GIOVANNI SGAMBATI (1841-1914) Italian Pianist, Composer and Conductor
Giovanni Sgambati studied piano with Franz Liszt in Rome and subsequently in Germany. He was an accomplished virtuoso pianist, certainly a great enough pianist for almost an entire page to be dedicated to him in Harold Shonberg's excellent book, The Great Pianists from Mozart to the Present.
Sgambati seriously impressed Liszt who compared his playing to that of Carl Tausig, arguably Liszt's best student. At that time German music was largely ignored in Italy and Sgambati was instrumental in bringing the best of it before the Italian public. Sgambati's performance of the music of the foremost German composers, Bach, Beethoven, Schumann, surprised Liszt who thought the Italian musicians of the time lacked the understanding to play German music very well. Liszt is reported to have said that he played these greatest of German composers, "with perfect independence and mastery of style."
In fact, Giovanni Sgambati is often placed in the company of the great Ferruccio Busoni as the only Italian pianists of significance to distinguish themselves in their performance of Germanic music.
Giovanni Sgambati's claim to fame today is his absolutely gorgeous transcription for piano of the
from the Dance of the Blessed Spirits from Gluck's opera Orfeo ed Euridice. This transcription for piano solo, to which I have devoted a page of its own, captures the fragile essence of this music to perfection and was prominent in the repertoires of many of the great pianists of the Golden Age - Rachmaninov and Hofmann, Earl Wild and Guiomar Novaes, and many, many others including my own favorite interpreter of the work, Mark Hambourg, himself a prized pupil of Theodor Leschetizky.
As a composer, Giovanni Sgambati did not reach the heights he attained as a pianist. Several of his piano pieces and one song can be found below. It is not difficult to understand why this music is rarely performed. Except perhaps for the Prelude and Fugue Op 6, it seems to lack dramatic brilliance. But it is nonetheless good music and doubtless had its place in the late 19th century Italian salon.
Giovanni Sgambati's large scale compositions include two symphonies, two piano quintets, and a string quartet, none of which I have yet the pleasure to have heard. I have, however, heard parts of the extremely beautiful Messa da Requiem (also included below because they are so beautiful, and in order not to leave you with an inadequate impression of his gifts as a composer), and an impressive, if not nearly as brilliant, piano concerto.
These works certainly deserve to be heard occasionally and the Requiem should definitely be on the short list along side those by Mozart, Faure, Verdi, Brahms and Beethoven's miraculous Missa Solemnis.
But it is in his Piano Concerto in G minor, Op. 15 that his capabilities as a pianist are shown to their best advantage. It is a big concerto, large in conception, rich in melody, and contains passages that require superb technical mastery of the instrument. The first movement contains an overlong orchestral introduction and, in my opinion, takes a bit too long to get going, it is 3:45 before the piano is heard for the first time and another whole minute before it really gets going: a Brahms he is clearly not. But the gorgeous melody played by the piano is worth the wait and the concerto proves to be at least as worthy as many of those resurrected by the Romantic Revival of the 1960s.
No less a pianistic luminary than Jorge Bolet recorded this concerto and the writing for the piano, which plays a continually virtuosic role in the concerto, provides a good idea of what Giovanni Sgambati's the pianistic style might have been like. This recording can be found below along with a performance by the fine Italian pianist Francesco Carmiello.
At the very bottom of this page are two examples of Sgambati playing with a string quartet. These are curiosities more that anything else as it is impossible to get a true sense of his playing.
Piano Concerto in G minor Op 15 i Moderato maestoso - ii Romanza: andante sostenuto - iii Finale : Allegro animato
Jorge Bolet, piano Ainslee Cox conducting the Nurnberg Symphony Orchestra
Francesco Caramiello, piano Fabrizio Ventura conducting the Nurnberg Philharmonic State Orchestra
Alexandre Paley, piano unidentified conductor and orchestra
ii Romanza: Andante sostenuto
iii Allegro animato (beginning)
iii Allegro animato (conclusion)
Messa da requiem Opus 38 Composed 1895-1901 Unidentified performers
1 Introitus: "Requiem aeternam, Kyrie"
2 Sequenz: Dies irae/ Mors stupebit/ Ingemisco/
Confutatis/ Voca me/ Oro supplex/ Lacrimosa/ Pie Jesu
7 Libera me Domine
Prelude et Fugue Op 6 (1876) Francesco Caramiello, piano
4 Pezzi di seguito op.18 (1872 - 1882) 1 Preludio 00.00 - 2 Vecchio Minuetto 02.47 - 3 Nenia 08.52 - 4 Toccata 15.47 Francesco Caramiello, piano
"Vox Populi" from Etudes Lyriques Op 23 Pietro Spada, piano
from Melodies Poetiques Op 36 1 Praeludium - 2 Canzonetta d'Aprile Mattia Ometto, piano
Valsi Francesco Caramiello, piano
Etudes de concert Francesco Caramiello, piano
1 Tranquillo - 2 Agitato
3 Réveil des Fées
Notturno Francesco Nicolosi, pianist
Romanza Daniela Morelli, pianist
"Barcarola" from Piano Quintet Op 5 recorded in 1908
Dvorak "Furiant" from Piano Quintet Op 81 recorded in 1908
Here is my new book, a murder mystery with a musical polemic