> Goffredo Petrassi - I Concerti per Orchestra [RB]: Classical Reviews- March 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Goffredo PETRASSI (b.1904)
I Concerti per Orchestra

Concerto No. 1 (1934)
Concerto No. 2 (1951)
Concerto No. 3 Récréation Concertante (1953)
Concerto No. 4 for string orchestra (1954)
Concerto No. 5 (1955)
Concerto No. 6 Invenzione concertata for strings and percussion (1957)
Concerto No. 7 (1964)
Concerto No. 8 (1972)
BBCSO (1, 2, 7, 8); Philharmonia Hungarica (3, 4); Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano della RAI (5, 6)
All conducted by Zoltán Peskó
Rec BBCSO: Maida Vale, London, 8-11 June 1977 and St Pancras Town Hall, 1 June 1978; Hungarica: Marl, Hungary, Dec 1972; RAI: Giuseppe Verdi Hall, Nov/Dec 1979. ADD all stereo
WARNER FONIT 8573 83274-2 [3 CDs 61.49; 67.16; 43.28] [2.52.33]


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Petrassi was born at Zagarolo not far from Rome. For his seventieth birthday Zagarolo staged a torchlight parade and a reception for its famous son. Under the influence of Casella he became an enthusiast for neo-classicism with a proclivity for driving rhythmic material. It was not that much later that this blend was further infused with 12-tone techniques pragmatically applied. On Petrassi's visit to the USA in 1955 and 1956 he took considerable time exploring and rejoicing in the avant-garde styles of Jackson Pollock and Ben Shahn (William Schuman wrote an orchestral piece eulogising Shahn - In Praise of Shahn).

This is another significant and perhaps unglamorous set. It is significant because it makes available, for the first time, recordings initially issued on Italia LPs in the late 1970s. I remember seeing them in a boxed set in the crammed basement of the Music Discount Centre on Dean Street in London circa 1980. Unglamorous - because Petrassi's styles developed out of neo-classicism into the challenging and dodecaphonic.

The First Concerto is Stravinskian with burly rhythmic energy - blunt and coarse and undeniably exciting. The playing is not blessedly clean. In the middle movement we are aware of the noisy ghost of the Venetian Gabrielis. The singing violin melody could be less thin lipped and more fruitily lustrous. The brass role is reminiscent of the climactic fanfaring release of Rubbra's Eleventh Symphony. The Adagio is well worth hearing. This is full hearted neo-classicism.

The contrast between the three movement First and the single span of the Second Concerto has its parallels with the differences when comparing the William Alwyn First and Second Symphonies. There is a tickling anxious undertow and the strings while better groomed than in the first concerto remain astringent. Petrassi deals in Bergian half-lights and sepia tones which flit and melt in surreal motion. However unlike Alwyn in my comparison Petrassi has learnt from Ravel in his use of pismire fanfares and insect tumult. There are even some Sibelian splinters along the way.

The Third Concerto rattles and echoes with petulant blasts and shrieks - rather like an angry version of Nielsen's Sixth Symphony. This work was premiered in July 1953 at Aix-en-Provence under Hans Rosbaud. A non-formulaic dodecaphonist is clearly at work here and to that extent he might well be thought of as a brother to his contemporary, Benjamin Frankel, who had a similar taste for Bergian lyric material. Dance is also an interest as at track 5 (CD2) 11.18. Petrassi used Schoenbergian method freely.

The Fourth Concerto is for strings alone. As they were in the Third Concerto the Philharmonia Hungarica seem utterly at ease in this music and their high violin tone is sublimely silky. They explore ionospheric regions in an atmosphere of saturated beauty that is truly gripping - try track 1 4.20. This music is like a blend of Sibelius's string writing from the Fourth Symphony with Hartmann and Pettersson - definitely the highlight of the set.

The Koussevitsky Music Foundation commissioned the Fifth Concerto for the 75th anniversary of the Boston Symphony. The Bostonians premiered it on 2 December 1955. There is creepy string writing sounding like a dodecaphonic version of the haunted midnight nostalgia of Vaughan Williams' A London Symphony or the march interjections from Nielsen 5. The work uses a theme from his Coro di Morti, a dramatic madrigal dating from 1941 premiered in Venice in 1941 and which then received multiple performances in several US universities in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Coro was based on a Leopardi poem which suggests that the living are as fearful to the dead as the dead are to the living. Petrassi's music often seems sympathetic to the ghoulish romance of these shadowlands.

The Sixth Concerto's inward communion suggests a warm nocturne with conversation between the winds and strings. It is all rather elegant but interspersed with alarms and excursions. Episodes and mood-switches are part and parcel of this music as is the almost bel canto tendency to spin long singing lines as in CD2 tr 3 at 11.35. The finale (CD2 tr 4) is bellicose, dysjunct stuff which is bellowed and rapped out. This eventually collapses into an exhausted epilogue with only a sporadic shudder and convulsion.

The Seventh Concerto was first aired at the ISCM Festival in Venice in 1965. This work is out and out avant-garderie with little to coax the listener's attention and all the usual panoply of shakes, shrieks, chirps, jabber and grotesquerie - a far cry from the creativity and rewards of the Fourth and Fifth Concertos. The BBC Orchestra displays its dedication and malleable virtuosity (as they also do in No. 8) but although there are some wonderfully imaginative coups de théâtre this is not a work to encourage a return visit.

The Chicago Symphony introduced the Eighth Concerto on 28 September 1972. Impressions: shadowy baritonal celerity from the strings, chain rattling, eerie catacombs, furies awoken, stabbing rushes of sound, dissonant carillons. Imperious it may be but it does not convince in the same way that we are heart-won by the works of the 1940s and 1950s. Is this a case of Petrassi going through the fashionable academic motions of the early seventies, I wonder?

These recordings were made between 1972 and 1979 and sound well in their ADD attire.

Zoltán Peskó is the unifying figure in this historically significant cycle and we should be grateful to him, to Warner and to Fonit-Cetra for reviving these Italia tapes.

While other ears than mine may discern greater beauties and rewards I am most confident in recommending to adventurous listeners the Fourth and Fifth Concertos. The Stravinskian First tickles the ear but the others are for souls who delight in the ghoul-infested swamps and mists of the 12-tone school. The Eighth is not a work to which I want to return.

On the cover of the CD a picture of Peskó and of Petrassi would have been preferable to the chosen stab at symbolism - a monochrome of a man holding a corroded mirror in front of his face with the reflected surface towards the watcher but here reflecting only the sky.

Rob Barnett

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