Goffredo PETRASSI (1904-2003)
Partita for orchestra (1932) [18:21]
Quattro Inni Sacri for male voice (tenor and baritone) and orchestra (1942, orch. 1950) [17:09]
Noche oscura: Cantata for mixed chorus and orchestra (1950-1) [19:15]
Coro di morti: dramatic madrigal for male voices, three pianos, brass, double-basses and percussion (1940-1) [14:25]
Giorgio Berrugi (tenor), Vasily Ladyuk (baritone)
Coro Teatro Regio Torino/Claudio Fenoglio
Orchestra Teatro Regio Torino/Gianandrea Noseda
rec. Teatro Regio, Torino, Italy, 2013/14
CHANDOS CHAN10840 [69:29]

Petrassi was born in 1904, the same year as Dallapiccola and a generation earlier than Nono, Maderna and Berio. For most of his long life he worked within the neo-classical idiom established by Stravinsky though later he flirted with serialism. His friends included Elliott Carter and his pupils Peter Maxwell Davies. He has been less well known than other Italian modernists but recordings are now putting that right.
Here we have four works, all but one vocal or choral. The exception is Partita, the earliest work and the one which established Petrassi’s reputation. This is in three movements, fast-slow-fast, though with numerous variations of tempo and mood within each. It opens with great energy but there is a contrast with a more lyrical theme on the saxophone, not an instrument usually favoured by neo-classical composers. The second movement is a grave elegy with interjections from muted brass. The third is again vigorous but with an undercurrent of unease, hardly surprising considering when it was written. There is a superficial cheerfulness but as of a ballet of ghosts. I was reminded of the neo-classical works of Martinů of this period.
Quattro Inni Sacri are four sacred hymns, two set for tenor and two for baritone, with orchestra. The singers never sing together and the requirement for two in a comparatively short work must militate against frequent performance. The four hymns are Jesu dulcis memoria (Jesus the very thought of thee), Te lucis ante terminum (Before the ending of the day), Lucis Creator optime (O blest Creator of the light) and Salvete Christi vulnera (Hail, holy wounds of Jesus, hail). The first three are medieval, the last seventeenth century, written for the Feast of the Most Precious Blood. They come from the Roman breviary, the then standard Catholic prayer-book. The translations of the first lines I have given are not those in the booklet but those you will find in English hymn books if you want to look them up. Petrassi’s vocal writing is angular but lyrical, very like that of Stravinsky in Oedipus Rex, though this work is much later, having been conceived in 1942 and finished in 1950. His settings are very varied in mood and also extravert, rather disconcerting to someone who considers the first three hymns to be contemplative. Salvete Christi vulnera, despite the gruesome subject, so characteristic of counter-reformation piety, is actually given a jubilant setting. The two soloists cope convincingly with their lines; their declamatory style seems a bit alien to the text but may be part of the idiom of the music.
Noche oscura (Dark Night), for mixed chorus and orchestra, sets the most celebrated poem by the sixteenth century Spanish mystic and poet St John of the Cross. This uses the erotic imagery of the lover finding his beloved, taken from the Biblical Song of Songs, to represent the soul’s union with God. It begins, in Roy Campbell’s classic translation:
Upon a gloomy night
With all my cares to loving ardours flushed
(O venture of delight!)
With nobody in sight
I went abroad when all my house was hushed.
And it ends:
Lost to myself I stayed
My face upon my lover having laid
From all endeavour ceasing:
And all my cares releasing
Threw them down amongst the lilies there to fade.
Petrassi uses a chromatic theme which undergoes various permutations throughout the work. Most of this is intense, quiet and hermetic. The winding lines in the voices supported by a harmony at once harsh and soft successfully evoke the spiritual ecstasy of the poem. There is a sense both of power and of restraint. The assured singing of the chorus, for which chorus master Claudio Fenoglio must be praised, makes for a successful performance of a most impressive work.
Coro di morti (Chorus of the Dead) sets a poem by the nineteenth century Italian poet Leopardi, which begins, in the English version by Eamon Grennan:
Only immortal in the world,
Terminus of all things living
Our nature – naked as it is –
Comes, Death, to rest in you;

The scoring is for male voices with the unusual, indeed inconvenient combination of three pianos, brass, double basses and percussion. This suggests the Stravinsky of Les Noces, and indeed the work is Stravinskian though I also seem to hear the influence of Hindemith’s Concert music for piano, brass and harps. The work opens with marching rhythms which rise to a climax and resume from time to time. There are two orchestral interludes, one fast and fugal in the brass, the other more varied. Despite the sombre theme this is a varied and not a gloomy work. Again the chorus work is fine.
Noseda clearly knows these scores and he secures enthusiastic playing from his Italian orchestra. The booklet has notes in four languages – the English one is rather floridly Italianate but conveys the necessary information - and the sung texts with English prose translations. The recording is adequate. This is faint praise for Chandos who have done a great deal for twentieth century Italian music; perhaps their engineers were not wholly comfortable in the Teatro Regio in Turin. I notice that their Dallapiccola recordings were made in Manchester (review review). Whereas there have been several recordings of Partita, and both Coro di Morti and Quattro Inni Sacri appeared on a recent Naxos disc which Hubert Culot liked, this seems to be the only recording of Noche oscura. As it seems to me the finest work on the disc, and the other are interesting too, this is well worth having.

Stephen Barber

Information received from Colin Mackie:
There is another recording of the Cantata "Noche Oscura". It is on a cd released on the Italian Ermitage label with the chorus and orchestra of Radio della Svizzera Italiana conducted by Francis Irving Travis and recorded in Lugano in 1970. That disc (ERM 145) also includes the 4 Inni Sacri, the Recreation Concertante(Concerto for Orchestra No.3), the Sonata da Camera for harpsichord and ten instruments(1948) and "Sesto Non-Senso" for a cappella chorus.

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