Bruno MADERNA (1920-1973)
Piano Concerto (1942) [11:40]
Piano Concerto - version for two pianos (1942) [11:46]
Concerto for Two Pianos and Instruments (1948) [11:25]
Quadrivium (1969) [31:41]
Aldo Orvieto (piano); Fausto Bongelli (piano II); Gruppo 40.6; Orchestra della Fondazione Arena di Verona/Carlo Miotto
rec. 10 October 2009, Teatro Filarmonico, Verona (Piano Concerto; Quadrivium), Auditorium Fazioli, Sacile, Italy, 19 April 2010. DDD world premiere recordings of 1942 piano concerto
NAXOS 8.572642 [66:32]

However prominent as conductor, advocate and theorist the Italian Bruno Maderna was, his position as a composer remains somewhat enigmatic. He was born in 1920 and died far too young at the age of 53. Maderna tirelessly promoted the works of his younger contemporaries - especially Nono and Berio - in particular and more generally the very idea of an avant-garde. Yet Maderna's own music remains at times confounding for its marriage of an apparent appeal to rebelliousness and a somewhat conventional sound-world.

That is certainly the case with the four works and arrangements on this excellent new CD. The quality of the music-making, of the sound and of the informative - if brief - notes that come with it make this a CD to be sought out. There are two other discs currently available which contain Quadrivium; only one with the concerto for two pianos. Maderna's earlier piano concerto from 1942 and its arrangement for two pianos are receiving their first recordings here. They receive exceptionally compelling, sensitive and sympathetic performances. This recording is taken from the first performance after the 'rediscovery' of the 1942 concerto at an event in Verona on 10 October 2009.

The defining characteristic of all four works is without doubt a gentle, tuneful and purposeful percussiveness. This is not the same as beat. Still less is it merely an interest in percussion instruments for their own sake on Maderna's part. That said, there are long and frequent passages in Quadrivium which almost dwell on the beauty of such pitched and unpitched sounds. Rather, Maderna translates the almost always latent energy represented by rhythm and momentum into a fully-controlled and never over-exploited 'pull' between unfolding and at times almost serendipitous or indeterminate melody. The inevitability of the strike to attain sound.

Each of the piano soloists and the orchestra in Quadrivium clearly understand exactly why and how such balance, blend, and poise are necessary, what they mean, and how to achieve them. The performances are lively and spirited and hold the attention from first to last.

Quadrivium is almost as long as the three piano pieces together. It dates from 1969 and is built - not surprisingly, given its title - on the number four: four percussionists and four orchestral groups. As with the piano pieces, the writing is symphonic and brilliant in character. The brilliance is the preserve of both soloists and the great presence which the orchestra has. 'Presence' because Maderna's music often exposes its substance obliquely as well as deliberately and defiantly. In this case there's an overt external - though again, oblique - reference to the four liberal arts: arithmetic, algebra, music and astronomy.

More transparently, four is seen as a magic number in wider terms - four points of the compass, four seasons. But neither the music as composed nor the playing, which is of a very high standard, needs any 'excuse'. Maderna's great achievement in Quadrivium is to suggest realities, to offer ways in which they can interact and in which intuition and compositional imagination inform and are informed by technical rigour. Again, the way in which the Orchestra della Fondazione 'Arena di Verona' translates this potentially elusive balance into a plausible and convincing performance is very pleasing. Similarly the balance and active interaction between dynamics has been accomplished very well - even to the extent of translating Maderna's counter-posing of silence and sound. Credit must also go to conductor Carlo Miotto for this - and the other successful accounts on the CD.

It's all the more remarkable that Maderna is known to have reworked and revised particularly the Concerto for two pianos and instruments to the extent he did. This dates from the immediate post-war period. It still receives minimal exposure despite being a beautiful work. It's just as remarkable that the result is as seamless as it is. It is honoured as such, as wholly and successfully integrated by Gruppo 40.6. This group is so named because 40.6 is the number of kilometres between Mantua and Verona, from which the relatively recently-formed five person group comes and in which they perform new music.

All in all this CD is something of a small fillip for twentieth century music in general and that of Maderna in particular. The standard of playing can only serve to give impetus to the reinstatement of Maderna's reputation, and appreciation of his unusual but significant music.

Mark Sealey

see also review by Rob Barnett

Expertly played important and enjoyable music.