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The Italian Caress: Alessandro Marangoni talks to Jeremy Siepmann

May 1, 2012

Alessandro Marangoni

All musicians engage with the notes. And for some that is enough. Alessandro Marangoni engages with the composer in the round, cultivating, without really trying, the human being behind the notes. Rossini, for instance—one of his greatest loves—he regards as a kind of uncle. His performances thereby take on the character, for him, of conversations. Like many musicians, he can hardly remember a time when music wasn’t central to his life. Or indeed when his future was in doubt. ‘From the very beginning,’ he says, ‘I had this will, this desire, to become a musician. My head seemed to be full of music all day long.’ What he does recall, quite vividly, is the occasion that revealed his destiny.

‘I remember when my parents first took me to a concert, and I remember that a choir was singing Rossini. It’s very, very clear in my memory. I think I was five or six years old at the time. At the beginning I started to cry and shortly after that I asked my parents to buy me a piano. Happily, they did. But when it arrived, I was disappointed because I was expecting a piano with pipes! I was obviously a bit confused (I also loved the sound of the organ).’

Lucky in his teachers, he had early and invaluable guidance from Marco Vincenzi, a pupil of the great Neapolitan pianist Maria Tipo. Later he would follow suit. By his own account, she changed his life. ‘She taught me a lot of important things about music and above all a great love for the sheer sonority of the piano. She told me many times “you have to caress the instrument.” She not only taught me many important things about music and technique; just as importantly, in a way, she taught me new ways to practice. She released me as both man and musician. She also transmitted to me the essence of the Italian classics. I learned a lot of Scarlatti, for instance, and a lot of Clementi. Also, what we might call the Italian school. It was at around this time, also, when I was in my early 20s, that I began to record, most notably music by Rossini (the complete piano works) and Victor de Sabata.’

Is there, I wondered, any kind of binding overall quality which would help to clarify if not define an ‘Italian school’, in the same loose way that we talk about a ‘Germanic school’, a ‘French school’, a ‘Russian’ or a ‘Spanish’ school? What, if anything, connects the piano music of Clementi, Rossini, Busoni, Victor de Sabata and Castelnuovo-Tedesco? ‘I think one of the most important aspects of the tradition is a particularly Italian way of singing at the piano. The Italian approach to melody is largely determined, of course, by the heritage of opera. And at the piano this translates into a special kind of approach to playing the keyboard—a very warm, predominantly joyful, very sunny way of singing. These things, of course, are very hard to talk about but there is, nevertheless, I think, an audible connection linking Italian keyboard composers from Scarlatti to Clementi right through to Busoni. It may have something to do with Italian landscapes, or Italian song, or even Italian food! I think, in this case, particularly of Rossini, whose way of writing for the piano is very Italian. But as I say, it’s really very difficult, maybe impossible, to describe. There are some particular marks, but many of these, like so much in music, are mysterious and really can’t be fruitfully approached in a scientific way.’

For all his subsequent association with Italian composers, Marangoni’s development had most of its roots in northern traditions. ‘From the time of my studies onwards, my technique, my outlook as a musician, my perspectives on style, have been based on the classics: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin—I’ve played a lot of Chopin—but also a lot of Scarlatti, Clementi and Schubert. These provide the very foundation of piano playing. When you can really play these well, the instrument is yours; you are a pianist. From these, we learn all the possibilities of the instrument. Even when I play contemporary music I’m aware of my great debt to them.’

As well as being a soloist, Marangoni is a dedicated chamber player. For him, though, the two are not separate entities but complementary parts of whole experience. ‘I think chamber music is not only a wonderful thing in itself but a very valuable experience for the soloist. I love sharing my feelings with my colleagues in chamber music, to talk about music, to learn from the experience of others, I love the exchange of ideas. There’s something so exhilarating about discovering and exploring new ideas, new concepts, together. It’s a beautiful thing. And when I’m alone at the piano, I find it colouring my attitudes, my flexibility of mind, revealing wonderful things about the conversational nature of music—the amount of dialogue that lies beneath the surface of the notes. Going to the other extreme, my experience of chamber music has likewise enriched my experience in concertos, which I almost always approach now as though they were a kind of large scale chamber music—especially in Mozart and Beethoven and Mendelssohn. But this is very much more than just a dialogue, it’s a three-way interchange between myself, the conductor and the orchestra. In chamber music, you also learn to vary your sound in accordance with the nature and character of other instruments, as you exchange ideas and feelings and states of mind. Chamber music expands your reach—expressively, dramatically, psychologically.’

Like all true artists, Marangoni is a tireless and enthusiastic learner—never more so, though it might seem ironic, than when he teaches. ‘I’m very lucky to be teaching now at the Matera conservatory, in the south of Italy, which has a lot of wonderful pupils. One of the great joys of teaching, for me, is precisely, as you say, that one learns so much! It’s quite incredible. The experience of teaching has taught me a lot about myself and the way I play, that I might never have been aware of otherwise. To transmit in a scientific way what I feel and want from music, I have to analyse, as much for myself as for my pupils. In doing so, I discover ever more about the will of the composers as revealed in the texts of their compositions.’

