Giuseppe MARTUCCI (1856-1909)
Piano Concerto no.1 in D minor, op.40 (1878)* [34:20]
La canzone dei ricordi (1887, orch.1899)** [33:33]
Gesualdo Coggi (piano)*, Silvia Pasini (mezzo)**
Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma/Francesco La Vecchia
rec. 16-18 October 2007, 17-20 January 2008, 2-3 March 2008, Auditorium Conciliazione-Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma Studios
Italian text (**) included, English translation can be downloaded from Naxos site
NAXOS 8.570931 [67:53]
Martucci’s First Piano Concerto came as a revelation to me. And yet, it should not have, since this was not the first time I’d heard the piece. As performed here, it unfolds with a leisurely ease, a perfect child of Italian pre-D’Annunzio decadence. An expression of the world of the “scapigliati” painters Ranzoni and Cremona, the world of the aristocratic villas still visible here and there, particularly on the northern lakes, the “little old world” celebrated in a cycle of novels by Fogazzaro, the major Italian 19th century novelist after Manzoni. A world of decadence whose bright-eyed innocence had not yet been perverted by the egotistic obsessions of D’Annunzio, a world where “the tall plants … proffered as ever, swaying and murmuring in the wind, the poem of shadows and of life, peace and the sweet imaginings of love” (Fogazzaro: Daniele Cortis).
In technical terms, this is created by an orchestral and pianistic attack that is full and rounded in fortes, never brittle, by gently caressing the pianos and by allowing the lyrical lines to blossom in a fulsome yet tender way. What emerges is an unusually proportioned concerto, its two outer movements with dramatic leanings that are only a backdrop to more intimate confidences and, conversely, a gentle slow movement that is a framework to a more mercurial central section. All this works, I should add, because the conductor and the truly excellent pianist interpret the piece as with one mind.
Recordings of Martucci concertos come and – more often – go. My own knowledge of this one was based on an off-the-air performance by Pietro Spada and the Milan RAI SO under Francesco Mander. The little-remembered Mander did good work in Trieste and here, perhaps following the Toscanini mould – this is a historical recording I haven’t heard – has a leaner sound, tersely dramatic, though still allowing the lyrical lines to sing. This performance is about three minutes shorter than the Naxos one. I was amazed that the same music could sound so different, yet equally convincing. However, this is a piano concerto - piano concertos have pianists and here it’s Pietro Spada. Spada is an excellent musicologist and, ironically, it is his edition of the concerto that Coggi and La Vecchia are using. On record, Spada was notable for a complete cycle of Clementi’s piano music, and he plays everything with a brittle clarity and a metronomic rigidity that does few favours even to Gradus ad Parnassum. His perfunctory dismissal of Martucci’s yearning lyricism would be comic except that it’s not really funny to travesty beautiful music.
However, I’m inclined to think that, even if Mander had collaborated with a pianist worthy of the occasion, a more dramatic approach, albeit finely brought off, would have the disadvantage that the listener might reflect that there’s a Piano Concerto no.1 in D minor by Brahms that does all this and better. As interpreted by Coggi and La Vecchia, the music finds its niche, inhabiting an expressive zone not touched by other concertos, if not other Italian ones from the same period.
The Song of Memories is possibly Martucci’s best-known work, a little ironically given that his principal aim was to establish an Italian repertory of purely instrumental music. With words by the decadent Neapolitan poet Pagliara it can stand as a musical epitome of an Italian artistic movement mainly bypassed by that country’s operatic history.
I was not entirely convinced by the mezzo-soprano chosen for La Vecchia’s recording of Casella’s Notte di Maggio and, having seen some negative comments by British critics, I was prepared to have similar reservations over Silvia Pasini. Far from it, so perhaps I should start by looking at the type of vocal response called for.
This cycle was originally written for mezzo-soprano and piano, but performances more often use a soprano. This is because the writing goes fairly high, requiring the sort of soaring ease which only a mezzo of the Giulietta Simionato type, one well able to sing Santuzza, could bring off. Clearly, we are talking of a fully operatic style of delivery, and here is the paradox of Italian 19th century song. The composers often write piano accompaniments modelled on the lieder of Schumann or Brahms – as Martucci initially did in this case – while yet expecting the singer to provide an Italianate line, with all that entails.
One thing it entails is that Italian vocal teaching expects the voice to vibrate naturally – I don’t say automatically and unthinkingly – as an expressive device. When the generally restrained first piece occasionally soars up to blossoming high notes, Pasini releases the operatic throb, providing a frisson that a more tightly controlled delivery would have lacked. As proof that she is fully in control of what she is doing, hear how she opens the second song, “Cantava’l ruscello”, with an almost childlike clarity and practically no vibrato. She uses such means to differentiate, in the next song, between those parts of the text in italics and those that are not. The penultimate song contains, starting from “O dolce notte”, one of the most glorious lyrical effusions in Italian song, and Pasini matches it with lusciously soaring lines. At the other extreme, the regretful, intimate last song is a model of vocal control, capping a performance that I would describe as masterly, even great.
Here too, I had an RAI performance for comparison, by Elena Rizzieri with the Naples Scarlatti orchestra under Nino Sanzogno. This performance, too, shaves three or four minutes off the Naxos one. However, since Sanzogno was conducting for a light soprano, noted for her Mozart and sounding rather soubrettish in this music, it’s difficult to say whether his tempi were dictated by the vocal material at hand. In any case, while I feel that La Vecchia sometimes loses out by comparison with “historical” practitioners like Sanzogno, Rossi or Caracciolo in Malipiero or Casella, Martucci is a different matter. The composer had been dead since 1909, his music practically dormant. When I came to Italy in 1975, if you mentioned the names of Martucci or Sgambati to any self-respecting, with-it young Italian musician, his face was immediately covered by that same look of withering scorn that mention of Parry or Stanford evoked among young musicians in Great Britain in those years. So there was no surviving Martucci tradition, the specific value of the music and its meaning for today’s world has to be rediscovered. This, it seems to me, La Vecchia has done here. If I’ve had doubts over his Malipiero and Casella, on this showing he was born to conduct Martucci.
As is the Naxos practice in its Italian series, separate notes are provided in Italian. In the case of Malipiero and Casella, both David Gallagher and Marta Marullo had their own particular insights, an added value if you can read both languages. Here, Marta Marullo’s essay is considerably more detailed than Richard Whitehouse’s note, which, while acceptable, might have been usefully replaced by a translation of the Italian commentary. No marks for the off-the-shelf modern-traditional art specimen on the cover, unattributed. So many paintings by Ranzoni, Cremona, Mosè Bianchi, and De Nittis would have set the mood better.
Christopher Howell
On this showing La Vecchia was born to conduct Martucci. A masterly, even great, vocal performance from Silvia Pasini.

see also review by Stephen Vasta