About this Recording
8.570880 - MALIPIERO, G.F.: Symphonies, Vol. 3 (Almeida) - Nos. 5, 6, 8, 11

Gian Francesco Malipiero (1883–1973): Symphonies
No. 6 “degli archi” (1947) • No. 5 “concertante in eco” (1947)
No. 8 “Symphonia brevis" (1964) • No. 11 "delle cornamuse" (1969)


For too long the vividly original music of Gian Francesco Malipiero has suffered almost total neglect outside his native Italy. Even his own countrymen have done shamefully little to keep his best works in circulation, despite the continuing enthusiasm of a devoted band of admirers who have included such important younger composers as Luigi Dallapiccola (1904–75), Bruno Maderna (1920–73) and Sylvano Bussotti (born 1931). Undeniably the quality of Malipiero’s huge, many-sided output is variable, and his weaker works have tended to undermine the demand for his better ones. Yet the sum total of his achievement is more than enough to justify regarding him as the most important Italian composer of his generation, even if the skilful, highly-coloured eclecticism of his near-contemporary Ottorino Respighi (1879–1936) has won much greater international acclaim.

The four symphonies brought together on the present disc belong to two very different phases in Malipiero’s exceptionally long career. The Fifth Symphony and the Sixth were both composed in 1947, in the midst of a richly productive period when most of his best works of the kind were written: no fewer than seven of his seventeen compositions that have the Italian word sinfonia in their titles date from the years 1944–51, which saw the births not only of Symphonies 3 to 7 inclusive but also of the remarkable, intensely expressive Sinfonia in un tempo (Symphony in One Movement, 1950) and the more relaxed, picturesquely episodic Sinfonia dello zodiaco (1951). Neither of the two last-mentioned symphonies was numbered by the composer; yet there are good reasons for regarding them, even so, as part of his “legitimate” symphonic output, and they are therefore recorded elsewhere in the present series of discs, as are all Malipiero’s numbered and unnumbered symphonies, apart from the very early Sinfonia degli eroi of 1905 which was unavailable at the time these recordings were made.

Throughout 1952–61, however, Malipiero wrote no further symphonies, either with or without numbers. By the time he resumed the practice of using the word sinfonia in his titles (first for the unnumbered Sinfonia per Antigenida of 1962 and then for the confusingly so-called Eighth Symphony of 1964) he had passed his eightieth birthday and his musical language had meanwhile become far more acerbic and angular than it had usually been in the 1940s. Consequently the Eighth and Eleventh Symphonies, recorded on the present disc, sound (on the whole) very different from the Fifth and Sixth—although the Fifth, as we shall see, contains striking premonitions of stylistic changes to come.

It may be wondered why Malipiero suddenly began again to number his symphonies from 1964 onwards, having ceased to do so after the Seventh Symphony of 1948. Judging from his own characteristically whimsical statements, it would seem that his reluctance to number the three intervening symphonies arose mainly from a superstitious “desire not to pass the fateful number seven”: one is reminded of Mahler’s famous fear of passing the number nine. However, unlike Mahler’s, Malipiero’s fears proved sufficiently unfounded to allow him eventually to complete four more numbered symphonies, after the three cautiously unnumbered ones. What seems in due course to have conquered his resistance to such “fateful” numbering was his completion (in 1963–4) of an explicitly socalled Eighth String Quartet: as he put it, “the Eighth Quartet broke the spell of the number seven”, and once the spell had been broken for his quartets without evil consequences, he at last felt free to break it for his symphonies too.

Of the four works recorded on the present disc, the Sixth Symphony is probably the most approachable. Over the years, it has been the most widely played of all Malipiero’s symphonies, both in its original version for string orchestra and in its subsequent arrangement (made in 1953) for string quintet.

The scoring for strings alone—reflected in the work’s straightforward subtitle “degli archi”—naturally invites comparisons with the composer’s eight fine, ebulliently inventive quartets rather than with his other symphonies (which all use fuller orchestral forces). Nevertheless the simple fact that the piece is in four separate movements, whose tempi follow the overall pattern fast, slow, fast, variable, is a feature shared with most Malipiero symphonies from the Second onwards, whereas his quartets tend to eschew such clear subdivisions in favour of a free-ranging succession of contrasted episodes that usually follow each other without a break.

In the Sixth Symphony’s original version (recorded here) widespread use is made, especially in the outer movements, of concertante interactions between the full string body and various groupings of solo strings. The composer even suggested that the work “could perhaps seem like a Concerto Grosso if its structure did not show the same characteristics as the other symphonies”. One is reminded that in the self-same year when this symphony was written, Malipiero—who was also a diligent if at times idiosyncratic musicologist—became president of the Istituto Italiano Antonio Vivaldi when it began to publish the great eighteenth-century composer’s complete surviving instrumental music. Malipiero himself edited several volumes of the series, just as he had previously edited what remains the only collected edition of all the extant music of Monteverdi.

The Sixth Symphony’s two fast movements are short and compact, containing a wealth of motivic material without being readily divisible into sections. It is characteristic of this music’s winsomely capricious methods that a brand new idea is unexpectedly introduced almost three quarters of the way through the first movement, after an exact reprise of the first eight bars has seemed to announce the beginning of a recapitulation. The terse, aggressive third movement, unlike the first, makes no use of solo instruments and instead reinforces the texture with rumbustious double and multiple stop effects. This movement, unlike its two predecessors, makes some short but uncompromising excursions out of the pervading neo-Vivaldian diatonicism into a pungent, gritty chromaticism, generating some conspicuously tough dissonances in its last five bars. The second movement, on the other hand, is gently meditative throughout—as indivisible and freely constructed as the first, and with a notably eloquent initial melody. This melody recurs not only later in the same movement but also in the slow parts of the relatively long finale, in which fast and slow sections alternate, freely and perhaps rather loosely. Yet, whatever reservations one may have about this finale, the symphony as a whole compellingly embodies that euphoric rejoicing in string sonorities for their own sake which is an attractive recurrent feature of Malipiero’s best instrumental music.

