About this Recording
8.223812 - PIZZETTI: Piano Trio / Violin Sonata / Tre Canti

Ildebrando Pizzetti (1880–1968)
Piano Trio • Violin Sonata • Tre Canti


In 1921, on page 835 of Volume 62 of the famous London periodical The Musical Times, the leading Italian music critic Guido M. Gatti declared unequivocally that “doubtless the greatest musician in Italy today” was the then forty-one year old Ildebrando Pizzetti. Since at that time Puccini (1858–1924) still had fully three more years to live, Gatti’s statement may seem startling—especially as in more recent decades Puccini’s music has remained popular with a huge world-wide audience, whereas Pizzetti’s has suffered growing neglect even in his own country. However, to realise that Gatti’s remarkable claim was by no means as implausible at the time as it may nowadays seem, one need only listen to the powerful Violin Sonata and radiant Piano Trio recorded on the present disc. When he wrote them, Pizzetti was at the height of his creative powers, and there was as yet no perceptible evidence of the disappointing decline into weak self-repetition which undeniably afflicted some of his subsequent compositions, from the later 1920s onwards.

Pizzetti had first won widespread attention in Italy with an important series of works written in close association with Italy’s most famous living poet and playwright Gabriele d’ Annunzio, culminating in the opera Fedra (1909–12; première 1915) which was directly based—with the poet’s own help—on D’Annunzio’s play of the same name. Fedra was a major new departure in twentieth-century Italian opera—right out of line with the established methods of Pizzetti’s older compatriots (Puccini, Mascagni, Giordano, etc.), and influenced, rather, by Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande, by certain other French composers (notably the Dukas of Ariane et Barbe-bleue), and in some respects also by the recently rediscovered operas of early seventeenth century Italy. Fedra’s third act even begins with a wonderful prelude scored not for orchestra but for an unaccompanied chorus, singing in a style that can reasonably be described as “neo-madrigalian”.

By the time the Violin Sonata was written, Pizzetti’s working association with D’ Annunzio had ceased, although their friendship continued, and he was composing a second major opera, Debora e Jaele (1915–21; premiere 1922), this time with his own libretto freely based on a well known episode in the biblical Book of Judges. There is good reason to regard Debora as Pizzetti’s operatic masterpiece: the refined, nobly expressive style of Fedra was now enriched by a powerful influx of Mussorgsky’s influence, notably in the passionate choral writing that dominates the turbulent, war-torn first act. The most important thing for our present purposes, however, is that the composition of the Violin Sonata was closely bound up with that of the opera: Pizzetti started to write the sonata on the very same day as the definitive third draft of Debora’s first act.

The kinship between the Violin Sonata and Debora e Jaele is particularly evident in the sonata’s intensely dramatic first movement, which shares the opera’s explicit concern with the tribulations of war. Not unexpectedly, the war that is evoked in the Sonata was considerably nearer at hand than Old Testament Canaan: many have suspected that the same was disguisedly the case in Debora itself. However, the affinity with the opera is not simply one of subject matter and general style: even Pizzetti’s treatment of the interaction between the instruments often seems quasi-operatic, and the violin repeatedly gives vent to impassioned, sobbing, flexibly recitative-like utterances that closely resemble those of the tormented Jael. Significantly, the instruments each have their own distinct sets of themes, which complement each other but are seldom interchangeable, rather as if they were defining separate characters in a drama.

At the beginning, for example, the piano plays on its own for thirty-five bars, dwelling insistently on aggressive, Russian-sounding motifs in the Phrygian mode; but when the violin eventually enters it introduces a plaintive but no less insistent motif of its own, whose slightly exotic inflections remind one that another major influence both on the sonata and on Debora e Jaele was that of Ernest Bloch (1880–1959)—almost the only one’ of Pizzetti’s immediate contemporaries who ever influenced him strongly. The violin’s initial motif soon starts to give rise to expansively rhapsodic lines whose broken, agitated rhythms sometimes suggest an almost verbal kind of expressiveness. In due course the piano introduces a quieter theme in G major, which one might suppose to be the second subject in a traditional sonata structure. Here too, however, the violin, instead of echoing the new theme’s solemnly plainchant-like inflections, responds with poignant phrases of its own.

Before long the emotional temperature rises again, in a sustainedly stormy passage with clear “developmental” tendencies, which eventually subsides into another quieter section, again based on the piano’s “second subject” theme: now for the first time this is shared by the violin. After a momentary pause, the “first subject” is reintroduced by the piano, and the violin again responds with its own initial motif. However, the home key of Phrygian A minor (A minor darkened by the use of B-flats instead of B naturals) does not return at once, but only belatedly when an m climax is reached. This is not a recapitulation in the standard classical sense: the second subject does not reappear at this point, and the movement’s last bars instead bring back an anguished chromatic melody that first emerged almost incidentally (on the violin) in what appeared to be the development section. The same melody is now pounded out by the piano in emphatic parallel triads, whose resemblance to those in the formidable final bars of Debora e Jaele is unlikely to be a coincidence.

