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MAY 2019 | Daniel Cunha in Conversation with Ray Picot

MAY 2019 | Daniel Cunha in Conversation with Ray Picot

The music of the Portuguese composer, Alfredo Napoleão (1852-1917), has been largely forgotten except for his first Piano Concerto, recorded for Hyperion. This has now changed with the release on CD of a collection of World Premiere recordings of his solo piano music by the Portuguese pianist Daniel Cunha. I caught up with him recently and discussed the music of this unjustly neglected composer and what he found out about his life and work.

Firstly something about the pianist: Daniel Cunha earned his Doctorate of Musical Arts in Piano at the University of Kansas (U.S.A.), where he studied with the renowned pianist and pedagogue Sequeira Costa. He also studied, previously, with Luís Filipe Sá and Norma Silvestre.

Daniel Cunha has a regular and multifaceted international concert activity and was a prizewinner at the XVI edition of the Vianna da Motta International Competition. He is invited regularly to give masterclasses in Portugal and in the United States, and teaches piano at Guilhermina Suggia School of Music (Porto) and is an Adjunct Professor at the Superior School of the Applied Arts (Castelo Branco), in Portugal. In recent years, he has dedicated himself to recover and perform the music of the Portuguese composer Alfredo Napoleão.

Ray Picot: My introduction to Alfredo Napoleão was through his E flat Piano Concerto Op 31, recorded by Artur Pizarro for Hyperion; a piece of grace and beauty, perhaps influenced by Chopin, with a certain ‘native’ restraint and sadness.

Daniel Cunha: Artur Pizarro’s wonderful recording of the E- flat minor Piano Concerto Op. 31 was also my introduction to Alfredo Napoleão’s music. This beautiful concerto was premiered in his hometown of Porto, Portugal, on November 20th of 1885, at S. João National Theatre. The conductor was Ciríaco de Cardoso, who was the director of the theatre’s orchestra and also a cellist, composer and important music impresario. The concerto was dedicated to the King, Dom Luís I of Portugal. It was premiered in Porto, in 1885, but it was partially premiered before (the two last movements) in Lisbon, on March 10th of 1884, in an important event at S. Carlos National Theatre. This event was a beneficiary concert that counted with the presence of the dedicatee of the work, Dom Luís. It was intended to raise money for the poor and the Night Shelters of Lisbon, an organisation created by Dom Luís himself that still exists today. I believe Napoleão dedicated the work to the King for his important acts of charity.

I think his op. 31 was a work of extreme importance to Napoleão, especially since it marks his return to Portugal (he came back to Porto in 1883) after being absent since 1868, the date of his departure to Rio de Janeiro. In between these years Alfredo Napoleão started his career as a pianist and composer in Brazil but also in Argentina, with great success. He composed his op. 31 in 1878 when he was still away from Portugal. Probably the orchestration was done after this date. Afterwards, Napoleão played this concerto in London and Rio de Janeiro.

The influence of Chopin is definitely there, but we hear also Liszt and I think, Saint-Säens. There is definitely the feeling of melancholia throughout his concerto op. 31, with its unusual and dark key of E flat minor. There is the feeling of ‘saudade’, which it’s certainly associated with the Portuguese soul. This might be related with the fact that he missed his home country after so many years of absence. This feeling is especially present in the first movement, but also in the last one where he uses the cyclical form technique, recalling thematic material from the 1st and 2nd movements in a nostalgic manner, before the bombastic final pages, in e-flat major.

RP: What do we know of the two remaining two Piano Concertos that he wrote?

DC: Napoleão composed two more concerti, the op. 52 and 55, which are sadly lost for the moment. His opus 52 was premiered, by the composer himself, in Rio de Janeiro in 1896. On the following year he plays it in Buenos Aires. He had wonderful reviews on both cities. In 1900 he played it in Lisbon as well. His last piano concerto, the op. 55, was considered by the composer to be his most important composition and it was also praised by the critics. Unfortunately, it was never premiered with a full orchestra. He performed it in Lisbon, together with a string quartet in 1914.

RP: Chopin also appears very prominently in his Andante and Polonaise de Concert Op 27, which I see from your notes was premiered in Rio de Janeiro in 1879. Like the Chopin piece it is so clearly inspired by, you play it in the solo piano version, rather than the concertante original.

