Gian Francesco MALIPIERO (1882-1973)
Impressioni dal vero I (1910-11) [13:19]
Impressioni dal vero II (1914-15) [19:11]
Impressioni dal vero III (1921-22) [9:53]
Pause del silenzio I (1917) [12:51]
Pause del silenzio II (1925-26) [24:47]
Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma/Francesco La Vecchia
rec. Auditorium Conciliazione Rome Italy, 22-23 March 2009 (Impressioni); 12-13 December 2010 (Pause)
NAXOS 8.572409 [79:53]
I am no Malipiero expert; the acquisition of this disc exactly doubles the number of CDs dedicated to this unusual composer in my collection. The cycle of his seventeen symphonies as released originally on Marco Polo and latterly on Naxos had not appealed given the fallible and unidiomatic nature of the Moscow orchestra’s playing and the less than ideal recording. How recent it was that that seemed to be the price one paid for being able to hear such rare repertoire. I was tempted to fill that lacuna in my knowledge by this disc for two simple reasons; the excellence of the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma under conductor Francesco La Vecchia in their Casella series for this same label and that one of the works recorded here is claimed as the composer’s “greatest orchestral work”. It is a pleasure to be able to report that both the music and the performances fulfil my hopes for them and that this has proved to be a compellingly rewarding introduction to this strikingly individual composer’s works.
As a Malipiero newbie I was very grateful for the concise but fascinating liner note written by David Gallagher. His skill is to place the music recorded here in context both as part of the composer’s life and work but also as it functions in his overall musico/philosophical outlook. Central to this according to Gallagher are two things; animals and silence. Apparently Malipiero also had a fascination in creating groups of works loosely brought together under collective titles. Hence on this disc we have the three Impressioni dal Vero [Impressions from Life] and the two Pause del silenzio [Breaks in Silence]. In turn each of the sets of impressions consists of three separate evocatively titled movements. Now here’s a paradox for you, Malipiero spent much of his life railing against noise and the general cacophony of his time. He so valued silence – and one imagines the peace and tranquillity associated with it – that he sought refuge in the depths of the Italian countryside yet at the same time his mind teemed with music demanding an outlet, an art form which by its very nature would destroy the silence he desired. Add to that the fact that much of the music here is far from tranquil of itself with rowdy cacophonous passages jostling for supremacy in complex multi-layered polyphony. Gallagher points out several other key characteristics which are vital for a greater understanding of this composer. He reacted strongly against the compositional processes of structured thematic development that dominated Austro-Germanic composers of that age. Malipiero preferred a technique where; “varied sections follow one another unpredictably, obeying only those mysterious laws that instinct recognises”. Interestingly another analogy he came up with is of a musical river where the general flow from source to sea is dictated but the individual moments of current or direction are unpredictable. This does result in a kind of ‘stream of consciousness’ approach to composition. What I cannot tell with my current level of superficial knowledge if whether over time the listener will crave a subliminal sense of structure more than these instantly appealing sound-pictures can provide. As an aside I find it curious that he was drawn so often to symphonic form if as a matter of ideological pride he supposedly rejected strict adherence to form as such.
Enough of the theory; what about the music? Immediate reactions are it has great appeal; flamboyantly and confidently orchestrated but on a relatively brief time scale. I enjoyed every movement here. I am not sure quite what I was expecting but he has an individual voice. This is apparent from the opening work. Set 1 of the Impressioni dal vero depicts three birds; in order the blackcap, the woodpecker and the scops owl. But these are not birds from either Respighi’s or Messiaen’s aviaries. A mood of still morning mists and languid countryside is instantly evoked (and you are able to hear that the Rome players form a fine and characterful orchestra). Malipiero toys with little repeating motifs that weave in and out of a long lyrical violin line pointed with glistening harp and rustling strings. For sure there is much the same spirit as movements in Respighi’s Roman triptych but it is important to note that this work predates the earliest of those – Fountains of Rome - by some five years with the most similar – Pines of Rome – another decade later. Given that Malipiero is stronger on mood than melody the music is cleverly crafted to last long enough to paint the picture but not too long that the ear tires of the beautiful sound alone. These are not meant to be literal ‘portraits’ of the birds in question instead Malipiero exploits elements of them that he can develop musically. Hence with the woodpecker he takes the rat-a-tat of the bird’s beak on a tree and expands that into a dancing three minute toccata. His skill as a composer is apparent in the way this sections slips into the final and very beautiful Il chìu. That is the Italian onomatopoeic word for the Scops Owl of which Malipiero had a pair on a perch in his kitchen. The music conjures up another tranquil night scene with the “chiu chiu” of the owl repeating through the texture – a gem of a piece. Concerns with repetition and texture occupy the opening of the second set of impressions too – Colloquio di campane [dialogue of bells]. There is a modernist/minimalist quality to this with the composer concerned with the impact of numerous bell-like figures overlaid and built upon. Again it shows his interest in motivic rather than thematic development and is an exercise in extended orchestral sonority. Throughout the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma