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
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.