About this Recording
8.573748 - Orchestral Music (20th Century Italian) - CASELLA, A. / DONATONI, F. / GHEDINI, G.F. / MALIPIERO, G.F. (Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana, Iorio)

Alfredo Casella (1883–1947) • Franco Donatoni (1927–2000) • Giorgio Federico Ghedini (1892–1965) • Gian Francesco Malipiero (1882–1973)


‘A crucial figure: few modern musicians in any country can compare with him for sheer energy, enlightenment and persistence in his many-sided activities as leader, organiser, conductor, pianist, teacher and propagandist—one marvels that he had any time left for composing.’ The musician thus acclaimed by the English expert on Italian music John C.G. Waterhouse was Alfredo Casella—who is the fulcrum of the present recording celebrating the lighter side, in music for small orchestras, of four twentieth-century Italian composers with plenty in common: not least, they all come from the nation’s northern regions, and were all relatively late developers in finding their own musical voices. Gian Francesco Malipiero from Venice in the northeast, a year older than Casella, was one of his closest musical associates: it was at Malipiero’s home in the hill town of Asolo in 1923 that Casella composed the music that firmly established his own mature style. Giorgio Federico Ghedini, a decade younger than them, was—like Casella—a son of Piedmont, Italy’s northwesternmost region, and built his career in Casella’s native city of Turin. Franco Donatoni from Verona, more than 40 years younger, had barely begun to study composition when Casella died in 1947, but his favourite teacher was one of Casella’s former protégés, the composer Goffredo Petrassi.

Late nineteenth-century Turin had the strongest instrumental music tradition of any city in Italy—including, from 1872 to 1886, the first regular concert series for a symphony orchestra in the whole country, the Concerti popolari (Popular Concerts). Casella himself was born into a family of cello and piano players: his grandfather, father and both uncles were all top professional cellists; Casella’s mother, a fine pianist, was his main teacher for the first dozen years of his life—and young Alfredo was a keyboard prodigy. It is a wry comment on the quality of Italian conservatories of the time that two of Italy’s leading composers, Giuseppe Martucci (1856–1909) and Antonio Bazzini (1818–97), directors of the conservatories in Bologna and Milan respectively, each (and separately) advised Casella’s parents that to find tuition that would do justice to his talent, they would need to send him abroad. 1896 was a watershed in Casella’s life: his father died, after a long illness; and he moved to Paris with his mother to study at the Conservatoire. Casella was to remain in Paris for almost twenty years, cutting his teeth in the most dynamic artistic milieu of the time as pianist, composer, conductor and—in 1910, when he persuaded two deadly rival musical societies to join forces to enable the Paris première of Mahler’s Second Symphony—indefatigable organiser. As a composer, inspired above all (however much he later denied it) by Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Casella wrote some of the most radical music of the First World War period. When Italy joined the War in 1915, Casella decided to return permanently to his home country; settling in Rome, he rapidly galvanised a group of young Italian composers (including Gian Francesco Malipiero) into an ‘Italian Modern Music Society’ (Società italiana di Musica Moderna), promoting performances of the newest music by themselves and others—and provoking enormous controversy among Italian audiences and critics, for many of whom Wagner was still virtually the last word in modernism. Casella never lost his enthusiasm for musical innovation: in the 1920s he organised Italian première tours for both Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire (‘Moonstruck Pierrot’, 1912) and Stravinsky’s Les noces (‘The Wedding’, 1914–17, 1921–23); and he continued to promote cutting-edge compositions throughout the 1930s. But with the Undici pezzi infantili (‘Eleven Children’s Pieces’, Op. 35) of 1920, Casella’s own music—like Stravinsky’s around the same time—began to become simpler and less experimental. ‘Neoclassical’ is an epithet often applied to both composers, though neither was entirely happy with it; and ‘neo-Baroque’ would often be more appropriate: witness, for example, two of Casella’s works for piano (himself) and small orchestra, the Partita, Op. 42 (1924–25) [Naxos 8.573005] and the ‘Divertimento on music of Domenico Scarlatti’ Scarlattiana, Op. 44 (1926) [Naxos 8.572416]. Having developed this mature style, Casella scarcely deviated from it for two decades; so much so that when in 1940 he expanded the Eleven Children’s Pieces into a ‘ballet for children’, he was able to add completely new music with a seamlessness that would surely flummox anyone trying to spot the joins.