Although it was completed two months before the Sixth, the Fifth Symphony is a considerably more adventurous piece, both in its orchestration and in its harmonic language. On and off at least, it is Malipiero’s boldest symphony of the 1940s, although disparities of style between one movement and another—and even (sometimes) within single movements—give the work a somewhat transitional air. Like the Sixth Symphony, the Fifth too is in four movements, which again follow the overall tempo sequence fast, slow, fast, variable. The scoring, however, could hardly be more different: in keeping with the symphony’s subtitle “concertante in eco”, there are prominent parts for two pianos, which at times come near to transforming the work into a double concerto in all but name. The rest of the orchestra, though of hardly more than classical dimensions, nevertheless features prominent parts for piccolo and for various percussion instruments—the latter being particularly insistent in the brief, dynamic third movement.

The first movement plunges us at once into a world of sound without exact precedents in earlier music by Malipiero or anyone else. The two pianos start on their own, playing strictly canonic, spikily angular lines that create truculent passing dissonances. Before long a tensely expressive viola melody starts to thread its way through the pianists’ driving semiquavers. But the challenging aggressiveness continues: the pianos reinforce a bass drum roll with clusters comprising all fourteen notes within a minor ninth, while the piccolo squeals far above them, answered by a muted trumpet. In some ways such wilfully “grotesque” textures hark back to the provocative pungencies of some much earlier Malipiero compositions, such as the little Grottesco of 1918, or the first and third operas in the extraordinary triptych L’Orfeide (1918–22); yet they also have a bearing on the composer’s subsequent development in the 1950s and 1960s, as a comparison with the later symphonies on the present disc quickly reveals. All in all, this first movement’s startlingly subversive material and colour scheme make it too easy to overlook its structural affinities with Malipiero’s other symphonies of the 1940s. (It hardly need be said that, here as in those works, there is little thematic or tonal “argument” on traditional, quasi-German lines.)

In the second movement, however, Malipiero shows clear signs of reverting to an idiom much closer to that of his previous symphonies. The initial bitonal conflict between a bassoon melody and sustained chords on the pianos does, it is true, maintain the tension for a while; but there then ensues an extended stretch of music much of which is as charmingly relaxed as (for example) the beautiful second movement of the Third Symphony (1944–5), which likewise features an important piano part (though in that case for only one piano). Listeners must decide for themselves how far this disarmingly idyllic music seems convincingly to “belong” to the same work as the first movement’s eruptive outbursts. In any case, harmonic toughenings do in due course intermittently return, both in this movement and in its cheerfully percussive successor. But the slow, radiant conclusion to the last movement is far more serene and relaxed in tone than the symphony’s beginning might have led one to expect.

If the Fifth Symphony shows Malipiero weighing his relatively gentle style of the 1940s against the more chromatic and acrid idiom to which he was increasingly to turn, in subsequent decades, the Eighth and Eleventh Symphonies (1964 and 1969) both belong unequivocally to his final period. Given the composer’s age, it was hardly to be expected that these works would be as unfailingly vital and memorable as the best symphonies of his prime. However, they both contain numerous points of interest. In the first movement of the Eighth Symphony Malipiero largely abandons even those relatively free, discursive thematic processes which had been prominent in most of his earlier symphonies: the movement is almost without long-term motivic recurrences, the only exception being the failing and rising minor seventh which the cor anglais plays at the outset and which returns repeatedly (on various instruments and at various speeds and pitches) as the starting-point for phrases that are otherwise flexibly unpredictable.

Yet as a whole the Eighth Symphony is by no means as athematic as its first movement might lead one to expect. The second movement—a thrustingly mischievous scherzo with a notably bumptious trumpet part (mostly muted)—shows clear signs of reverting towards the structural methods of the earlier symphonies, though hardly towards their style. All in all this is arguably the best movement, terse, snappy and colourful. After it, however, instead of the two further short movements that would have been normal in the earlier symphonies, there follows a finale in variable tempo which is much longer than the other two movements put together—thus making nonsense of the work’s subtitle Symphonia brevis, for this is by no means Malipiero’s shortest symphony. In his attempt to hold this finale’s sprawling length together, the composer reverts even more decisively to thematic methods than he did in the scherzo. Yet the movement’s very real qualities (like those of the first movement) tend, even so, to be colouristic rather than motivic in nature.

The same is true, by and large, of Malipiero’s very last symphony, the Eleventh—which is really, of course, the seventeenth if one takes into account the six unnumbered symphonies. Although pervaded, like most of his later music, by a somewhat prickly chromaticism, this minuscule four-movement work, lasting a total of less than twelve minutes, is basically a game of contrasted timbres and textures. The subtitle “delle cornamuse” (of the bagpipes) refers not only to the intermittent use of more or less drone-like ostinati, but also to the prominence, in the first two movements and occasionally in the other two, of a concertante group consisting of an oboe, a cor anglais and a bassoon. The composer described these as “the three characteristic instruments that create the bagpipe-like sonority [determinano il suono della cornamusa]”; their capricious interaction with other, sometimes unusually chosen timbres (e.g. that of the celesta) helps to give Malipiero’s unassuming little symphonic swansong its distinctive flavour.

© 1994 John C. G. Waterhouse

Close the window