20th Century Italian Piano Music
Alessandra Ammara, Sandro Ivo Bartoli, Maria Clementi, Michelangelo Carbonara, Jeroen van Veen, Pietro De Maria, Massimiliano Génot, Michele D’Ambrosio, Alberto Miodini, Enrico Pompili, Giancarlo Simonacci, Claudio Curti Gialdino, Pier Paolo Vincenzi, Gino Gorini
rec. Italy and the Netherlands 2010-2016
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 9470 [20 CDs]
The nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth was a period in Italian music totally dominated by opera. Verdi and Puccini held sway. This makes it all the more interesting and valuable that this substantial anthology concentrates on the piano output of some lesser known composers, some of whom did not compose a single opera.
The title of this box set is however, something of a misnomer, as there are plenty of pieces here which, whilst their composer lived on into the twentieth century, were actually composed in the previous century. This music nevertheless belongs in this box set, with assured places, and those of its various composers, in the development of Italian non-operatic musical art form.
The first composer to be represented is Giuseppe Martucci. Pianist, composer and teacher, he had a significant role in the development of non-operatic music. Malipiero said that Martucci’s Symphony No. 2 was “the beginning of the rebirth of non-operatic Italian music”. As a conductor he played a notable role in the introduction of Wagner and English music to the Italian public. He was a prolific composer of piano music, much of which was composed for his own concert tours. The four works presented here were composed between 1879 and 1891. Indeed he composed very little music after the turn of the twentieth century, concentrating more on teaching. Alberto Miodini gives a really strong performance of these pieces which show an indebtedness to the mainstream romantic composers he encountered on his many piano recital tours throughout Europe.
Discs two and three present the music of Francesco Cilea, a student of Martucci. Cilea is a composer known mainly today for his operas, especially L’arlesiana and Adriana Lecouvreur, although his Op. 38 Cello Sonata has also earned a degree of popularity. The pieces presented here, many of which were again composed in the nineteenth century, are deeply rooted, as with the Cello Sonata, in the romantic tradition. Some have appeared before on a Dynamic disc (CDS126), but Pier Pablo Vincenzi gives a more secure and imaginative performance here than Stefania Amedo does on Dynamic.
Probably the most famous and well known composer in this set is Ferruccio Busoni, the Italian-born, German-educated pianist and composer. He is represented here by just a single disc (CD 4) that presents the Fantasia contrapuntistica and the Seven Elegies. There have been many recordings of Busoni’s piano music. I already have a couple of recordings of these works, and whilst Sandro Ivo Bartoli gives a steady reading of both works, these would not be my first choice performance of the pieces.
Leone Sinigaglia (CD 5) is an interesting prospect. He is equally famous in Italy as a composer and as a mountaineer, with his book Climbing Reminiscences of the Dolomites (1898 English edition) still regarded as a classic. He travelled widely throughout Europe and became friends with the elderly Brahms to whom can be traced Sinigaglia's concept of absolute music. In 1900 he travelled to Prague where he studied with Dvořák, from whom he learnt how to apply the classical style to popular songs and melodies. The piano music presented here shows the influence of both Brahms and Dvořák, with most of the pieces appearing in their premiere recordings. The piano pieces all receive good performances and are recorded well. There is a problem however with the two pieces for violin and piano where the balance seems a little out. The violin sound is a little recessed, especially in the first two movements of the Sonata.
The music of Ruffredo Caetani who was Prince of Bassett and the last Duke of Sermoneta, occupies disc 6. He was a great art collector and philanthropist, known as a patron of the arts in Italy. This is a composer who I must confess is new to me, with all the music presented here once again dating from before the turn of the twentieth century. On this showing I would like to hear more. The earliest work is the Sonata his opus 3, but its grandeur and complexity belies its early date. This is an accomplished and fascinating work, the star on this disc. Alessandra Ammara gives a spirited and excellent performance of all the pieces presented here, making this disc a real find.
Guido Alberto Fano is said to have been one of the favourite pupils of Giuseppe Martucci, remembered as a pianist and composer. He was also a professor of piano at the Milan Conservatory, a position from which he was in 1938 due to the Italian Fascist racial laws. He returned to the position in 1945 after a period in hiding. I have come to know his music through a Stradivarius disc by Sara Mingardo and Aldo Orevieto (STR33866). The two works presented here, both dating from the end of the nineteenth century, are bigger and show a bolder thematic development than the songs on the Stradivarius disc. They sound more mature than his tender age. Once again, as with the Caetani, it is the Sonata in E that steals the show. Its use of bold romantic ideas show the influence of his teacher. Pietro De Maria proves a match for the Sonata, his playing bringing out every nuance of this wonderful music.