That ballet, La camera dei disegni (‘The Room of Drawings’ [not ‘The Drawing Room!’]), is the source of the first work on the present recording, the Divertimento for Fulvia. Fulvia was Fulvia Casella, Alfredo’s daughter, born in 1928 and still actively promoting her father’s music today—and the legacy continues: Fulvia’s daughter Fiamma Nicolodi is a distinguished musicologist. When Casella conducted the ballet’s première in November 1940 at Rome’s most forward-thinking theatre—the Teatro delle Arti (Arts Theatre), founded in 1925 by the groundbreaking playwright Luigi Pirandello (1867–1936) among others—twelve-year-old Fulvia was one of the dancers in the corps de ballet. The complete ballet uses music from all but one of the Eleven Children’s Pieces; but the suite that Casella extracted from it and called Divertimento per Fulvia leaves out three more. It is almost a pity to reveal that the opening and closing sections of the Divertimento—the Sinfonia (Overture), and most of the concluding Allegro veloce, Valzer (Waltz) and Apoteosi (Apotheosis)—were newly written in 1940, whereas everything in between is simply a vividly colourful orchestration of music from 1920. The plot of the ballet—in which a thief steals from a child’s picture book a series of drawings that come to life and finally turn on their tormentor—is little more than an excuse for a diverse succession of dances; the Divertimento offers the kaleidoscopic music for enjoyment on its own terms; and as might be expected in a work for children, it is great fun. Rarely can the interplay between music with and without sharps and flats have been as keen and spicy as here, with Casella’s small orchestra joyously amplifying the juxtapositions in the original piano pieces of white notes in one hand and black notes in the other (as in the Allegretto and Carillon); or well-nigh snubbing the sharps and flats altogether, as in the Diatonic Waltz and the final Apotheosis—itself (surely consciously) stolen from the beautiful last section of a far better-known ballet based on children’s piano pieces, composed by a good friend of Casella’s from their Paris Conservatoire days: Le Jardin féerique (‘The Fairy Garden’) from Ma Mère l’oye (‘Mother Goose’, 1911) by Maurice Ravel (1875–1937). And there is a popular, folky strain, too—in the Siciliana, with its sweet, expressive melody, ‘like a folk tune’; in the Jig, with its pungently punchy variations on the Northumbrian folk song The Keel Row (a nod to another, older French colleague, Claude Debussy (1862–1918), who had used The Keel Row in his own orchestral Gigues (‘Jigs’, 1909–12), the first of his three orchestral Images of 1905–12); and in the frequent affinities with the lighter music of a much younger Russian composer whose soundworld Casella’s often resembles, Dmitry Shostakovich (1906–75).

The still younger Franco Donatoni may never have met Casella, but as a student in Rome in the early 1950s he had no problem supplementing his grant with a few lire earned by composing cod Casella: the film composer Giovanni Fusco (1906–68), who wrote most of the soundtracks for the films of the great Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni, farmed out some of his less prestigious commissions to Donatoni—‘Write me ten minutes of stuff in the style of Casella for a short! Something for a cloak-and-dagger film, ten minutes of old dances like Respighi!’—before delivering them under his own name. When Donatoni graduated in 1953, Fusco tried to tempt him to carry on this secret ghostwriting existence: ‘in a couple of years you’ll get a car, an apartment in five’. But Donatoni had other ideas. Since leaving the Bologna Conservatory he had nominally been studying under Casella’s onetime friend, the by now rather conservative composer Ildebrando Pizzetti (1880–1968), on the advanced composition course at Rome’s Santa Cecilia Academy; in reality, though, he was learning rather more from unofficial lessons with the younger, much more open-minded Goffredo Petrassi (1904–2003), whose composing career Casella had played a major rôle in establishing in the 1930s by his championship of Petrassi’s early works. Petrassi was on the jury of a Radio Luxembourg competition in 1952 which awarded Donatoni first prize for his Concertino for strings, brass and solo timpani of that year—strongly influenced, like most of his music of the time, by Casella’s great Hungarian contemporary Béla Bartók (1881–1945). But ‘Donatok’, as Donatoni was soon nicknamed, was already beginning to feel dissatisfied with his own work; and by the end of the 1950s, when he at last found a truly distinctive voice, his music would undergo immense changes, as he confronted the challenge of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone techniques, and then the yet more complex and avant-garde idioms of his own near contemporaries and (in some cases) compatriots, Pierre Boulez (1925–2016), Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928–2007), Luciano Berio (1925–2003) and Luigi Nono (1924–91)—a Venetian whose teachers had included Gian Francesco Malipiero. The catalyst for Donatoni’s development was meeting another Venetian former student of Malipiero: the inspiring composer and conductor Bruno Maderna (1920–73), a huge enthusiast for the innovations of Gustav Mahler (1860–1911), Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951) and Anton Webern (1883–1945). Maderna persuaded Donatoni both to immerse himself in serialism at the Darmstadt Summer School for New Music in 1954, and to compose a piece for chamber orchestra: he called it simply Musica (‘Music’, 1954–55), and it is the first of the three world première recordings here. ‘I spent months analysing Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra, Op. 31 (1926, 1928),’ Donatoni recalled in the 1980s, ‘armed with four different coloured pencils. Endless numbers—but it was an invaluable experience through which I came to understand how the twelve-tone technique worked. Immediately after that I wrote Musica, my worst piece, sort of Schoenberg gone a bit neoclassical.’ Composers are by no means always the best judges of their own music, and Donatoni is certainly being far too hard on Musica. For one thing, it almost never sounds like Schoenberg (or indeed Bartók)—though sometimes like Schoenberg’s pupil Webern, and with occasional neo-Baroque echoes of Stravinsky, or even Casella. And most importantly, Musica must be one of the most appealing twelve-tone pieces ever composed: its four movements teem with a rhythmic vitality and timbral imagination equal to any in the music on the present recording—not to mention a highly un-Schoenbergian sense of humour, calling to mind, in its flashes of the grotesque, another Hungarian composer a few years older than Donatoni, György Ligeti (1923–2006); or even Haydn in its unflagging unexpectedness.

