martucci’s music a quick look to the score reveals the fully symphonic feature of the composition. In Donizetti, it is quite the reverse. I use a sense of fantasy to identify the pizzicato and mark clearly the resonance found in the score for the woodwind. It is exactly the same fantasy an attentive listener might employ when listening to this music.’
In this context there is an element of mild self reverential humour in the choice of Francesco Masciangelo’s, “Un omaggio per il Santo Natale” con perle by Mascagni. Masciangelo is a composer from Abruzzo, the same region as the pianist. Masciangelo is the only native of Abruzzo represented on this recording. He was born in 1823, in the Lanciano province of Chieti and died in 1906.
Di Tollo goes on to say, ‘The inclusion of Masciangelo is not only due to the composer’s firm identity with his home-land but his transcription of Mascagni, particularly since there are so few transcriptions of the realist repertoire of Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Puccini, and so on. And in addition. Masciangelo also quotes melodies from Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana.’
Following the splendor of the 19th century, interest in operatic transcriptions dwindled and only a few scores survive from that period. That said, Masciangelo, whose work is found first on the C.D, provides an interesting case. His composition is typical of the 19th century tradition of music teachers adapting and dedicating songs to their students. Masciangelo was nothing if not a committed teacher. At that time it was also common to compose a piece specifically for students, one that contained both technical difficulties as well as pointing back to the great lyric tradition for which Italy was then rightly famous. And it should be noted that not everyone could learn by attending live opera as there were few opera houses in Italian regions at the time. It was therefore inevitable that composers would transcribe works from celebrated operas to help their students become better acquainted with new trends.
A little less obvious is the choice for one hand. Of this di Tollo says, ‘On this C.D. I have tried to illustrate a range of ways to present opera through piano transcriptions and there are a number of works for the left hand. But I wanted to record something born less from necessity (Wittgenstein lost his left arm in WW1) but from a purely aesthetic point of view. With this in mind, I chose Fumagalli’s O Signore dal tetto natio. Although it was a piece that I had already recorded and not intended for this C.D., I have decided to include it as a bonus track. Fumagalli, by the way, had both arms.
Finally I asked the pianist, ‘How is this repertoire seen outside Italy? Is it known? Appreciated? Does it trigger curiosity or interest?’ Di Tollo replied, ‘Italian culture is recognised and loved everywhere. This is due to not only to its quality and tradition but to the ever increasing number of Italian communities abroad, which bring with them habits, culture and ways of thinking. In this context, the way society has evolved has awakened in many the wish for authenticity, for a music which is recognised as being utterly Italian as well as being performed by an Italian. The public know authenticity when they see and hear it, and this is what Italian culture delivers. During the golden age of Opera it was often said that a good review by the critics always follows a good review by the public. We shall see if the same holds true for this pianist…’
In thanking Giacomo di Tollo I added that I was sure the reader would benefit from is insights into his repertoire but that needless to say, a greater understanding would come by simply listening to the music.
Gianfranco Miscia; freely translated by Barry Fantoni