After the first movement’s dark, obsessive evocation of conflict, the second is a heartfelt lament for the war’s sufferers. Not only does the movement bear the title Preghiera per gl’innocenti (Prayer for the innocents), but Gatti has told us, in his short but useful book on Pizzetti, that when writing its nobly expressive, rhythmically subtle initial melody the composer imagined it sung to the words O Signor Iddio nostro, o Signore, abbi pieta di tutti gli innocenti che non sanno perche si deve soffrire (O Lord our God, O Lord, have pity on all the innocent ones who know not why they have to suffer). Presented gently at the outset by the piano alone in C major, this melody in due course returns at the movement’s climax, now ff and played con intenso fervore by the violin in E major, in which key the Preghiera then dies down to a quiet conclusion. Although this prominent return of the initial melody towards the end, albeit in a new key, may suggest a free ternary structure, it would be misleading to try to divide this marvellously sustained and self-renewing movement into sections. At times the music sounds almost like a transcription for violin and piano of an unaccompanied choral setting of some elaborately on-going poetic threnody. One is reminded of the above-mentioned prelude, itself a lament for the dead Hippolytus, at the beginning of the third act in Fedra; and there are clear premonitions of the no less magnificent Messa di Requiem, likewise for unaccompanied chorus, that Pizzetti was to write a few years later, in 1922–3.

The Violin sonata’s third movement is on a slightly lower plane of inspiration than its predecessors. Its underlying idea is the renewal of life and hope as the tragedy of the war begins to recede into the past. Within a very free rondo-like structure, a wide variety of contrasted ideas is brought together—some of them rustic in character, others tinged with a rather sensuous chromatic restlessness which harks back to parts of Fedra more than it parallels Debora e Jaele. There is no shortage of energetic inventiveness in this finale, even though it may seem a bit episodic and eclectic. Despite such minor weaknesses this is surely, in sum total, much the most impressive sonata for violin and piano that has ever been written by an Italian.

Just over two years after completing the Violin Sonata, Pizzetti composed one for cello and piano (1921), in which a more private and personal tragedy is evoked: that of the death of the composer’s first wife Maria, which had occurred in 1920 after a sudden short illness. The Piano Trio recorded on the present disc followed three and a half years after the Cello Sonata, and is dedicated, significantly, to Pizzetti’s second wife Irene, known as Riri, whom he had met in February 1924 and married on 19th January 1925: he had made his first written sketch for the Trio just three days earlier, and the work was completed on 26th March of the same year. Gatti, who knew the Pizzettis well, declares unequivocally that this beautiful Trio “trembles with the joy of a newly-found domestic happiness” .There is indeed persuasive internal evidence—especially, but not only, in the first movement—that the composer deliberately designed the work in quasi-operatic terms to embody his experience of meeting and courting Riri.

As in the Violin Sonata, each instrument enters with its own distinctive thematic material; and again the piano starts by playing alone. However, the calmly radiant A major of the initial phrases could hardly be more different from the tormented Phrygian A minor in which the Violin Sonata began. An abrupt contrast is introduced when the cello enters in bar 18, playing a restless, chromatically inflected theme marked piuttosto concitato (rather agitated): is this Pizzetti himself, still bruised after the harrowing experience of his recent bereavement? Certainly when the violin eventually, comes in, in bar 76, it is difficult not to equate its graceful, soothing melody, marked affettuoso (affectionate), with the entry of Riri into the composer’s life; nor can one mistake the probable significance of the soft, flexibly recitative-like phrases with which the cello at once responds to the newcomer. There is no sign, in this first movement, even of the partial affinities with classical sonata form that can be found in that of the Violin Sonata: instead the music continues to unfold like a wordless drama, in which the cello’s initial theme is in due course transformed into a vibrantly joyous melody in A major. Still more significantly, just before the end of the movement the violin and cello unite in octaves, in a passage marked appassionato.

The gently rapturous central movement is a slower, quieter counterpart to the first. Here too the instruments, again starting with the piano, each enter with a different theme; but this time the violin and cello already seem to be in dialogue with each other at their first appearance. The entire movement has the character of a sustained, subtly expressive love duet, and again the two bowed instruments end by playing in octaves.

In the finale it is the turn of the violin and cello to start on their own, in a hushed, serenely hymn-like chord-progression whose atmosphere recalls that of some of Pizzetti’s earliest compositions: one is reminded, for example, of the song I pastori (1908), an exquisite setting of D’ Annunzio that has remained justly popular in Italy. However, the deeper significance of this opening passage—and indeed of the finale as a whole – surely transcends such suggestions of simple pastoral innocence. Puzzlingly, the movement is entitled Rapsodia di settembre: why September in particular? We may never know for certain; but as I write this note I have just spotted that it was in September 1924 that Pizzetti wrote a strangely moving letter to Riri, in which he assured her that he now knew that his first wife Maria had given her blessing, from beyond the grave, to the new love-relationship on which he was now embarking. (Part of the letter is reproduced on page 210 of Bruno Pizzetti’s important documentary biography of his father.) Could those ethereally beautiful string harmonies with which the Trio’s finale begins be a musical symbol of Maria’s blessing? Be that as it may, the main body of the movement is a varied outpouring of predominantly celebratory ideas, followed by a solemnly pulsating epilogue based mainly on a new, almost Elgarian elaboration of the “blessing” theme. Throughout the movement the violin and cello collaborate closely.

The Tre canti—originally written for cello and piano in the autumn of 1924 and adapted for violin and piano in December of the same year—do not represent Pizzetti at his most profound; but they contain characteristic features which parallel, on a smaller scale, some of those seen in his major chamber works. The three pieces are played with only minimal breaks between them. Parts of the first have the formal, measured gait of an 18th-century gavotte; but a cadenza-like interlude soon intervenes, and before long the violin part becomes more freely declamatory in manner. The gently lyrical second piece recalls an operatic arioso virtually throughout: again the free-rhythmed expressiveness sometimes seems almost verbal. The third piece is more dynamic, containing recognisable post-echoes of certain passages in the Violin Sonata.

© 1995 John C.G. Waterhouse

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