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Gian Francesco MALIPIERO (1882-1973)
Sinfonia degli eroi (1905) [17:56]
Ditirambo tragico (1917) [8:04]
Armenia (1917) [4:30]
Grottesco (1918) [8:02]
Dai sepolcri (1904) [18:31]
Thessaloniki State Symphony Orchestra/Amaury du Closel
rec. 2012, Aristotle University Concert Hall, Thessaloniki, Greece
World premiere recordings except Grottesco
Reviewed as 16-bit download from eClassical
NAXOS 8.572766 [57:03]

Naxos has greatly enhanced our knowledge of the forgotten generation of Italian composers who chose not to follow the opera pathway, most recently with the now-disbanded Rome Symphony Orchestra under Francesco La Vecchia. They recorded two discs of orchestral works by Malipiero (review ~ review) among numerous others, such as Sgambati, Pizzetti and Casella. My initial assumption was that the series had been taken over the combination of a Greek orchestra and a French conductor, but when I looked at the recording date, I was surprised to see that it had been made before the Roman orchestra closed (2014).

This collection consists of early works, most of which Malipiero disowned, but mercifully didn’t destroy. He wrote in the 1950s that he wished he hadn’t “emerged from silence before 1911”. The Sinfonia degli eroi (Symphony of Heroes) is the first of seventeen works bearing the name “symphony”. It was not numbered, perhaps reflecting its author’s disdain for it. The title is rather enigmatic, as the heroic brass fanfares that recur throughout, are repeatedly undermined immediately by jaunty, almost comedic wind melodies and on occasions, castanets and triangles. Listened to without any consideration of titles, it is a very enjoyable seventeen minutes of melody, drama and humour. The most sustained period of triumphal brass in the middle of the single movement, is followed by a quite beautiful pastoral section for strings.

Ditirambo tragico (Tragic dithyramb) had me indebted to the booklet notes as I had no idea what this was. It is apparently “a wild ancient Greek choral song in honour of Dionysus, god of wine and fertility”. Quite what this might sound like, I have no idea. The work itself is littered with dissonances, especially towards the end, and does occasionally bring to mind The Rite of Spring. Malipiero attended the infamous Paris premiere, and apparently it led him to wake “from a long and dangerous lethargy”. Perhaps more telling is his later suggestion that his works written around this time were affected by the devastation caused by the Great War, and it is certainly easy to hear echoes of chaos, destruction, anger and despair in the work.

Armenia is the most immediately attractive work, based as it is on four folk songs of the region. It was apparently written as a ‘token of sympathy for an Armenian friend’, but there is no suggestion that it was in response to the 1915 genocide of a million Armenians in Ottoman Turkey. Its relatively light and happy atmosphere lends weight to that.

Ironically, Grottesco, the only work here to have been recorded before (Nuova Era 6998), is the least interesting. It was composed for an avant-garde puppet show, and perhaps in that context, it made sense. Listened to by itself, it is garish and disorderly.

Dai sepolcri (From tombs) is the earliest Malipiero work known to have been performed in public. What we hear here is very different from that which was performed in Bologna in 1904. Three different versions of the score exist, the first for piano duet, the second, an orchestrated and abbreviated version for that performance, and the third, the much expanded one presented here. It is thought that Malipiero’s teacher – Marco Bossi – disapproved of the piano duet version, and Malipiero toned it down for the orchestral performance. Later, free of his teacher’s conservative influence, he revised the work, expanding it and reinstating much of his own personality. There is no doubt that it is rambling, but for a first major work, it is quite impressive and certainly ambitious, though not the quiet reflective or haunting piece that one might imagine from its title. The substantial solo part written for the cor anglais is very beautiful.

The Thessaloniki orchestra is adequate though not of the Rome standard, but it is not as though we will have the luxury of simply waiting for another recording from a better orchestra to come along. The booklet notes are very informative, particularly given the obscurity of these works. The sound is rather amorphous, though the lack of detail may be partly a consequence of the sometimes thick scoring.

It is not clear whether this will be the new team to continue the Italian series. Apparently the Sgambati Symphony 2 was performed in Rome, just prior to the orchestra folding, but there was no recording session. Given how outstanding the first symphony was, it is to be hoped that it is near the top of the Naxos to-do list.

These works may not be top-drawer Malipiero, but they are certainly welcome additions to his slowly growing discography.

David Barker



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