Discs eight and nine offer us the complete solo piano music of Ottorino Respighi, or so it is claimed on the cover of the two CD set previously released by Brilliant (94442). I say this because if you look at a list of the composer's works there seem to be transcriptions including a second set of Antiche danze ed arie which are missing from the Brilliant set. My list does say that they are lost or withheld from the public domain. Either way, this set is as complete as you are likely to get at the moment, especially as it includes Variazioni Sinfoniche (original version for piano solo), which here receives its premiere recording. Respighi will forever be associated with his Roman trilogy, the set of orchestral tone poems which set him up as one of the leading 20th century Italian composers. There is however, much more to this composer and he is well worth investigating further. This is easily borne out by the piano music presented here. It ranges from the grand to the more salon-style pieces such as the opening Valse Caressante from his Sei pezzi. It is his Antiche danze ed arie per liuto P 114 that will be most familiar to people due to the well known and brilliantly orchestrated version. Here Michele D’Ambrosio achieves a colourful and exciting performance, far more so than Konstantin Scherbakov delivers for Naxos (8.553704).
Ildebrando Pizzetti, along with Respighi and Malipiero, is one of the ‘generation of 1880’ or ‘golden generation’. He is a composer I have been exploring over the last eighteen months or so. I now have discs of all the genres of music in which he was involved apart from opera, of which he composed about twenty. I have been greatly impressed by what I have heard so far. I had this two disc set (Brilliant 9202) on my list to buy, and I am glad it has been included here. There is some delicately nuanced writing here. Just listen to the Poemetto romantic as an example. There are also more forthright pieces as you can hear on disc 11 where the Sonata brings to mind turn-of-the-twentieth century French piano writing but with more than a hint of Shostakovich. The two discs are very well played by Giancarlo Simonacci, who proves a worthy exponent, and presents three premiere recordings.
Whilst I do not have very much music by Gian Francesco Malipiero, the third of the ‘golden generation’, I do like what I have heard. He is the most modern-sounding of the three. Whilst he knew the likes of Debussy, Ravel, Schoenberg and Berg, it was Stravinsky that left the deepest impression on his own music, leading him to discard many of his early works. Malipiero was at the famous premiere of Le Sacre du Printemps. This is the most strident music presented so far in this set. One only has to listen to the opening of the first track, La notte dei Morti, which is taken from his Poemi asolani of 1916 to be aware of this. However strident, this is still interesting and approachable music that makes you think about what you are listening to. Try Malipiero’s treatment of the concept of the prelude and fugue in his Tre Preludi a una Fuga (1926) which is quite thought-provoking. I listened to Rira Lim’s Naxos disc (8.572517) but only Risonanze is common to both discs, and there is not much to choose between that performance and this new one by Gino Gorini. Both pianists accentuate the resonance of the bell sounds.
Alfredo Casella is the only composer in this set that has three discs devoted to his music, coming as it does from the three CD set of his complete piano music published by Brilliant back in 2014 (9281). Coming from Turin, Alfredo Casella is something of the black sheep of the family — both his grandfather, father and uncles were all professional cellists. He studied in Paris where his teachers included Fauré. Here he became greatly enamoured of the music of Claude Debussy, an admiration that would colour his own music. One only has to listen to disc 13 to appreciate this with the collection of short pieces demonstrating his love of the French impressionism. This disc also demonstrates his humour: the fifth of his A la maniere de … op. 17 is subtitled Richard Strauss: Symphonia molestica. Casella is generally regarded as the most ‘international’ of the ‘generation of 1880’, mainly due to his time in Paris where he moved in the circle of illustrious composers, performers, authors and artists. He was a great devotee of paintings. His later works showed aspects of central European musical trends, especially neo-classicism, something which was also fostered by his work on promoting and editing the newly discovered manuscripts of Vivaldi. Once again, Michele D’Ambrosio performs this music very well indeed; he changes effortlessly between the different styles that Casella exploits to produce first rate performances. These eclipse those of Luca Ballerini on Naxos (8.554009).
I greatly admire the music of the Italian-American Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, who was forced to flee his homeland and settle in the US after the fascist oppression of the Jews during the Second World War. It used to be the case that he was primarily remembered for his Guitar Concerto, a recording of which I don’t actually own, but I am happy to say that in recent years this situation has begun to change. Record companies, Naxos especially, have explored his music, bringing it to a wider public. I have the original Brilliant release of this music (94811). I found Claudio Curti Gialdino’s performances a little brisk and badly presented. Add to this that Le danze del Re David op. 37 was - and still is - presented in a single track whilst my other recording of the work divided it over seven tracks. After repeated listening this Gialdino's performance has grown on me to the point where I hold that this is an ideal recording with which to investigate the Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s solo piano music.