play with admirable commitment and no little skill. The strings are adept but lack the sheen of more famous ensembles however the brass have an exciting edge to their playing and the wind solos are taken with real finesse – the principal oboist in particular plays with a beautifully warm tone and great poetry. This movement is the longest of all the Impressions by some way and although interesting as a study in orchestration and use of timbre probably outstays its welcome. The more one hears the more the sense builds that Malipiero was rooted in the countryside rather than the town. This goes beyond the sought-after silence; the essence of the music is nature, where man appears – as in the second set’s final movement Baldoria campestre [Country Festival] the natural landscape is still very much the backdrop for the people’s celebrations. It has to be said that this Festival is not overtly joyous but instead reflects as much as any music here the impact that The Rite of Spring and Petrushka had on him. The final set of Impressions were not written until 1921-22 but the composer said they were created as a response to the enduring horrors of World War I which he had been swept up by since his home in North Eastern Italy was near the front-line. The obsessively repeating viola line that opens the Festival in val d’inferno [Festival in the ‘Valley of Hell’] shows that as a composer he has moved yet further away from any lush romantic gestures to a style altogether more austere and unforgiving even if still couched in full orchestral terms – there is more of an alarm call rather than festival here. The central panel - I galli [The Cockerels] is possible the most impressive section of all. The picture here is of the transition from night to day but it is a brooding dawn still burdened with the menace of the night with only the very final woodwind cock-calls flecked with glockenspiel allowing any respite from the gloom. Even the closing tarantella is a driven obsessive affair rather than a joyful release. Lasting a mere ninety seconds this is a strangely unsettling piece. Altogether the final set of impressions don’t break the ten minute mark but I would suggest that in their concentrated utterances are some of the most impressive musical passages on the disc.
The Pause del silenzio I was also written as a response to the War although in this case written at the same time. In the liner David Gallagher explains that he sees this as Malipiero’s ultimate expression of ‘unpredictable variation’. Coherence is given by a recurring fanfare figure that on each of its seven repetitions is a semitone higher. Each fanfare heralds “seven symphonic expressions [that correspond] to seven contrasting states of mind”. Malipiero gives a loose description to these seven states but it seems he would rather let the listener identify them for themselves. Suffice to say they are widely differing and the result has a concerto for orchestra feel to it. At this stage in my acquaintanceship with the composer’s style it is undoubtedly exciting music – which benefits from the slightly raw performing style of the orchestra when in full flood – but I do struggle to feel the music cohere beyond the linking fanfare. A great advantage though is that it is all condensed into less than thirteen minutes. It is music that I want to come back to and understand better. One point that did cause me initial confusion is that Pause del silenzio II emerges out of the same silence with very similar orchestration to the end of No.1. Given that Naxos have programmed barely 4 seconds gap do the aural equivalent of blink and you won’t know where one unfamiliar piece ends and the next starts! No.2 is divided into five defined sections or movements which Malipiero again terms as symphonic expressions. Gallagher quotes Malipiero expert John Waterhouse that this work has “a strange and truly Malipierian feeling of event following event in a quietly inexorable yet essentially unstructured flow”. That’s a very succinct and very good way of putting it – the moment to moment can be quite beautiful and/or exciting and impressive but quite what it means overall or where it leads I am none the wiser. Credit to conductor La Vecchia for holding this together as well as he does and getting his orchestra to play with such verve. Experience tells me that the more one knows about music like this the more one gets a sense of its form and meaning. Curiously, I was occasionally reminded of another great individualist composer – Havergal Brian. Both wrote extended symphony cycles way into their ninth decades having started composing before World War I. Both handled symphonic form in unconventional ways and both have often been accused of lacking formal discipline. Now I know my Havergal Brian better than my Malipiero and he is far more rigorous in his use of form than the ear alone would instantly indicate – I wonder if the same is true here. Not that I mean for a second they sound alike because they don’t but I suspect they are kindred artistic spirits. There is a wild profligacy in his writing that also reminded me of Villa-Lobos. Again, this is not a musical parallel in the sense of how the music falls on the ear but instead the desire indeed compulsion to write multiple works or indeed parts of works where something altogether simpler might suffice. Which makes me return to the central conundrum; a composer seeking peace and quiet writing on such an excessive scale. It is briefly worth noting that with the exception of two movements of the first set of Impressioni and the first Pause all the music here is receiving world premieres recordings on what proves to be an exceptionally well-filled disc. Add the exemplary liner and high production values from performers and engineer/producer and you can see that this is a very fine and valuable Naxos release. Certainly my interest is well and truly tweaked; enough that hopefully this disc is first of more Malipiero from these artists - my instinct is they have more to say about him than their Russian counterparts.
A compellingly rewarding introduction to this strikingly individual composer’s works.