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  Founder: Len Mullenger

Niccolò CASTIGLIONI (1932-1996)
Music for Piano:
Cangianti (1959) [10:56]
Tre Pezzi (1978) [18:16]
Come io passo l’estate (1983) [9:31]
Dulce Refrigerium (Sechs Geistliche Lieder) (1984) [9:28]
Sonatina (1984) [7:21]
HE (1990) [4:04]
Sarah Nicolls (piano)
rec. 13 June, 25 July 2004, Vestry Hall, London. DDD.
METIER MSV CD92089 [59:50]




Niccolò Castiglioni’s entire solo piano output is covered on this Metier release. Like the late-lamented Luciano Berio, he studied with Giorgio Federico Ghedini, and his influence is most keenly heard in the “icy, glittering sound-world” (from Michael Finnissy) that the music for the most part inhabits. There is a tendency towards the extremes of the instrument’s register, particularly the upper; repeated percussive effects as opposed to the sustaining of melody, though this does fleetingly occur as does a brusqueness that can dominate an equally playful imagination.

Sarah Nicolls’ formidable technique and reputation for interpreting highly complex contemporary works precedes her. She is more than equal to any challenge thrown at her here. No doubt her experience in playing Berio (she gave the UK premiere of his piano sonata) and Dallapiccola have paid some dividends in helping her get inside Castiglioni’s works, if only through the contrast of the composer’s styles and idioms.

Cangianti in many ways sets the pattern for Castiglioni’s later piano output, characterized as it is by bursts of notes in the treble register. These have an edgy, nervous quality about them. At around 2:15 the work plunges with ferocious venom into the bass register, against which again a treble part is sustained. At 5:09 there is the appearance of a possible melody trying to emerge, but this already has a disjointed quality. The silences that punctuate the stabs of sound also prove telling in structuring and clarifying the notated sections. These too heighten the contrast and extended exaggeration within the work as a whole. It ends with a string of pianissimo statements, almost collapsing in upon themselves.

In her brief programme note, Nicolls states that she is drawn to the “childlike nature” of the music, and “would heartily recommend Come io passo l’estate for children as a fantastic set of varied, highly imaginative pieces.” Of all the works included here this is indeed the most obviously approachable and fun-filled – not least due to the relatively extended melodic lines that Castiglioni uses. As the title translates to ‘How I spent my summer’, the ten tracks are in effect a series of mini musical postcards. They reference forms such as the albumblatt perhaps, but never stoop to pastiche, though you might encounter the ghosts of Schoenberg or Satie. Nicolls expertly catches these aspects and plays it all unfussily, with a sense of wide-eyed wonder.

Dulce Refrigerium (Sechs Geistliche Lieder) – Chilled Sweetness (Six Religious Songs) – is a set that possesses a sense of inner repose. The first movement (Humility) and the second (Earth) show subdued signs of Cangianti’s influence. Later movements include allusions to Beethoven or possibly Wagner: horn calls that are chord-based and of striking simplicity. Just as with the Sonatina there is a quiet yet growing insistence with repeated notes. Often it seems that this is as much at the will of the performer as the instruction of the composer.

The final work, HE, is marked ‘to be played as loud and as fast as possible’. Nicolls reports that this corresponds to qualities she heard in Castiglioni’s own playing. It displays again much of Cangianti’s flamboyance, although there is an even more brittle quality than before. Yet there is also a certain balance and poise that Nicolls brings out, indicating perhaps a distant reference to classical ideals not formally stated in the music. Above all Nicolls demonstrates fearlessness in delivering a full-on performance; precisely the quality of “playful intellectuality” that, as Michael Finnissy notes, is so central to Castiglioni’s output.

In the end, this disc’s appeal will depend more on your liking of Castiglioni’s works than Nicolls’ advocacy of them. I found them a touch hard going on repeated hearings, and preferred to take individual works in isolation. But this is only my opinion, and there will be many for whom Nicolls’ debut disc will prove a richly rewarding experience.

Evan Dickerson



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