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) [09:53], Pause del silenzio I (1917) [12:51], Pause del silenzio II (1925-26) [24:47]
Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma/Francesco La Vecchia
rec. 22-23 March 2009 (Impressioni), 12-13 December 2010 (Pause), Auditorium Conciliazione, Rome
NAXOS 8.572409 [79:53]
Of the composers belonging to, or associated with, Italy’s “Eighties Generation”, Gian Francesco Malipiero is the hardest to pin down. In spite of Casella’s modernist forays and the somewhat isolated position of the younger Ghedini, he was the most radical, the most inclined to break into unexpected paths, the result, it often seems, of curiosity rather than systematic self-searching. This is not the same as saying he was the most independent, and I rather suspect that in the end Pizzetti will prove the major, most rigorous, figure of the group. All these composers tended to be prolific, but Malipiero’s yearly output would have ensured a vast corpus of work even if he had stopped at the proverbial three-score-years-and-ten. Instead, he went on pouring out score after score till the end, maybe not always in his own best interests. I recall hearing a very late “Concerto delle Macchine” which suggested he had run out of music long before he actually stopped writing it. Massimo Bontempelli made the attractive suggestion – quoted in David Gallagher’s notes – that “every piece counts, because together they create what is really a single vast uninterrupted work, a continuous musical discourse without repetition”. This, however, sidesteps the issue that this “vast uninterrupted work” contains relatively few sections which one might wish to hear frequently. And, purely as a discussion point, is not every artist’s output a “vast uninterrupted work”? Perhaps not always, thinking of the abyss between Sibelius’s great orchestral works and his salon trinkets. Certainly, Malipiero’s extensive catalogue does not contain, so far as I know, trivial scraps written to order or in the hope of popular success. Whatever the ups and downs of his inspiration, he meant every note he wrote.
Like the Casella issue I recently reviewed (Symphony 3/Elegia Eroica 8.572415), Naxos offer the slightly unusual solution of notes in English and Italian of which one or other is not a translation. Instead, they are independent and quite detailed essays by David Gallagher and Marta Marullo. In the former case I preferred Marullo’s approach, but Gallagher seemingly has a special sympathy for Malipiero. He writes in such a way as to bring alive to us Malipero the man, with his love of silence and animals, and provides such background information on the compositions as will ensure that the novice approaches them in a suitable frame of mind. His amiable portrait omits to mention, though, that Malipiero was a somewhat abrasive – read bloody awkward – personality, inclined to take pot-shots at friends and enemies alike. Marullo is more business-like, with comments on structures and influences, dates of first performances and who conducted them and so on. Both, not surprisingly, quote Malipiero’s own comments on the works recorded here. If you read Italian you will be pleased to read his actual words, though the English translations are good.
The three sets of “Impressioni dal vero” (Impressions from Life) sound as if they ought to be aural postcards of the Respighi type. The first set is about birds, its three movements entitled “The Blackcap”, “The Woodpecker” and “The Scops Owl”. The second set has a “Dialogue of Bells”, “The Cypresses and the Wind” and a “Country Festival” while the pieces of the third set are “Festival in the ‘Valley of Hell’”, “The Cockerels” and “The Tarantella in Capri”. And it is also true that, of the bird pieces, the first is pervaded by the blackcap’s mournful cry, the second by the woodpecker’s rapped-out rhythm on the tree – a woodpecker of Hitchcockian dimensions though – and the third by the plaintive, monotonous wail of the scops owl. But the music is not a portrayal of either the birds or their habitat, it is all about Malipiero’s personal impressions and thoughts. To that extent the titles are perhaps sardonically misleading.
“The Blackcap” opens with an atmosphere of brooding, languorous mystery. The bittersweet sense of sun-drenched longing may remind British listeners of Bridge’s tone-poem “Summer” (1914-15). A coincidence, unless Bridge travelled to Milan in May 1913 to hear the Malipiero premičre, which seems highly unlikely: Sir Henry Wood gave “Impressioni I” their British premičre in 1918, following with “Impressioni II” the year after. A question, then, of the two composers’ reactions to Debussy, both of them preferring a more obviously emotional engagement to the Frenchman’s more distant evocations. The comparison serves to show that Malipiero was the more radical composer. Bridge proceeds by way of his own brand of endless melody, Wagner-derived and maybe filtered through his teacher Stanford.
