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Goffredo PETRASSI (1904-2003)
Magnificat for soprano leggero, chorus and orchestra (1939-40) [30:52]
Salmo IX° in two parts for chorus, string orchestra, brass, percussion, and two pianos (1934-36) [34:57]
Sabina Cvilak (soprano)
Coro Teatro Regio Torino/Claudio Fenoglio
Orchestra Teatro Regio Torino/Gianandrea Noseda
rec. Teatro Regio, Turin, Italy, 5-7 July 2012
CHANDOS CHAN 10750 [65:58]

It was back in 2007 that my friend Alistair Jameson showed me his completed Ph.D. which took as its subject the eight Concertos for Orchestra by Goffredo Petrassi. These were, in large part, composed in the thirty years after the Second World War. He kindly lent me the recordings (review) and scores for a while. I was fascinated by the sheer variety of styles and the eclecticism of the man; not to mention the brilliance of the orchestration and fecundity of Petrassi’s ideas. 

In this recording Chandos, who are exploring this composer for the first time, present two works for chorus and orchestra. These pre-date the war and, although they signpost the later music are not entirely typical. Nevertheless they are worth hearing, at times dramatic, and also very beautiful and sensitive.
The Magnificat is scored for a conventional orchestra with a soprano solo and chorus. It splits the text into thirteen well contrasted sections divided between the soloist and the chorus interspersed with orchestral interludes. The stylistic influences are certainly Stravinsky in the rhythms especially at the start. I was also reminded of Malipiero in the sunny but complex counterpoint. There were even times when, bearing in mind Petrassi’s choirboy training in 16th Century polyphony in Rome, the music of Palestrina and Josquin came to the fore. Listen especially to track 8: the ‘et sanctum nomen ejus’ for both of these traits. All this is there to be heard despite the fact - highlighted in the excellent booklet essay by Enzo Restagno - that the composer admitted that his “old-style musical education … was soon forgotten and had become lodged in some deep recess of his memory.” Speaking of counterpoint, listen to track 12, the ‘Sicut locutus est’. This is a rather strong fugue which because it is so powerful means that the Gloria which follows is less significant; indeed it rather peters out leaving one unsure whether to applaud or not.
The composer specifically asks for what he calls a ‘soprano leggero’ (a light soprano). My impression is that Sabina Cvilak, gorgeous as she is, is more of a mezzo. She is taxed at times by the upper register and the effect can feel rather heavy. In addition I find her words lack clarity. She is not my idea of a suitable singer for this music. The chorus however rise the occasion well although I can’t help but feel that they occasionally lack appropriate conviction.
The other piece comes off much better however both chorally and orchestrally. It is a fine performance all-round. I found Petrassi’s setting of Psalm IX fascinating and at times, especially in its opening three minutes, quite exhilarating. At other moments, for example in the ‘Et sperent in te qui noverunt’ it is also quite beautiful. The scoring is for chorus, string orchestra, brass and percussion. The composer is quoted in the booklet as darkly admitting, “this was the first work to arouse my consciousness of the childhood traumas” - in the Schola Cantorum where he had been choirboy - “of which I had to rid myself.” Indeed the music is passionate, and at times disturbing. It is as if it is trying to express the inexpressible. Renaissance polyphony is thrown off and Stravinsky is to the fore. The composer admits to admiring Oedipus Rex when he first encountered it in 1934 and that he was also “led back” to the Symphony of Psalms. The latter is famous for not including strings but then Oedipus only had a string quintet. The Symphony is most noticeably an inspiration at the beginning of the second part of the Psalm setting. Petrassi divides the text into two distinct sections. Chandos have helpfully placed nine dividing tracks for each part which is an aid to keep in touch with where you are as the chorus words are not always clear. In addition the words in the second part are a hymn of praise like the Stravinsky movement three, ”Sing Praises unto the Lord which dwelled in Zion / declare among the people his doings / … I will rejoice in thy salvation”. There is some vigorous choral writing and brass fanfares, rushing scales and ‘chugging’ figures to keep the impetus going. Noseda brings out the drama and strength of this piece with much authority.
I have already mentioned the excellent accompanying essay. All the sung texts are given and clearly translated. There are also rehearsal and session photographs demonstrating what a vast group was assembled for this project. The recording is almost faultless and the Psalm especially has grown on me. The open-minded will find much to reward their investment in this disc.
Gary Higginson 

See also review by Hubert Culot