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Carlo Zecchi: Early Cetra Recordings - 1937-1943
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)

Concerto in G after Vivaldi BWV 973
Domenico SCARLATTI (1685-1757)

Sonatas in G major L.103/K.259, C major L.104/K.159, D major L.465/K.96, G major L.490/K.523
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)

Barcarolle in F sharp major op.60, Valse in A flat major op.42
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)

Grand étude de concert no.2 in F minor – "La Leggerezza", Etude no.5 (after Paganini) in E major – "La Chasse", Etude no.4 (after Paganini) in E major – "Arpège"
Ottorino RESPIGHI (1879-1936)

Gagliarda (after Vincenzo Galilei), Siciliana (after Anonymous 16th Century)
Francesco TICCIATI (1893-1949)

Carlo Zecchi (piano) (rec.1937)

Brandenburg Concerto no.5 in D major
Giocondo De Vito (violin), Arrigo Tassinari (flute), Carlo Zecchi (piano), Orchestra dell’EIAR di Torino/Fernando Previtali (rec.1938)
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)

Moment Musical no.6 in A flat major D.780 (rec.1938)

Mazurka in C sharp minor op.30/4 (rec.1941)

Chorale-Prelude "Ich ruf dir, herr Jesu Christ" BWV 639 (rec.1942)

Prelude and Fugue no.13 in F sharp major BWV858 (from Das Wohltemperierte Klavier Book I) (rec.1942)
Carlo Zecchi (piano)
Francesco GEMINIANI (1687-1762)

Concerto Grosso in G minor op.3/2
Armando Gramigna, Virgilio Brun (violins), Enzo Francalanci (viola), Giuseppe Ferrari (violoncello), Angelo Succo (piano), Orchestra d’Archi dell’EIAR di Torino/Carlo Zecchi (rec.1942)

Berceuse in D flat op.57, Mazurka in A minor op.7/4, Mazurka in B minor op.33/4

Kinderszenen op.15
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)

Poissons d’or (from Images Book II)
Carlo Zecchi (piano) (rec.1942)
Arcangelo CORELLI (1653-1713)

Concerto Grosso in D op.6/1
Orchestra Sinfonica dell’EIAR di Torino/Carlo Zecchi (rec.1943)
WARNER FONIT 5050466-3306-2-8 [2 CDs: 76:27 + 73:00]

Italy is a great country for pianists who become legendary by not playing. Michelangeli’s gradual retreat into semi-silent perfection was known the world over and I have already discussed on this site the Aura CDs dedicated to Guido Agosti and Carlo Zecchi. To these names might be added the elusive figure of Sergio Fiorentino, whose art may be investigated on a number of Concert Artist discs, and Dino Ciani who met a tragically early death. More recently the art of Maurizio Pollini has certainly not been withheld from the public though the austerity of his musical personality has lent a certain mystique to his name.

Just to repeat the salient facts, Zecchi was born in Rome in 1903, made his Italian debut in 1920, first performed abroad in 1922, studied with Busoni and later with Schnabel in Berlin and made his first tour of the United States in 1931. In 1939 he had a car accident which meant that after the war he played only as the duo partner of the cellist Enrico Mainardi, otherwise concentrating on conducting – he toured America with the Florence May Festival Orchestra in 1957 and was permanent conductor of the Vienna Chamber Orchestra from 1964 to 1976 – and teaching, mostly at the S. Cecilia Academy in Rome and the Salzburg Mozarteum. He died in 1984.

As to the precise nature of his withdrawal, both "noble" and "ignoble" reasons have been suggested. The "noble" explanation is that maintaining his art at the high level which his perfectionism required of him was costing him much psychological strain – he studied 12 or 13 hours a day – and the accident gave him an "excuse" to bow out gracefully, especially in view of the emergence of Michelangeli, against whom he would have had to measure himself. The "ignoble" reason is that he had received a handsome sum from his insurance company as compensation for the curtailment of his solo career, and, being notoriously tight-fisted, chose to keep the money rather than hand it back and start playing again. Thus the myth grew up of a supremely great pianist whose actual solo career had ended long ago and was scarcely documented in sound.

After hearing the present compilation of his early Cetra recordings (which account for most of his recorded repertoire as a pianist), I am inclined to suggest a further reason, arising from a gradual evolution in his musical priorities. The two discs are neatly divided pre-accident and post-accident (so the interruption of his solo playing was not immediate) and the group of 1937 recordings reveals, in all probability, the greatest of all Italian pianists, with the perfection of Michelangeli but without his remoteness, and with the flair of Agosti but without his unreliability. The baroque items combine dazzling fingerwork with poise, grace and verve, the Liszt pieces extract glistening poetry from the barrage of notes and the Chopin Barcarolle is miraculous for the way in which extreme rubato is never allowed to obscure the basic rocking movement of the boat. The Valse could be considered a little over the top, though wonderful in its way.

But now we come to the point. There are "pianist-pianists" and "musician-pianists" and Zecchi, at the zenith of his pianistic career, was a "pianist-pianist", more evidently a pupil of Busoni than of Schnabel. But meanwhile the lesson of Schnabel was gestating within him. If we compare the 1942 Berceuse with the 1937 Barcarolle we find no less technical perfection and beauty of sound, but we also find a different sort of fidelity towards the written text. This could be a blueprint for a future Pollini performance. Much the same could be said of the two Mazurkas from the same year, the Debussy eschews mere effect to concentrate on purely musical values and the Schumann is magical in its simplicity. In other words Zecchi the musician was leaving behind him the bag of tricks of the typical romantic virtuoso pianist with the result that, even had no accident occurred, the emergence of a Zecchi disinclined to spend hours polishing up his digital perfection and ready to find increasing rewards in conducting (and also teaching) appears a perfectly logical progression.

Whether or not Zecchi the conductor ever matched Zecchi the pianist is not a question which will be answered by the recordings here of works by Geminiani and Corelli, warmly expressive and well phrased though they are. A reissue of his 1954 Concertgebouw recordings plus a trawl through Italian and Austrian Radio archives should provide some of the answers. But whatever answers they provide, nothing can dim the extraordinary pianistic flair of those 1937 recordings, which reveal Zecchi to have been a giant among 20th Century pianists.

The Bach Brandenburg Concerto is also notable for the presence of Gioconda De Vito, another great Italian musician (but also the flautist is well remembered in Italy). This performance is in many ways preferable to the more celebrated one led by Adolf Busch with Rudolf Serkin as pianist. Not, perhaps, in the first movement, where the Busch players were at their finest, though even here Zecchi’s cadenza perhaps surpasses Serkin’s in flair while yielding nothing in musicianship. But the Busch second movement was excessively dominated by the flute – there is more genuine interplay between the parts in the Italian version, while in the finale the Italian players know that the dotted rhythms in a 6/8 movement are to be smoothed out to match the triplets – they have a true dance feeling, for which also the conductor Previtali should take due credit.

Lastly, the Schubert. Zecchi seems to have been better aware of this composer’s exposed nerve-ends than most artists in those days though as a consequence he sometimes loses sight of the music’s ability to assuage as well as to disturb.

The recordings are in a variable state of preservation – the most famous pieces (the Chopin, mainly) often revealing very worn copies indeed, and Schumann’s "Hobby-Horse" has a big scratch that, infuriatingly, almost but not quite coincides with the rhythm of the music itself. The notes are very informative and the English translation is good. This supersedes the Aura disc as a representation of Carlo Zecchi and, as far as Zecchi the pianist is concerned, it is virtually all we are ever going to have, so lovers of great piano-playing should not miss it.

Christopher Howell


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