Gian Francesco MALIPIERO (1883-1973)
Symphony No. 5, “concertante in eco” (1947) [16:36]
Symphony No. 6, “degli archi” (1947) [22:40]
Symphony No. 8, “Symphonia brevis” (1964) [22:36]
Symphony No. 11, “delle cornamuse” (1969) [11:59]
Moscow Symphony Orchestra/Antonio de Almeida
rec. Mosfilm Studio, Moscow, February 1994
NAXOS 8.570880 [73:51]

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 nonetheless 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 String Orchestra, 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.

William Hedley 

see also review by Jonathan Woolf