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Gian Francesco MALIPIERO (1883-1973) The Symphonies – Volume 1
Sinfonia del mare (1906) [23:41]
Symphony No. 3 “delle campane” (1944-45) [23:50]
Symphony No. 4 “in memoriam” (1946) [24:58]
Moscow Symphony Orchestra/Antonio de Almeida
rec. Mosfilm Studio, Moscow, May-June 1993. DDD
NAXOS 8.570878 [72:29]

 

Experience Classicsonline


Firstly, I guess that the name and the music of Gian Francesco Malipiero are little known in the general run of classical music appreciation - especially in the United Kingdom and the USA. Secondly, based on this first volume of Symphonies, I believe that listeners will be pleasantly surprised at what appears to be a great symphonic cycle that is just waiting to be (re)discovered. It seems ironic that such music as this can have remained in relative obscurity for so many years. I understand that this series was released on the Marco Polo label some 15 years ago – but I imagine that many people, me included, will have missed them first time around.

A few words about Malipiero’s career will not go amiss. He was born in Venice in 1883 to a musical family; his grandfather was the opera composer Francesco Malipiero. However, family problems prevented the young Gian from having a consistent musical education. After a period in the Vienna Conservatoire he had some composition lessons with Marco Enrico Bossi. Unfortunately he was forced to spend time studying on his own. Much of this self-study involved perusal of the scores of Monteverdi and Frescobaldi. This deep understanding of this these (then) largely forgotten works was to lead the composer to a great interest in historical Italian music- it was an interest that was to yield great fruit in later years. Malipiero attended a number of lectures by Max Bruch in Berlin between 1910 and 1911 and was later to come under the spell of Debussy, Stravinsky and Casella. Interestingly he was largely ambivalent about the Austro-Germanic tradition: his definition of ‘symphony’ was markedly different to that of Mahler, Bruckner and other post-romantic composers.

One anecdote about the composer’s younger days repays telling. In 1913 he won four composition prizes at the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome by the rather dubious precedent of submitting five different works under five different names.

It is difficult to place Malipiero in context as his music is not generally known to a British audience. But for the record, Malipiero himself suggested that his Pause del Silenzio for the orchestra (1917), his Rispetti e Strambotti for chamber ensemble, (1920) and L'Orfeide for the stage (1918, 1922) are amongst his best works. Few would doubt that the symphonies are his crowning achievements. But other contenders for the palm are the Fourth String Quartet (1934) - he wrote eight - his chamber opera Sette canzoni (1920) and the First Violin Concerto (1932). All these works await rediscovery.

In addition to his work as a composer, Malipiero was to devote much time to teaching at the Venice Liceo Musicale and the Parma Conservatory. One of his star students was Luigi Nono. He wrote a number of books including studies of Stravinsky and Vivaldi. Yet perhaps the greatest debt that musicians and listeners owe to Malipiero is his work as an editor. He produced a complete edition of Monteverdi’s compositions and latterly edited many of Vivaldi’s concertos. Additionally he produced performing editions of music by Galuppi, Tartini and Stradella.

It is very difficult to describe Malipiero’s music. For one thing it is hard to relate their sound-world to that of other composers. One is reminded of the late Elvis Presley when asked who he sang like. His immortal reply was “I don’t sing like no-one”. And the same can be said of Malipiero. Certainly there are hints of Stravinsky and Debussy in many passages. But when one starts hearing Charles Ives, Edward Elgar and Ottorino Respighi it is perhaps time to give up and allow the man to speak for himself.

Unfortunately, most scholars declare that Malipiero’s music is quite uneven in its quality. Woodhouse, in the sleeve-notes, declares that “all [his] works deserve far more attention than they nowadays usually receive … despite the undeniable, disconcerting unevenness of his huge output”. But any artist has an inalienable right to be understood by his best works. Malipiero is generally regarded as a great composer when judged by these standards. Dallapiccola once stated that Malipiero was “the most important musical personality that Italy had since the death of Verdi”.

