Monday, March 19, 2007

Italian Food, Mystery Music

Today's taste of St. Louis took place at Bartolino's, one of "the Hill's" numerous Italian restaurants. For one price off the dinner menu, I got a soup, salad, main dish and side dish, dessert and bread; plus they were able to offer me an interesting imported Italian beer.

The beer was Menabrea. I hadn't had it before, though I have found other Italian beers to enjoy - and a few to avoid. It was a nice, mildly hoppy ale, which is a nice change from the "Budweiser with an Italian accent" that one finds under most Italian birra labels. It reminded me vaguely of a Salvadoran brew I rather miss (I haven't seen it in years), called Caguama - a very decent-tasting blond ale that feels good in the mouth.

The soup was a spectacular minestrone. The salad was actually pretty spectacular too, with a house dressing that turned out to be a cut above the usual flavorless, purple vinaigrette too many Italian "houses" run toward. It was more of a creamy Italian with a tangy bite to it, and the salad had some artichoke in it, as well as grape tomatoes and shredded white cheese (but not the overabundance of cheese that also seems to run in Italian "house salads"). Several slices of a nice, full-bodied, crusty bread rounded out the "befores," though unfortunately the butter was ice cold and had to be warmed in my hands before I dared try spreading it on the bread.

I can't say much about the main course. It was something called saltimbocco romana, which apparently means veal marsala. For you deprived people who don't know what veal marsala means, it's veal cutlets and sauteed mushrooms covered in a garlic-butter-and-marsala-wine sauce. And though you can get veal-marsala-to-die-for here on the Hill, this wasn't quite it. It was "OK veal marsala." The side dish was cheese-filled tortellini in a cheesy tomato sauce, and again, it was OK but not "to die for." However, after the very special spumoni ice cream that followed these merely-OK dishes, all is forgiven.

The waitress claimed that Edy's makes this particular spumoni only for Bartolino's restaurant. You can't buy it anywhere else; the Edy's spumoni you can buy in your grocery store's frozen section is far inferior. I believe her at least on this last count, because this was a remarkable spumoni. The main body of the ice cream was a creamy-caramelly flavor and color, marbled with thin lines of light-green pistachio ice cream. There were crunchy bits of pistachio in it, as well as jellied cherries that I could swear were steeped in Amaretto. Shazam!

TONIGHT'S SOUNDTRACK: Gerhard Samuel's world premiere recording of a Symphony in E purported to be the long-lost symphony which Franz Schubert (1797-1828) composed at Gastein, Austria in 1825. The music was discovered as recently as 1960 and may or may not be authentic; and it does seem that Schubert wrote a large symphony in 1825 that was subsequently lost. The symphony quotes from several of Schubert's string quartets and songs of the period, as well as his well-known Wanderer Fantasy for piano.

The scale of the piece (60 minutes of music, including the repeats) puts it on a par with Schubert's "Great" C Major symphony, which he composed in 1828 and which was also discovered some time after his death. The evident inferiority of this E Major Symphony may stem from its being an experiment inspired by the 1824 premiere of Beethoven's 9th Symphony. Like Beethoven's 9th, but unlike Schubert's other symphonies, it swaps the order of the middle movements so that the scherzo plays ahead of the slow movement. But its similarities to the "9th" of Schubert (as many people number the Great C Major) are much more numerous. This earlier piece in E could almost be taken as a sketch for the later masterpiece in C.

In fact, hearing the second, third, and fourth movements of this E Major Symphony is a profoundly weird experience. One frequently encounters textures and themes eerily similar to ones found in corresponding sections of the C Major Symphony. Sometimes the rhythm, instrumentation, and accompaniment figuration are the same, but the tune turns in a different direction - or even more bizarrely, is a tune you recognize from a different work! It's like hearing the same story told in different words, or rather like hearing the same words used to tell a different story.

Of course, this doesn't mean this E Major work is necessarily a forgery. I've listened to all of Schubert's other symphonies, apart from the so-called Seventh which officially exists only in sketch form. And there are definitely points in his earlier symphonies where you can recognize bits that he recycled from one work to the next. Self-plagiarism is the sincerest form of egotism, etc. Plus, you also have to admit that this piece reeks of a composer turning a page in his career, from Haydnesque conservatism toward innovation on a grand Beethovenian scale, and rather falling on his face at it. He's trying out things that don't quite work, using borrowed tunes; three years later he wrote it again, and did it right, but using brand new tunes. Had he lived longer, imagine what he might have done!

I do wish I could hear this piece played by full-time professionals, though. I don't know from this Cincinnati Philharmonia Orchestra, which published its "world premiere recording" of the lost-and-found Schubert work on the Centaur label in 1992. Whoever they are, they sound about on a par with the St. Louis Philharmonic - a no-pay, town-gown outfit that performs about four times a year on a local college campus, and that compensates for its less-than-perfect tuning and occasional clumsiness by playing something you've just got to hear. If a major symphony orchestra played this piece, I would be first in line at the ticket kiosk.

1 comment:

Marie N. said...

Ohhh now I feel like a slacker for serving the kids chicken nuggets and re-heating a single portion of frozen Thanksgiving dinner for myself.

There, now "okay veal marsala" sounds better, doesn't it!?!