From composers in general, we turned to the man of the hour, as far as this interview was concerned. Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco was championed in his day by the likes of Toscanini, Jascha Heifetz, Andrés Segovia, Gregor Piatigorsky and other luminaries, but to a large degree, his celebrity died with him. To most, today, he is a largely if not entirely unknown quantity. How then, I wondered, would Marangoni describe his piano music to the experienced layman coming to it for the first time? ‘The first word to come to my mind would be “sparkling”. There’s a fascinating connection between his elusive Italian way—the singing, the brightness, the sunniness—and the American (more specifically, the Hollywood) way of composing. Castelnuovo-Tedesco lived a lot in the States, hence the double influence. The music is often very spectacular, very brilliant—especially his way of writing for orchestra. I’m thinking now especially—and appropriately!—of his piano concertos. It’s certainly not intellectual music, like Busoni, for instance; it’s more voluptuary, more romantic, like a great river flowing with that sense of never-endingness. It’s very theatrical music. For example, in the piano concertos, as well as the sunshine, there are melodies of great sadness, great emotion. His music is definitely influenced by the great Hebraic tradition (he was from a Jewish family), with incredibly long melodies, expressing a deep melancholy. But there’s also, as in the final movements of both concertos, both piano concertos, that is, a great explosion of sparkling brightness—again, very theatrical.’

Small wonder that he was an outstanding orchestrator—one of the many things that made him such a successful and influential film composer. Unsurprisingly, as Marangoni says, this is reflected in his piano music, which is notably ‘well-scored’. ‘It is. He uses lots of colours. Like Beethoven, he treats the piano basically as an orchestra, though without Beethoven’s occasional awkwardness, which always arose from purely musical purposes. In some ways, too, it’s quite Mendelssohnian. Very, very clear while also very difficult, from a purely pianistic point of view. It’s certainly idiomatic (he was a great pianist himself) but often in a very challenging way. I must say, these concertos are by no means easy to play!’

Castelnuovo-Tedesco was steeped in literature, most obviously in Shakespeare. Is there a ‘literary’, programmatic, theatrical element in his piano music? Any allusive literary headings? ‘Well the theatrical element I’ve already mentioned. And often there does seem to be a strong sense of narrative, where you can really hear the music as a story. Sometimes the narrative element is quite explicit, as in the solo piano work Evangélion, a collection of 24 little pieces relating the story of Jesus as told to the children, where the narrative is unfurled in a very dramatic way. Castelnuovo-Tedesco was a great lover of literature, most famously perhaps of Shakespeare. For example, the four dances that I discovered—and I have to thank Lisbeth Castelnuovo-Tedesco, his niece, who gave me the manuscript—are based directly on Love’s Labour’s Lost by Shakespeare. And here there’s a great sense of English regality combined with a sparkling sense of dance…Also in the concertos, especially in the first movements, you feel this great sense of dancing, almost like the choreographing of a story.’

And in the concertos, does Marangoni have any favourite moments that particularly attract him? ‘I really like the third movement of the First Concerto very much. It’s one of those river-like movements, with an exciting coda. And it makes a great effect. The Second Concerto is bigger in its orchestration, more theatrical, even more gigantic, in the character of the writing. I also like the cadenzas a lot, particularly in the First Concerto. But in the Second Concerto too, he wrote a wonderful cadenza—with a great melody, very slow and singing, and this leads into a dolce oboe solo which forms a connection between the end of the cadenza and the return of the orchestra.’

Recording the concertos was a pleasure, but for Marangoni, as probably for most recording artists, the pleasure was tinged with a lurking frustration built in to the process itself. Very few performers don’t miss an audience. But most find some way of minimising the sensation. ‘When I record in the studio I often look directly at the microphone, through which, and beyond, lies my audience: the whole world may be listening! Yet in the studio you are basically alone. Sometimes I feel a bit paralysed by this. I miss the warmth of the public. A recording is certainly an artistic production, but of a special kind, in that it basically preserves a single moment, so to speak. It’s like a picture or a painting, you know? It exists at a remove from the greater reality. But the fact is that as performers, interpreters, musicians, we evolve—and our performances naturally evolve with us. And this can happen faster than many people realise, I think. Often, after only an hour, I feel I’d like to rerecord the piece a different way. What I feel happy about in the studio on the day I may feel very unhappy about a year later. As a painting of your life, of your innermost feelings, at a certain time, of course it’s an interesting thing to have, but at the same time there’ll always be something frustrating about it.’

Musically, mentally and physically, Marangoni is an artist on the move. ‘I like travelling very much, and I love bringing my music to all the different continents, and to discover cultures which are new to me. I think the career of a musician is a fantastic opportunity. I haven’t got a detailed plan yet, but one thing I’d very much like is somehow to transcend existing traditions of performance to help to bring new audiences to music, people who for one reason or another haven’t yet discovered its wonders and its endless variety—especially all the great numbers of young people.’

His highest aspirations, however, transcend not only traditions but audiences themselves. Again like all true artists, he is radiantly conscious of the incalculable privilege of being a musician. ‘I just love it that I can be a servant of the great composers throughout the centuries, to be constantly in touch with some of the greatest minds and spirits of all mankind, and always to be learning from them…With such a fantastic instrument as the piano, and the company of the great composers, I feel as though I’m on a perpetual and extraordinary voyage.’

And no-one is more conscious than Marangoni that he is one of a great multitude of living artists who feel exactly the same. Music is the essence of both community and hope.

Alessandro Marangoni Biography & Discography

Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco Biography & Discography

More recordings featuring Alessandro Marangoni


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