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Goffredo PETRASSI (1904 – 2003)
Divertimento in C major (1930) [21:47]
Partita (1932) [18:54]
Quattro inni sacri (1942, orch. 1950)a [18:32]
Coro di morti (1940/1)b [16:48]
Carlo Putelli (tenor)a; Davide Malvestio (bass)a; Nuovo Coro Lirico Sinfonico Romanob; Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma/Francesco La Vecchia
rec. Auditorium di Via Conciliazione, Rome, 26-27 February 2012 (Divertimento), 18-19 March 2007 (Partita) and 27-28 November 2011 (Quattro inni sacri, Coro di morti)
NAXOS 8.572411 [76:01]

Francesco La Vecchia and his Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma have already explored a number of more or less neglected Italian byways of the first half of the 20th century. A number of releases have been devoted to Casella but also to Malipiero and some others. Now comes this brand new release with early works by Goffredo Petrassi who, with his exact contemporary Luigi Dallapiccola, was one of the most important Italian composers of their generation. Dallapiccola's musical progress was rather different from Petrassi's in that Dallapiccola embraced twelve-tone music early in his career and stuck to it throughout his entire composing life. He kept refining it whereas Petrassi rather toyed with twelve-tone writing without really adopting it in a strict manner. Moreover he came to twelve-tone music much later in his career. Well into the 1950s he was still clearly influenced by Stravinsky and Neo-classicism. This is evident in the very early Divertimento in C major composed while still studying at the Conservatoire and also in the already somewhat more mature Partita, completed in 1932. In fact the Partita is the work that marked Petrassi's breakthrough when it was performed during the 1933 ISCM festival in Amsterdam. The work even drew some wholehearted praise from the redoubtable critic R.-Aloys Mooser who went so far as to say that Petrassi was one of the most gifted Italian composers of that generation. Sometime later the work was given in Geneva and Mooser's sympathetic feelings remained unchanged which says much about the work's many musical qualities. When compared to the occasionally sprawling Divertimento, the Partita is definitely more concise and more straight to the point although the stylistic influences spotted in the Divertimento - Stravinsky in his Neo-classical manner and Hindemith in his motor-driven rhythms as well as Casella - are still present. That said, the music now tends to look further in the direction of Bartók. Moreover the central movement, an impressive Ciaccona, definitely reveals a real personality at work.
Quattro inni sacri (“Four Sacred Hymns”) were composed in 1942 for tenor, bass and organ and scored some eight years later. It is to be noted that the singers never sing together. The tenor sings the first two hymns (Jesus dulcis memoria and Te lucis ante terminum) whereas the last two (Lucis Creator optime and Salvete Christi vulnera, the most developed hymn of the cycle) are given to the bass. The set as a whole is very beautiful with these sacred hymns being set in an almost operatic manner, as in the near-contemporary Magnificat (Chandos CHAN 10750).
Coro di morti, however, may well be the climax of Petrassi's early manner. The composer’s austere approach to words by Giacomo Leopardi achieves a remarkable expressive strength. The setting for men's chorus, brass, three pianos, double basses and percussion perfectly reflects the sombre tone of the poems without any lapses into superficiality. Every single note is in its right place and there is no or hardly any word repetition, still less any word-painting. The dark mood prevailing from first to last is hardly relieved by the two instrumental sections and is rather emphasised by the limited thematic material in which repeated notes and chords feature prominently. The music is also frequently propelled by ostinati and may at times recall Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms, which was clearly a model for a composer who nevertheless succeeded in remaining himself. In spite of its comparative brevity Coro di morti stands as a substantial offering in Petrassi's early output and definitely one of his masterpieces.
Performances are generally very fine although I find the recording a bit too bright in both the Divertimento and the Partita. In fact Tamayo's recent recording of the Partita (Stradivarius STR 33824) has the same bright sound so that it may be the music's fault after all. On the other hand Coro di morti because of its much darker colouring is a difficult piece to handle. This recording of it as well as that released many years ago conducted by Petrassi does not really succeed in making the words clear. This, however, should not deter anyone from this very fine and most welcome addition to Petrassi's discography.
Seeing the release of two discs of Petrassi's music within a fairly short period of time puzzled me at first but then I realised that they may coincide with the tenth anniversary of the composer's death.
I hope that more of his music will soon make its way unto disc for there are works that either are still unrecorded or badly need a new recording.
Hubert Culot