DC: Unfortunately, the orchestral part of the concertante version of the Andante et Polonaise de Concert op. 27 is lost, but I still think it is very effective. Curiously, the solo score is very informative regarding the orchestration, so a reconstruction of the orchestral score could be possible, in my view, since it seems to be a bit sparse. The piano score of his op. 27 is a very unusual edition of the work (published at the time by his brother Arthur’s company Narciso, A. Napoleão e Miguéz), which you could use if you would play either with orchestra or the solo version. It is made for both situations, two in one, which makes the score a bit confusing at times.

I think the Andante et Polonaise de Concert op. 27 is a piece full of character, with beautiful melodic material and full of contrasts, charm and brilliance. Also here Napoleão uses a musical form technique that he would later use in his next concertante work, the 1st Piano Concerto op. 31, which is the cyclical form technique. He uses this to unify the work. The first motive of the introduction of the Andante, with its mysterious and dramatic character, appears once more at the coda of the Grand Polonaise, ending with bravura.

Chopin’s influence, present in this piece without a doubt, stays strong in his later years, including the Fantasie et Grand Polonaise op. 59 which was one of his last works. It is sadly lost, but based on its title we can see that the influence of Chopin is still there. I know that he performed it at least twice in Lisbon. At first he played the solo version in 1912 (the year that he finished the orchestration of the work) and in 1914 when he played it with an orchestra, under the baton of the Spanish composer and great violinist Francisco Benetó, achieving good reviews from the critics.

RP: How many pieces do we think Napoleão wrote, compared to the number of surviving scores?

DC: The Portuguese art critic Alfredo Pinto (Sacavém), a very close friend of Alfredo Napoleão during his last years that he spent in Lisbon, published in his book of interviews to different Portuguese composers Horas d’Arte (1913) a list of Napoleão’s works. Alfredo Pinto thought that this list was the most complete to date. It contains 62 opus number but most of them are lost. Alfredo Napoleão died in 1917 and this list is from 1912, so I’m not sure if he composed more works between these dates.

This list points out which works from his output were published during his lifetime. The published works were the ones I managed to gather after few years of research. I found scores in libraries and archives in Portugal, France, Brazil and Argentina. I managed to recover 16 opus works that were published in his time, with the exception of the score of the Piano Concerto op. 31 which was published in the modern era by Renascimento Musical Editors lda, a Portuguese publishing company no longer trading. Now I am working with AVA Musical Editions, also a Portuguese publishing company, in order to publish some of the scores of this composer. There is one that was published already, the Lenda da Beira (Légende) op. 39.

Going back to the works that are lost, among them are the two Piano Concertos and the Fantasie et Grand Polonaise for piano and orchestra; many works for piano solo, including three Piano Sonatas, a collection of Etudes, but also orchestral overtures, piano trios, songs for voice and piano, etc.

RP: Other composers who were important to Napoleão include Liszt and Schumann; presumably he did not have direct contact with them but perhaps knew some of their pupils?

DC: Robert Schumann died in 1856 and Alfredo Napoleão was born in 1852. He was too young to have met him. It would have been possible to meet Liszt, since he died much later in 1886, but I don’t think Alfredo met him. It seems that the person who introduced him to the works of these composers was Thorold Wood, Napoleão’s main teacher, who studied with Ignaz Moscheles. His brother Arthur did meet Liszt when he was still a child prodigy and was traveling with his father.
Although Alfredo didn’t studied with Liszt, he certainly was often compared to him as a pianist. Calixto Oyeula, Argentinian writer and critic, knew Napoleão well, writing that “his pianistic skill of great power and brilliance was really admirable. His great and magnificent technique, comparable to Liszt, wasn’t cold or mechanical, but seemed to carry a passionate soul in its impetuous waves.”

I’m not sure that he met a great deal of Liszt students, since the personal belongings of Alfredo Napoleão are lost, including his personal music scores and letters. In result, I only could gather information from newspapers and few concert programs. The only Liszt student I have knowledge that he met was Vianna da Motta. They played together on two pianos in Brazil and in Portugal.

RP: He does not seem a prolific composer but attained a good level of popularity in his time, also playing Bach and Beethoven, which was not commonplace at its time.

DC: Yes, and he included J.S. Bach’s Preludes and Fugues in his programs, which was an unusual practice at the time. Beethoven was his favourite composer and he often performed in public his solo piano sonatas – for example op. 27 nº 2, op. 57 or even the op. 111 - but also the violin sonatas and the piano concertos. His concert programs were a mix of works by core composers and works of his own. He was recalled by his contemporaries as being too modest, even though he received praise from composers of the time like Camille Saint-Saëns. He also enjoyed solitude. These characteristics of the composer probably didn’t help in making Napoleão’s music more well-known.