Malipiero rejected such romantic trappings. Influenced perhaps by the old Italian madrigal sequences which he was instrumental in restoring to public attention, he replaced symphonic development of the Germanic kind with the juxtaposition of “panels”. So each of the three Impressions works out, in its brief length, the emotional implications of its subject matter, then he stops and writes another panel. The atmospheric first piece is followed by an energetic, even violent scherzo and the first cycle concludes with a haunting nocturne. In these three pieces the balance between content and form seems to me perfect and the themes, while not immediately memorable, lodge in the mind with increasing hearings.
About the other two sets of “Impressioni” I am not so sure. Nor, apparently, was Malipiero himself, concluding that he did not “disown them, but I don’t love them”. Under the circumstances, he would perhaps not have been too upset to hear me say that I don’t mind hearing them but I don’t love them either.
With the second set the problem is that they are just that little bit longer. This is where the “panels” become unstuck and we risk finding what I am inclined to define, having recently reviewed the complete piano concertos of Alexander Tcherepnin, the “Tcherepnin-syndrome”, or “rut-by-rut” construction. This arose because Tcherepnin, too, had rejected Germanic symphonic development and it means that the composer gets into a rut, stays stuck in it until he’s had enough, and maybe some time after we’ve had enough, then moves on to another rut and gets stuck in that. The opening “Dialogue of Bells” is an impressive cortčge in its bleak – but orchestrally elaborate – way but rather too obviously sectional and ultimately tedious. I do just wonder, though, if we’re getting the real story. From Marullo’s notes I learn that it’s marked Moderato, ma non lento. Like a festive, distant peal of bells. La Vecchia’s Moderato seems to me verging on lento, and I hear nothing festive in his almost tragic reading. So perhaps a faster tempo would show it in a better light.
The second piece is more attractive in its delicate tone-painting. Bridge lovers will note a resemblance between Malipiero’s wind-tossed cypresses and Bridge’s wind-swept seagulls in the “Sea-foam” movement of his suite “The Sea”. Theoretically Malipiero could have known the Bridge work but it seems most unlikely and we must assume this is a coincidence. The last Impression shows that Malipiero could always produce effective if unedifying orchestral bluster when required.
Back to brevity for the third set of “Impressioni”, and so much the better. The first piece, “Festival in the ‘Valley of Hell’”, is dominated by a constantly repeated five-note motive that I suppose might be thought to resemble the famous motive of Beethoven’s fifth symphony with one note more. The effect and atmosphere here are so different that I must say the resemblance occurred to me only after several hearings. It is a curiously hypnotic piece, more hellish than festive, though in reality the valley in question is a famously beautiful one in the Italian Alps. It got its name because it contained seams of iron ore and in quite early times was strewn with smoking iron kilns. What worries me is Marullo’s comment that “A rhythmic joy and an irrepressible desire for song emerge from the first and last movements…”. Nothing of the kind emerges from this performance, which is effective and impressive according to its own lights. But my question is: has Marullo heard a performance that sounded like that, and if so, was it conducted by someone who might have known what Malipiero wanted? Readers may not realize, by the way, that writers of liner notes do not usually have the opportunity to hear the disc they are writing about if it is a new recording.
The concluding “Tarantella in Capri”, too, though lively enough here in a bandmasterly manner, doesn’t match Marullo’s description or possess the whirl and excitement of the classic tarantella. Undoubtedly successful is the sinister central movement, an unlikely depiction of cockerels but a strongly atmospheric slow piece.
The first set of “Pause del Silenzio” is a radical statement of Malipiero’s rejection of Germanic development in favour of separate panels. The title is rendered here “Breaks in Silence”; elsewhere I see that Harvey Sachs has translated it more literally as “Pauses of Silence”. Neither is entirely satisfactory since the Italian definite article – “Pause del Silenzio” rather than “Pause di Silenzio” – makes the silence specific, almost a living thing. “Breaks in the Silence” might have been better, but I think Malipiero meant something poised between the tangible and the intangible, and perhaps English has no way to express it.
