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Ildebrando PIZZETTI (1880-1968)
Preludio – Fedra: Tragedia musicale in tre atti (1909) [8:47]
Canti della stagione alta – piano concerto (1930) [29:50]
Cabiria – Film Music: Sinfonia del fuoco (1914) [10:37]
Susanna Stefani Caetani (piano); Boris Statsenko (baritone); Städtischer Opernchor Chemnitz; Robert-Schumann-Philharmonie/Oleg Caetani
rec. Stadthalle Chemnitz, 17-18 September 1997 (concerto); Opernhaus Chemnitz, 22-23 September 1997, (remainder)
NAXOS 8.570874 [49:13] 
Experience Classicsonline

Does Marco Polo still exist as a label? Created under the mantle “the label of discovery” it used to be the Naxos main outlet for music from the world’s highways and byways. Now that Naxos seems to embrace all and every style of music and at a bargain price I’m guessing Marco Polo has quietly slipped away. Over the years Naxos has reissued many earlier Marco Polo discs and this is one such – a straight reissue of the 1999 disc. I missed it first time round and I am sorry that I did – it is a CD of rare but instantly appealing music convincingly performed. 

Ildebrando Pizzetti is one of a group of Italian composers – the others included Respighi, Malipiero and Casella - who sought to modernise Italian opera as well as establishing a body of non-operatic Italian music. All of the music presented here is intensely dramatic – not surprising in a composer who produced more than a dozen operas as well as incidental and film music. Even the piano concerto here Canti della stagione alta is intensely pictorial. The disc opens with the prelude to Pizzetti’s first Opera Fedra. This opens with a strangely hypnotic sinuous melody (monody really) from the violas that immediately flags up one of Pizzetti’s great interests – Gregorian Chant yet this seamlessly moves into an impassioned lyrical outburst for the full orchestra within half a minute – it is powerfully dramatic and makes one want to hear more of the full opera. If you think that Puccini had yet to write Il Trittico or Turandot at the time Fedra was first performed you can hear what a new path Pizzetti was trying to forge. It is still very romantic and lyrical but quite different from the music of his more illustrious contemporary. 

The major work presented here is the piano concerto of 1930 Canti della stagione alta (Songs of the High Season). Keith Anderson’s erudite - as usual - notes capture the sound world of this piece well. The music is immediately ‘open-air’, modal in flavour and with a rhapsodic feel - the long singing lines of the strings show a composer of a naturally lyrical bent. The way the woodwinds ornament and muse over their opening material is very beautiful. It doesn’t grab your attention by the use of great arching melodies instead it creates its effects by use of texture and atmosphere – Pizzetti handles the orchestra and soloist with great confidence. Certainly if you like your piano concertos big-boned, tonal and of a romantic cut this is for you. Running at a shade under thirty minutes this is not a huge work but it feels bigger than that. Not to imply that it outstays its welcome – far from it. As the first movement develops it moves away from the pastoral to something altogether more dramatic with double octave passages in the piano tossed off with conspicuous ease. There is a heraldic quality to some of Pizzetti’s brass writing that I really enjoy. Yes it could be argued there is a cinematic element to it but it works for me! The slow second movement is altogether simpler although once again the central climax is heavily brass led but I do like the way this immediately gives way to a quietly modal string passage with some distant brass figures – sounding deliberately archaic – decorating the music. Not having seen a score it is hard to know exactly how Pizzetti achieves the effect but the metre of the work is very flexible with a strong sense of regular predictable bar-lines removed. Instead we can feel the underlying basic pulse – once again this seems to be a stylistic nod towards the melodic fluidity of plainsong. The finale is played attacca leaping straight from the final notes of the second movement. This is a true rondo which – again I agree with Keith Anderson here – has echoes of an Italianate Rachmaninov although the quirky string led fugal passage and a final exciting brass peroration are uniquely Pizzetti’s own. This proved to be a very pleasurable discovery indeed. The disc is completed by music Pizzetti wrote for a silent movie in 1914 – Cabiria. What an extraordinary event this must have been – the bulk of the music for this two and a half hour epic was assembled - as was so often the case with early silent film scores - from standard orchestral repertoire. However for a key sequence – involving the sacrifice of 100 children to the God of Carthage Moloch! – Pizzetti was commissioned to provide this ten minute sequence involving large orchestra, baritone soloist and chorus. That it is pictorial is clear from the very first bars and again benefits from a performance of great flair. To be honest it is the piece on this disc I would least often return but it is not trying to be anything but colourful and illustrative – there is none of the subtlety or emotional weight that marks out the other pieces here. Conversely I cannot think of another example of so early a dedicated film score of this originality and power. Well worth a listen in that historical context alone. Quite how it sat next to excerpts of Mozart Mendelssohn and Gluck I do not have a clue! 

The price of discovery for many of the early Marco Polo discs was the dubious quality of the performances and recordings. I’m pleased to say that this is not the case here. The Robert Schumann Philharmonie play this unfamiliar repertoire with great sensitivity and technical assurance. Only a couple of brief moments of string edginess in the second movement shows that the concerto was taken from live performances but in fact the balance and sound stage is excellent and the audience is totally inaudible. The rapport between the husband and wife team of Oleg and Susanna Stefani Caetani is excellent and the liner notes make clear that the concerto is part of her active repertoire. This clearly benefits the piece with a thoroughly convincing performance in every respect. Likewise the two filler pieces which are studio recordings from the same period – powerfully performed and well recorded. 

Running to less than fifty minutes this is a rather under-filled disc although we would have been happy with that in the days of LP’s and at Naxos’ bargain price given the quality on offer I don’t really feel I can complain. All in all a disc of far greater musical and technical quality than I was expecting. It makes me want to hear the recently released Concerto dell’estate (Naxos 8.572013) as well as the complete Fedra. 

Indulgently romantic piano concerto performed with bravura assurance. 

Nick Barnard



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