RP: I gather Napoleão met the famous virtuoso Gottschalk, and played with him on stage, alongside his own brother Artur.

DC: Yes, they played together in 1869, the year that Gottschalk died. Gottschalk played multiple times in Rio de Janeiro during that year, and Alfredo Napoleão actually participated in more than one concert. They played works for two pianos at times, but Alfredo also participated in those typical concerts organised by the American composer, involving multiple pianists. They played together in a concert that counted with around 30 pianists playing simultaneously a number of symphonic transcriptions. Gottschalk, after putting together some of the most extraordinary musical events Rio de Janeiro had ever seen, including a concert involving 650 musicians, would tragically die in that Brazilian city at the end of the year.

RP: Playing with Gottschalk presumably had a great impact on the young pianist/composer? Also is there any evidence that he showed interest in the quasi-nationalist character pieces for which Gottschalk was famed?

DC: I think the direct contact with Gottschalk, participating in his concerts and seeing him play, had a tremendous impact on Alfredo Napoleão. It was at that time that Napoleão was starting his own career both as a pianist and as a composer. He was not influenced to compose the quasi-nationalist character pieces à la Gottschalk, but he was certainly influenced by him in composing the grandiose fantasias of his early compositional phase, like the Gran Fantasia de Concierto sobre el Himno Nacional Argentino op. 22. This piece, composed during the period when Alfredo Napoleão lived in Argentina, can be compared, naturally, with the Grande Fantasie triumphale sur l’hymne nationale brésilien op. 69 by Gottschalk, which became part of Napoleão’s repertoire and performed by him in Brazil. Among other works by the American composer, Napoleão also performed many times the Tarantella for Piano and Orchestra in Argentina and Brazil, which was a favourite war-horse of Gottschalk.

Gottschalk’s contemporaries stated that he, in private, played wonderfully J.S. Bach’s Preludes and Fugues, Beethoven’s Sonatas and the music of Chopin. He just chose not to include these composers in his programs, focusing on works of more popular effect. For Alfredo Napoleão these three composers became part of his core repertoire and he included them in his programs. He was, in this regard, a more modern interpreter.

RP: The Prelude and Fugue Op 41 and Rondo Op 47, are impressive works and seem to stand apart from some of his other works which are more romantically inspired, including several pieces inspired by his homeland.

DC: Yes, the opus 41 and opus 47 have rather formal titles, which, I think, somewhat hides the romantic invention of the works. The Prelude and Fugue is actually my favourite piece of the ones I recorded, since the influence of J.S. Bach is very present in a traditional way, at first, but later evolves into a more romantic atmosphere, virtuosic and grandiose but also intimate. The Rondo is much under the influence of Chopin’s rondos. However, Napoleão surprisingly pairs the Chopin influence with Scarlatti-like textures and impetuous marches that recall Schumann, creating an original whole.

The Trois Romances are extremely poetic and each of them is full of great romantic gestures. They are great piano pieces.

The Caprice-Etude, Soupirs du Tage op. 38 and Légende, (Lenda da Beira) op. 39 both have titles related to Portugal even though they are very different in character. The opus 38 seems to represent a tranquil love duet over the waters of Tejo River (Lisbon). The waters are represented by the arpeggios of the right hand while the singing line is divided between the hands, forming a single melody or a duet. The Lenda da Beira op. 39 is more programmatic, and the inspiration of the piece is quite nationalistic, drawing its inspiration from a stanza of Canto III from Lusíadas by Luís de Camões, referring to the tragic story of Inês de Castro that inspired this legend.

RP: How would you sum up Napoleão’s achievements?

DC: I do think that Alfredo Napoleão was an important Portuguese figure of the 19th century music history as a pianist and as a composer. His most important achievement was, probably, in the genre of the piano concerto. He was probably the most prolific Portuguese composer of this genre of the second half of the 19th century. Sadly, his last two piano concertos are still lost, but based on the quality of the first one, the op. 31, and on the reviews of the time, they must be worth being played as well. His solo piano music also reveal a beautiful romantic concept, moments of intimacy and virtuosity with a musical purpose, especially in his later works.

Whilst Napoleão considered himself to be a composer first and foremost, but he was also an important pianist that championed his own works in the fashion of Gottschalk, but that also included in his programs the works of J.S. Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Liszt. In this regard, he was a more modern interpreter than many of his contemporaries.

Solitude – Piano Works by Alfredo Napoleão, has just released on the German label, Decurio, (DEC002) and is available to download and stream on Amazon and iTunes, and will be available on CD in the UK on Amazon in June, otherwise can be purchased now through Amazon in Germany.







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