Giorgio Federico Ghedini, who was born in Italy’s westernmost city Cuneo, had the longest wait of any composer represented here before he finally received the high acclaim his music deserved—at the age of 48, with the première in Rome of his ‘concerto for orchestra’ Architetture (‘Architectures’, 1939–40) [Naxos 8.573006]. He had, in fact, found a distinctive voice at least a dozen years earlier, with works such as the radiant Litanie alla Vergine (‘Litanies to the Virgin Mary’, 1926) [Naxos 8.111325] and the imaginative orchestral Partita (1926)—which still awaits its first commercially available recording. By this time he was already playing a pivotal rôle as teacher, composer, conductor and pianist in the artistic life of what has always remained one of Italy’s most musical cities, Casella’s birthplace Turin; but wider success proved elusive. After graduating from the Bologna Conservatory just before the First World War, Ghedini had initially made ends meet through itinerant opera conducting: he gradually became sick of it, but found an inspiring ‘refuge in Beethoven and J.S. Bach: I always carried their scores with me, and they “sowed the good seed” in me.’ In later life he would pay explicit homage to both composers, not only musically—via an orchestral realisation of Bach’s Musical Offering (1946) [Naxos 8.111325]—but also in words, writing the introduction to the Beethoven entry published in 1963 in the Italian Enciclopedia della musica (Encyclopedia of Music). And implicit homages to Bach and Beethoven abound in Ghedini’s works throughout his career: not least the one that receives its première recording here, the Concerto grosso for solo wind quintet and strings—an instrumental lineup so fruitful that it is amazing how few composers have used it. From the very opening of Ghedini’s Concerto grosso—as much neo-Beethoven slow introduction as neo-Baroque Largo—compositional influences and affinities are easy to spot; but it is testament to his originality that many of the affinities are with works that were yet to be written. The sprung, syncopated rhythms and chordal clarity occasionally evoke later music by the younger American Aaron Copland (1900–90)—or even, when combined in the almost proto-minimalist repetitions that would become central to Ghedini’s mature style, a much younger American, Michael Torke (b. 1961). And the Concerto grosso’s ‘quick and witty’ (Allegro spiritoso) concluding gigue is reminiscent of the late style that Richard Strauss (1864–1949) would develop more than a decade later—a kinship cemented by a phrase that sounds like a premonition of the finale of Strauss’s Second Horn Concerto (1942). In his five highly contrasting movements Ghedini explores every possible textural and thematic relationship between the five wind soloists and the body of strings, creating a true modern counterpart to the interplay between ‘concertino’ solo group and ‘ripieno’ ensemble in the Baroque concerto grosso form, deployed with such imagination by the likes of Corelli, Vivaldi, Handel and Bach; but Ghedini’s personal, poignant harmonic sideslips, piquant dissonances and diverting rhythmic dislocations could only have been composed in the past century.

