One of the glories of Naxos is that the low price encourages the collector to
experiment with unfamiliar composers. In my own case, Naxos has allowed me to
make the acquaintance of Leonardo Balada and Margaret Brouwer, to name only two
composers, and not even the only ones found in the “B” section of
my shelves! And so we come to Malipiero, a name much more widely known but of
whose music I had heard shamefully little when I requested this disc for review.
My impressions are therefore those of someone who comes to a composer with fresh
ears and unprejudiced opinions.
Only a little over a quarter of an hour in length, the Fifth Symphony
presents the listener with a wide variety of moods and styles. The sound-world
is striking, with prominent parts for two pianos, and the percussive, highly
dissonant, driven opening suggesting Bartók or Prokofiev, without really
sounding like either composer. The richly romantic, rather mysterious slow movement,
with its prominent parts for several solo instruments, might have come from another
work altogether, were it not for the sudden, and apparently unrelated periodic
dissonant outbursts. There is a curious scherzo, featuring lots of percussion,
rather like a military march for much of its short duration, but with a smile,
a twinkle in the eye. The finale reverts to the style of the slow movement, the
work ending peacefully, but not before the music has passed through a passage
which might have been lifted from some celluloid Biblical epic. A strange work,
rarely settling down to anything for very long, it is strangely satisfying too,
rather more than one feels it ought to be.
The Sixth Symphony
, completed two months after its predecessor, is placed
first on the disc, perhaps because, as John Waterhouse states in the excellent
booklet notes, it is the most approachable work on the disc. For strings only,
it opens in a realm not unlike that of Tippett’s Concerto for Double
, though lacking the melodic richness of that glorious work.
There is some doubtful tuning from the solo instruments here and there in the
slow movement, but this is a most beautiful passage, meditative and richly scored.
It ends on a question mark, and one expects some kind of resolution to come.
This does not happen, as the following movement, for no apparent reason, is harsh
and violent, highly dissonant, and relying more than the rest of the work on
pizzicato and other string effects. The finale reverts to the tonal writing which
characterises most of the work, but it is episodic in form, with ideas seemingly
strung together, one after the other, without much idea of where they are going
or what they are meant to be doing. There is no feeling of symphonic growth,
and certainly no notion of any kind of summing up. Neither the opening of the
movement, lovely as it is, nor the touching reprise of the main melody of the
slow movement, does anything to counteract this feeling. In spite of this, one’s
reaction to the work is rather like that to the Fifth Symphony: one can recognise
its faults - principally an over-abundance of inadequately exploited ideas -
whilst at the same time gaining a lot of pleasure from listening to the work
as a whole.
The Eighth Symphony
is less satisfying. The opening must be one of the
most unpromising in the repertoire: there is no feeling of anything important
or momentous to come, no “announcement”. The first movement wanders
from one idea to another without any easily discernible form or logic, and the
ideas themselves do not stick in the mind. The music is pale, and though there
are some lovely moments they are too few and too short. A weird little scherzo
follows, jaunty at the outset and featuring a fair amount of work for solo trumpet.
The rest of the movement combines moments of drama with an almost Teutonic business
reminiscent of Hindemith. At less than three minutes, the movement is just too
short to make its effect, particularly when followed by a finale which lasts
almost fifteen minutes and which reverts to the aimless wanderings of the first
movement. Apart from the problem of form, with nothing to lead the ear from one
event to the next, the main problem is its lack of memorable thematic material.
Many hearings are required even to begin to recognise the themes, and one does
wonder, one doubts even, if the effort is worthwhile.
The Eleventh Symphony
does not quite make the twelve minute mark, but
rather than its brevity, it is once again the lack of memorable musical material
which disappoints. The four movements are inventively scored - John Waterhouse
describes the work as “a game of contrasted timbres and textures” -
but there is a stultifying feeling of inconsistency about the material. Like
the Eighth Symphony, its language is dry and dissonant. The first movement features
some spiky, rather perky woodwind writing, but it ends before it has said anything.
The slow movement is still essentially an exploration of instrumental colour,
but at least there seems more point to it, more purpose. The tiny scherzo is
empty and vapid and the finale, whose contrapuntal writing sometimes taxes the
strings, ends with a convincing bang.
Listening to this disc with my “fresh ears and unprejudiced opinions” leaves
me wanting to explore further the music of this very prolific composer, but I
imagine I will enjoy his earlier works more than the later ones. At least on
this showing the quality of the material is superior. One does wish, though,
that someone had given Malipiero a red pencil for Christmas.
The disc, which originally appeared on the Marco Polo label, is now reissued
in the Naxos Twentieth-Century Classics series. It is as well presented as we
now expect from Naxos, with the excellent essay by John Waterhouse proving a
very useful listening aid. The recording is fine, and as far as I can tell, listening
to these works without a score, the performances are very creditable too. There
are moments when the strings sound tentative, but the music can’t have
been very familiar to these Russian players. The late Antonio de Almeida earns
our thanks for bringing this rather bewildering music to our attention.
see also review by Jonathan