In spite of its short length, this work has seven very distinct sections. They are unrelated, but each is preceded and succeeded by a fanfare-like theme which appears a semitone higher each time, slightly varied. The first panel is promising with its tolling bell and sombre atmosphere and no one would say that this music sounds like Bridge, or like anyone else really, so I suppose this is the pure Malipiero. But what a drab fellow he is, for all his large orchestral palette. Even within their length, the slow sections are obliged to proceed rut-wise and go on too long for their material while the faster ones tend to be exercises in the sort of instant noise any post-Rite of Spring composer could produce on tap. Unrelated though they may be, the themes and characters of the different slow sections and the different fast sections are not really memorable enough for you to notice that they actually are different without a good number of hearings. I write these negative impressions with regret and listened to it through once again before penning them. Yes, the themes do gradually begin to stick in the mind a little more, but is it worth it?
I am wonder if the performance does all it can to help. I get the idea that La Vecchia’s Malipiero is a bit like Bryden Thomson’s Bax, sympathetic and analytical of the orchestral textures, useful in showing aficionados how the wheels go round, but ultimately flat-footed and pedestrian, unlikely to convince the unconverted. A 1994 broadcast performance from Cagliari under the excellent Spanish conductor Arturo Tamayo shaved more than a minute off La Vecchia’s timing (11:48). This seems a step in the right direction, more sharply characterized, but not really enough to change my opinion of the music. Tamayo is within one second of the 1962 RAI Turin performance by Malipiero’s pupil Bruno Maderna, but I haven’t been able to hear this. The identical timing is no guarantee for what happens within the individual sections, of course. Most curiously, Marullo describes the work as taking place within “the brief space of fifteen minutes”, so I wonder if she has heard a much slower performance, and what it sounded like. This is the only work on this disc of which a previous complete recording exists, an LP made for Fabbri by the Nuremburg SO under Othmar Maga. Maybe that lasts fifteen minutes?
In place of an unbroken sequence, “Pause del Silenzio II” has five separate pieces. This final title seems to have been Malipiero’s first idea, though here Gallagher’s and Marullo’s accounts don’t quite agree. They were first published as “The Hero’s Exile” on the insistence of Gabriele D’Annunzio. He no doubt spotted the somewhat heroic cut of the theme of the last piece, though this mood is dissipated as the music drifts into its central rut – sorry, I mean panel. A less suitable title for the work as a whole could hardly be imagined. Malipiero then toyed with “The Book of Hours” and tried “On the River of Time” and “The Singing Cricket”. The latter, he told John Waterhouse in 1963 – quoted by Gallagher – referred to “a creature who goes on singing all day every day without knowing why” and has been supposed a rueful admission by the composer of his own strengths and weaknesses. None of these titles gained friends for the work, though “On the River of Time” plausibly suggests its stream-of-consciousness, inconsequential flow of unrelated events. Like many stream of consciousness novels, it suffers from a tendency to put in everything, whether interesting or not. It is Malipiero at his most timeless, but also at his drabbest, often drifting aimlessly up and down with no clear reason why he should not instead have drifted down and up. Yet it does convey a sense of belonging to some epic if dimly perceived procession of events. The stream of consciousness comparison is not far-fetched since this technique was known in Italy through Joyce’s disciple Italo Svevo, who published the classic Italian stream of consciousness novel, “The Conscience of Zeno”, in 1923, not long before Malipiero wrote this work. In the end Malipiero reverted to the title of “Pause del Silenzio II” but regretfully found that, under whatever name, few conductors took it up. I can’t say I blame them.
Hyper-productivity of the Malipiero type can be counter-productive in the sense that, faced with a vast catalogue of works reputed to be of uneven quality, musicians and the public just give it all a pass. Although Malipiero was quite widely performed at one time – performances of his works under Koussevitzky, Mitropoulos and Celibidache allegedly survive, the British premičres of his first two symphonies under Boult probably don’t – no one work became a repertory piece, even temporarily, acting as a magnet for further exploration. In the case of “Impressioni dal vero I” this is surely a pity. If a conductor were to programme this alongside Respighi’s “Gli uccelli”, hopefully at least some listeners would recognize the Malipiero as offering a far deeper, if less titillating, experience. This work alone would seem to make purchase of the present disc mandatory for collectors with an interest in early-20th century orchestral music. They may or may not agree with me over the rest.
Worth buying for “Impressioni dal vero I” and then making up your mind about the rest.