Gian Francesco Malipiero, a decade older than Ghedini, was one of the up-and-coming Italian composers who eagerly joined Casella in the campaigning work of the Italian Modern Music Society during the First World War. Malipiero had a difficult childhood in Venice as son of an ancient aristocratic family that had seen much better days—centuries earlier, two of his father’s ancestors had even become Doge, the head of government in the Venetian Republic. By Gian Francesco’s time, the remaining money was on his mother’s side of the family; and young Malipiero suffered profoundly when his parents separated in 1893: though he would almost never talk about it in adult life, it appears that, with his conductor-pianist father, he spent six years travelling between Trieste, Berlin and Vienna earning a living in salon orchestras. Malipiero eventually managed to study for a year at the Vienna Conservatory, and later at the Bologna Conservatory, graduating in 1904 with a performance of his Dai sepocri (‘From Tombs’, 1904) [Naxos 8.572766]. But he, too, faced a long road to maturity: from 1918 onwards he condemned almost all of the music he had written up till then, albeit with wildly fluctuating degrees of severity. In 1952 he went so far as to say that ‘I wish I had not emerged from silence before 1911, with the first set of Impressioni dal vero (‘Impressions from Life’, 1910–11); and that I had followed them, even if not until six years later, only with the Pause del silenzio (‘Interruptions of the Silence’, No. 1, 1917)’ [both works available on Naxos 8.572409]. In 1942, on the other hand, in a programme note about the 1917 Pause del silenzio, he had observed—with great self-awareness—that ‘The First World War disrupted my whole life, which until 1920 was a perennial tragedy. The works of these years perhaps reflect my agitation; however, I consider that if I have created something new in my art (formally and stylistically) it happened precisely in that period.’ In 1917 Malipiero and his wife, living in the north Italian hill town of Asolo, were caught up in the most devastating event of the War in Italy, when 700,000 soldiers and countless civilians fled for their lives in the so-called Retreat of Caporetto. Ending up in Rome, Malipiero threw himself into the artistic life of the capital—and not only its purely musical activities, newly energised thanks to Casella’s efforts, but also its theatrical world. With his ‘symphonic drama’ Pantèa (1917–19)—actually a dance work—and ‘dramatic expressions’ Sette canzoni (‘Seven Songs’, 1918–19)—a kind of opera—Malipiero developed his own radical form of music theatre. He also became friendly with some of the most experimental playwrights of the time, and wrote music for Futurist stage productions—including a piece for the ‘plastic dances’ for puppets created by Fortunato Depero (1892–1960), which was published as Grottesco (‘Grotesque’, 1918) [Naxos 8.572766]—and the work recorded for the first time here, Oriente immaginario. This Imaginary Orient was composed in 1920 for the ‘Teatro del colore’ (Theatre of Colour) productions of Achille Ricciardi (1884–1923), whose pioneering effects of lighting and colour aimed to express the evolving psychological nuances of the drama. Yet Malipiero was soon being almost as rude about his own music as Donatoni would be about his: already in 1921 Malipiero told his friend Guido M. Gatti that he ‘loathed’ Oriente immaginario and wished he had never had it published, and forty years later in a letter to John C.G. Waterhouse he dismissed it with the single word ‘horrible’. But Malipiero, too, was being overly harsh. Admittedly Oriente immaginario is awash with the typical chromaticism—including prominent augmented seconds—that are the stock in trade of ‘orientalism’ in nineteenth- and twentieth-century western music that evokes a (putative) exotic east; but at least Malipiero, unlike most, confesses to its purely imaginary nature. And the music is considerably more subtle than Malipiero appears to have given it credit for—as the subtitle to the score he regretted publishing suggests: ‘three studies for small orchestra’. Highly unusually for Malipiero, the whole work revolves around a single theme, heard in a different form in each of the three movements: it is introduced early in the first movement by unison flute and oboe, underpinned by the bassoon; a variant appears in the middle of the second, now played by the bassoon itself; and it is relaunched by the flute and oboe in still another version that pervades the whole of the third piece, whose near-monothematicism is cleverly disguised by frequent variations of pace and texture. And texture is key: just like Casella, Donatoni and Ghedini in the other music recorded here, Malipiero revels in the remarkable range of sounds that can be drawn from a small but perfectly formed orchestra.

David Gallagher

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