He was to destroy much of his music written before 1914; however the Sinfonia del mare (1906) is one that has survived that cull. It is a very good place to begin an exploration of his music. This work is usually regarded as more ‘symphonic poem’ than a ‘classic’ symphony. This is the composer’s Sea Symphony – although it is a far cry from that of Vaughan Williams! Even a superficial hearing will suggest Debussy’s La Mer. However it is unlikely that the Malipiero could have heard that piece when he wrote the present piece only a few months after the premiere of the Frenchman’s great work. Fundamentally, this ‘Sinfonia’ is a musical representation of the changes and chances and moods of the Adriatic as seen (probably) from the Lagoon. It is a lovely work that will present few problems to listeners.

The Third Symphony was composed in 1944-45. Malipiero has written about this work that it was “connected to a terrible date, 8 September 1943 when the bells of St Mark’s Cathedral did not ring for peace but to announce new torments, new suffering.” The reason for this, the composer said, was that “the Germans had invaded Italy. I heard the sound of their steps, of their heavy boots announcing death and martyrdom. The bells cancelled all that: they created a special state of mind. Here is my Third Symphony written at one of the most terrible times.” Malipiero closes his thoughts on this work by asking, “Have you ever heard, from the lagoons, Venice all vibrating with bells? She becomes a huge musical instrument.”.

The work is in four movements with the ‘scherzo’ placed after the slow movement. From the first bar to the last the listener is aware of the ringing of bells – either explicitly or implicitly; it is the work’s leitmotiv. Listen out for some delicious sonorities in the slow movement: the composer makes excellent use of the piano, creating a kind of gamelan-like soundscape. But it is the rather obtuse ‘scherzo’ that stole the show for me in this piece. Novel use of instruments and a lopsided formal construction do nothing to lessen the fact that this is a minor masterpiece of orchestral writing.

I have listened, carefully to this Symphony twice. On the one hand it is a work that can be appreciated on a one-off hearing, yet I believe that this is music that only reveals its delights and depths with application and repeated hearing which may not be realistic to expect from the majority of listeners. There is great beauty in these pages, as well contemplative moments and even intimations of darkness. Yet, for all that, this is an optimistic work.

The Fourth Symphony is subtitled ‘in memoriam’. It is dedicated to Natalie Koussevitzky, the wife of the great conductor. As an aside Peter Grimes was also dedicated to this lady, as were a number of other compositions.

The first movement is a touch ‘eccentric’ and I guess that it is a little imbalanced. There is a lot of energy here, and much of the music seems a little ‘rough cut.’ Waterhouse is right when he states that ‘a two bar refrain for trombones, tuba and bassoon interposes itself three times “into the music’s flow like some rough and knobbly obstacle”. However the slow movement is perfect. It is the heart of the work and is ‘elegiac’ in mood. This is not easy music to listen to. Sometimes there is a harshness that may seem alien to music designed to be ‘in memory’ of a friend.

The ‘scherzo’ is hardly as impressive as that of the Third Symphony, although it is a relief after the intensity of the slow movement. There is much energy here and the dissonance suggests vitality rather than violence. The last movement is an interesting set of variations on a theme ‘salvaged from Malipiero’s early, repudiated one-act opera Canossa (1911-12). It is the most accomplished part of this Symphony. My first reaction is that it lacks unity, and that for an elegiac work it is devoid of warmth. It is only in the last pages that I sense hope and optimism. But I guess that this was the composer’s intention.

Fundamentally, this is a great CD. I know that I missed out on this music the first time around – and I regret this. These are great, if somewhat idiosyncratic works that well deserve attention and study. I am not an authority on Italian music from any century – but I guess that symphonic cycles of the magnitude of Gian Francesco Malipiero’s are few and far between. And to discover a series of works that are great music, inspiring, beautiful and thoroughly enjoyable is a great thing. I hope that Naxos quickly releases the remaining symphonies and other orchestral works as soon as possible.

I should add that the playing by the Moscow Symphony Orchestra and their conductor Antonio de Almeida is stimulating. To my mind, they are great advocates of Malipiero’s music. The programme notes by John C.G. Waterhouse are informative, well written and essential reading. Bear in mind that there is little other information to assist listeners.

John France

 





 


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