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Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb International, May 2009

Naxos is immersed in a modern Italian composer crusade taking in recordings made in the 1950s on a ‘composer conducts’ basis. And on the basis of this one I’m inclined to shout encore.

Ghedini was a Turin-born late starter, mainly because poverty stifled his compositional aspirations in his twenties. Despite devoted work more often than not he played the piano—he was a fine pianist—and conducted; his compositional success came much later in 1927 when Litanie alla Vergine was premiered and caused a splash. Only then did he emerge as probably the most important Italian composer of his time—born as he was in 1892, thus a decade or so after Casella, Malipiero, Pizzetti and Respighi. Those born a decade after him included Dallapiccola and Petrassi. Incidentally Ghedini was a fine teacher and one of his pupils was Berio.

The works included in this disc were made in Naples on 28 March 1952, with the Orchestra Alessandro Scarlatti di Napoli directed by the composer. They’re all fascinating. L’Olmeneta (The Elm Grove) is that rare thing, a concerto for orchestra and two concertante cellos. The opening is tense, ruminative and the cellos entwine with honeysuckle embrace that is at once compelling and almost anti-virtuosic. In the central movement they joust with a pair of horns whilst the slow movement is highly expressive, remote and atmospheric. The cellistic line is warm, the ethos Mahlerian, albeit with a certain static, restive, reserved element. The last movement takes us back to our beginning, a quasi-cyclic component, shot through with increasingly fugitive strangeness. What a compelling, slightly weird work this is.

Of course we must have Litanie alla Vergine, the composition that marked his delayed coming of age. At only ten minutes in length it doesn’t outstay its welcome, and certainly not in this warmly lyric, radiantly post-Respighian performance—one that coalesces economy and simplicity of means with affirmative spirit and post-war optimism (in both compositional and recording senses). The final work consists of the only recorded extracts from the Musical Offering after Johann Sebastian Bach which he wrote in 1946. He drew on his orchestral palette, his conductor’s ear and an innate respect for Bach to produce a work of real strength. In general the orchestration is sparing, with power reserved for particular moments. He opens the Thema on two pianos and successively varies instrumental groupings and colouration with masterly, painterly control, with fresco aptness. By the time we reach the Canones diversi [IV—track 12] we find ourselves immersed in a powerful sense of motion and dynamic contrapuntalism. There are elsewhere vivid conjunctions of voicings—try the Canon a 2 [track 14]—and a real sense of uneasy tension in the Animato [track 15]. The sound swells and engorges in the Canon a 4 and by the concluding Ricercare a 6 the full torrent of the orchestra is incrementally unleashed, the work ending in grandiose crypto-Stokowskian splendour.

Taken from Colosseum LPs the restorations, from material originally recorded by Italian radio, sound pretty good. The music spans Ghedini’s compositional life in a way he clearly found representative. There’s something here for every taste—from the more academic but still exciting Bach, to the joyful Litanie and the puzzlingly hypnotic L’Olmeneta.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, January 2009

Apart from Respighi and Malipiero, Italian music in the first half of the 20th century has gained limited international recognition, and the name of Giorgio Federico Ghedini is hardly known outside of his native land. From letters that exist he must have been a very conceited person who never seemed able to make up his mind whether he wanted to be a pianist, composer or conductor, his career eventually falling between the proverbial ‘stools’. Maybe he should simply have contented himself with teaching, Lucanio Berio being among his many outstanding Milan Conservatory pupils. The three works on the present disc are a snapshot of his working life, the earliest, when he was thirty-four in 1926, being the Litanie for mezzo, chorus and orchestra, and came in direct lineage of Malipiero. Twenty years later he paid homage to Johann Sebastian Bach by orchestrating the Musical Offering using small parts of the orchestra in different permutations as he progressed through the variations, the full orchestra to be heard only twice. To my ears the result is fragmented, the work never gelling as a whole, though in each section you can admire his ingenuity. It is the first work on the disc, L’Olmeneta (The Elm Grove) dating from 1951 and fourteen years before his death, that is the most impressive. The four movements are cast as a concertante work for two cellos, and comes in an opulent and personal style of writing. Here again you can take Malipiero as a general guide to its mood. The recordings were made be Italian Radio in 1952, and the Alessandro Scarlatti Orchestra of Naples does at times sound hard pressed in the Musical Offering, but elsewhere respond with enthusiasm to the composer’s conducting. First released in the United States on the Colosseum label, the sound is now distinctly faded.

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