I must admit to knowing very little of Luigi Dallapiccola’s music. A few orchestral works and his Ciaccona, Intermezzo e Adagio for solo cello is about all I know, so I was looking forward to listening to this disc. Dallapiccola was born in modern day Croatia to Italian parents and had a somewhat disturbed upbringing, mainly caused by the First World War and the defeat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. There were many influences upon his life as a musician. It has been said that it was hearing a performance of Wagner’s Flying Dutchman that was the impetus behind the teenager’s decision to become a composer. Hearing Debussy at the age of seventeen made him stop composing for three years so that he could ingest this new musical style. However it was the music of Schoenberg, Webern and especially Alban Berg that exerted the greatest influence upon his musical development. The neo-classicism of some of Ferruccio Busoni’s music would also influence Dallapiccola’s later compositions. He composed using a form of serialism that was based upon the ideals of the Second Viennese School, although one tempered with an Italian, more lyrical and tonal style. This can be heard in the works presented here. Yes they are clearly serialist pieces, but Dallapiccola employed the system in a way that never lost the melodic basis of the music. Some might find this music challenging, but it is a challenge worth taking. There are some beautifully melodic moments to be found here, especially in the Tartiniana seconda for violin and piano. Maria Clementi and Luca Fanfoni play this music very well indeed. Theirs is a performance which only makes me want to hear more.
If you trawl through the catalogues you will find that the vast majority of discs devoted to the music of Nino Rota deal with his output as a film composer. Whilst he will always be associated with films — he wrote scores for over 150 of them — he also composed in other genres, including ten operas and five ballets. Rota was taught composition by Pizzetti and Casella and the influence of their teaching can be heard here. At times some of this music sounds like film music without a film. There are some really fine pieces here, for example the Fantasia in G, which at thirteen and a half minutes is the longest single track by some margin, as well as a very accomplished work. Michelangelo Carbonara proves an accomplished and thoughtful interpreter, one who is open to every aspect of the music's character.
The only composer whose music I didn’t know before listening to this set was Niccolň Castiglioni, a native of Milan. This is music that is firmly rooted in the serialism and twelve-tone technique. It's what a friend of mine would call ‘plink-plonk’ music, but that would be to dismiss it out of hand. Yes, this is difficult to comprehend, a development of Schoenbergian theory, but it is complex and multi-layered, music which needs time to sink in. I have listened to this disc more than any other in the set, about six times in all. Every time I listen I discover something new that I didn’t hear the last time. Take the first of the Tre Pezzi for example, a piece called simply Sweet. Here the music seems to develop out of rhythmic tapping on the body of the piano into a more minimalist section before it becomes less rhythmic and more atonal. Castiglioni is a composer I will have to explore further, but only when I have the time to devote to his music. These scores are brought to us in a sparkling performance by Enrico Pompili.
CD 20 is really the only disc I found difficulty with in this box set. This is despite Jeroen van Veen proving to be an excellent interpreter. I find the popular minimalism of Ludovico Einaudi does very little for me. Indeed it was only on the third time of playing this disc that I managed to stay awake until the end. I do have another disc of his music and that has the same effect, so it is not the performance. This however is just me. I know there are many devotees out there; I am just not one of them. For British listeners the stand-out piece is I Giorni, which has been made famous by the BBC catch-up ad on TV as well as an Amazon TV ad. If I had to choose a piece to take to a desert island it would be this one, but grudgingly. This disc comes from a seven disc set of his piano music presented by van Veen on Brilliant (9452). I imagine that any admirer of Einaudi’s music would relish that set, but sadly not me.
To sum up then, this is a most interesting and highly valuable set, one which presents the whole ambit of twentieth century Italian piano music, from romanticism through neo-classicism and serialism to popular minimalism. Everything is put across to the listener in at least good performances, with most of them excellent. The booklet notes are truncated versions from the original releases and are in many cases essential in getting to know the composers represented. Indeed this set offers the listener a real bargain. At around Ł2 a disc you can’t go wrong. Grab it whilst you can.
CD 1: Giuseppe Martucci
Sei pezzi Op.44
Due notturni Op.70
CD 2-3: Francesco Cilea
Suite (Vecchio stile) Op.42
Music for Piano four hands
CD 4: Ferruccio Busoni
Fantasia contrapuntistica BV256
Seven Elegies BV249
CD 5: Leone Sinigaglia
Fogli d'album Op.7
Zwei Klavierstücke Op.24
CD 6: Roffredo Caetani
Four Impromptus Op.9
Sonata in A flat Op.3
CD 7: Guido Alberto Fano
Sonata in E
CD 8-9: Ottorino Respighi
Sei pezzi PO44
Tre preludi su melodie gregoriane P131
Sonata in A minor P004
CD 10-11: Ildebrando Pizzetti
Canti di ricordanza
CD 12: Gian Francesco Malipiero
Tre preludi a una fuga
CD 13-15: Alfredo Casella
A la maniere de... Op.17
A notte alta Op.30
Due ricercari sul nome B—A—C—H Op.52
CD 16: Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco
Le stagioni Op.33
Le danze del Re David Op.37
CD 17: Luigi Dallapiccola
Quaderno musicale di Annalibera
CD 18: Nino Rota
Fantasia in G
CD 19: Niccolo Castiglioni
Come io passo l'estate
CD 20: Ludovico Einaudi