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8.573438 - MARTUCCI, G.: Piano Trios Nos. 1 and 2 (Trio Vega)

Giuseppe Martucci (1856–1909)
Piano Trios Nos 1 and 2


At a time when the Italian musical scene was dominated by opera, the pianist and conductor Giuseppe Martucci was heralded for his profound—and at the time, unusual—interest in performing and composing symphonic and instrumental chamber music. His father, a bandmaster in the Neapolitan army, began giving him piano lessons when he was four years old; at eleven, already recognised as a prodigiously gifted performer, he enrolled at the Conservatorio di San Pietro a Majella in Naples. Here he was taught by Beniamino Cesi, a pupil of Thalberg and a great admirer of the music of Schumann and Beethoven—it was from Cesi, above all, that Martucci was to develop such a fascination with Austro-German instrumental repertoire. His studies were cut short in 1872, owing to his family’s dwindling financial resources, and he began touring, visiting Italy, Ireland and England over the next few years. His playing won plaudits from Franz Liszt, and he also began to perform regularly with the internationally acclaimed Italian cellist, Alfredo Piatti (1822–1901).

1877 was an important turning point for Martucci. He completed his first major work, the Piano Quintet, Op 45, to great acclaim. And the most generous of his patrons, Francesco Milano, Prince of Ardore, established an orchestra for Martucci to conduct. The first concert of this orchestra—later to become the Orchestra Napoletana—was held in 1881, with Martucci conducting works by Beethoven and Wagner. In time, Martucci was to conduct the first Italian performances of Tristan und Isolde (in 1888), and Schumann’s Szenen aus Goethes Faust (in 1895); he was also responsible for introducing Italian audiences to the symphonies of Brahms, and works by Richard Strauss, Claude Debussy, Arthur Sullivan and Charles Stanford. He enjoyed an international reputation as a pianist, conductor and composer, and in 1880 he returned to his old Conservatorio to join the staff as a professor of piano. He was subsequently appointed Director of the institution in 1902.

Martucci’s compositional output is, not surprisingly, dominated by piano works, but he was also a skilled writer of orchestral and chamber music, completing two piano concertos (1878 and 1885), two symphonies (1895 and 1904, which his fellow countryman Arturo Toscanini performed frequently in New York), and a number of works for strings and piano. His interest in these ‘Germanic’—or at any rate, ‘non-Italian’—forms, placed him at the head of a small trio of composers, with Giovanni Sgambati (1841–1914) and Antonio Bazzini (1818–1897). These musicians were known collectively as Il ponte (The Bridge), since they were responsible for establishing a connection between Italian instrumental music and Austro-German Romanticism. Schumann, in particular, was to prove an important model for Martucci in the creation of his chamber works with piano.

The Piano Trio in C major, Op 59, was composed in 1882, whilst Martucci was still living and working in Naples, and published the following year. The opening Allegro movement bears clear traces of Brahms’s influence, both in terms of its texture and the three-against-two so characteristic of the older German composer. But the long-breathed melodies of the exposition, and the extraordinary, almost recitative-like development section, in which cello and violin play over still, spread chords in the piano, are unmistakeably un-German, and point to the lyricism of Italian vocal writing. It is this alternation of forward-moving, texturally dense sections and recitative-style passages that characterises the movement. The dazzling Scherzo has a touch of the demonic about it, with twinkling, virtuosic lines for the piano and pulsing momentum in the bouncing string crotchets. The trio, by contrast, seems more folk-influenced: there is a hint of the Neapolitan bagpipes to this section, and a definite sense of the pastoral in the simple, and simply harmonised, string writing. This is followed by a gently lyrical Andante con moto, in which the cello takes the lead. Although this begins and ends quietly, its central section is loaded with unsettled, and unsettling, chromatic passages. The Finale is full of bounce and sunshine, and both the gently rumbling quaver oscillations of the opening piano figure, and the graceful turn that comprises the second subject, allow Martucci to navigate the material into unusual and far-distant tonal areas. The Trio won the annual competition of the Società del quartetto di Milano—a prize that Martucci now collected for the second time, having previously received it for his Piano Quintet in 1877.

Martucci’s second essay in this medium, the Piano Trio in E flat major, Op 62, was composed the very next year. This also starts with a Brahmsian opening Allegro—indeed, if anything, this is more deeply indebted to Brahms’s chamber writing than the First Trio. Martucci makes particular use of contrapuntal interplay in the development section, the second half of which is in a faster ‘Animato’ tempo. After this distinctly Romantic first movement, the Scherzo is something of a shock, beginning with a deliberate and insistent repeated clash between G and F sharp. The knocking dotted rhythm established in the opening few bars pervades the movement, which features particularly chromatic figuration for the piano, and several moments of grating tonal uncertainty and tension. The idea of a static or repeating part providing a foil for unusual harmonies is also exploited in the gentler, and rather mysterious, trio section. Contrasting tempi feature in the third movement, as in the first, with the central Animato providing both a change of pace and a new way to develop the material of the surrounding Adagio. There is even a quasi Cadenza section before the return of the opening tempo. Finally, the closing Allegro vivace, in 6/8, opens with a jaunty melody in the violin and cello which is carefully calculated to both work as a contrapuntal theme, and also allow a gentle slipping and sliding into unusual key regions as it bounces along. Once again, the movement is sectionalised, with a contrasting Meno Allegro in 3/4 making two appearances, and further tempo changes towards the end of the piece. The overall effect is almost that of a combined second scherzo and Finale: indeed, the ‘real’ Scherzo theme of the second movement, and the opening melody of the Adagio, are both briefly quoted in the closing pages.

Whereas the First Trio was issued by the Milan-based publisher Ricordi, the second Trio was issued by Kistner of Leipzig. This points to a growing interest and admiration for Martucci’s music beyond the boundaries of his home country. A number of his later works were published by German companies, and he also received warm praise from the international press, with reviewers often describing his music in terms usually reserved for Germanic repertoire (‘uncompromisingly earnest’, ‘serious’), in contrast to the typically ‘lyrical’, ‘flippant’ qualities of Italian opera. He died in 1909, and his musical legacy was taken up by a number of his pupils—most famously Alfredo Casella (1883–1947) and Ottorino Respighi (1879–1936). His son Paolo was also a noted concert pianist, who emigrated to the United States of America.

Katy Hamilton

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