Over five years ago I encountered Giacinto Scelsi’s Preludi
in a strikingly good recording and performance by Alessandra Ammara on the Arts label (see review
). Scelsi was by all accounts a strange character whose work remained hidden from the public for most of his life. While the Preludi
represent an earlier phase, both of these Suites
come from his so-called ‘second period’ after WWII and after enduring a personal crisis which included his wife leaving him. He ultimately moved towards Eastern philosophy as witnessed by the subtitles for these suites, but the essence of the creative change made was an abandonment of conventional composition into one of creation through improvisation. Friedrich Jaecker’s booklet notes for this release point out that not a single work by Scelsi exists as notated by Scelsi himself. “The method of an inspired roll of dice” meant working directly at the piano, recording the results, and then having another composer, Vieri Tosatti, transcribe the music into notation as accurately as possible.
At a time in which the most high profile composers were hotly engaged in the scariest kinds of avant-garde atonality, Scelsi was exploring a free spirited search in sonority and a special kind of atmosphere one might expect to find in later decades. He saw himself as a ‘postman’ of music, “one who sometimes receives messages, which he then delivers.” The ‘chance’ elements in his music invite comparison with a figure such as John Cage, but Scelsi’s music, while sharing an uncompromisingly enigmatic air, is a good deal less austere than Cage’s. While the elements of Zen philosophy and Eastern reflectiveness are unmistakable, this is also music which is arguably a distillation of Italian musical and cultural experience descended from the likes of Respighi.
The Ninth Suite
is the more approachable of the two, though neither works pose insurmountable obstacles to any listener aware of names such as Hans Otte
or Peter Michael Hamel
. Scelsi’s movements can be impressionistic, as with the very first of this Suite No. 9
which opens in a static texture like the reflections on smoothly undulating water. There are explorations of colour and sonority on very few notes, darkly expressive moods almost in the manner of late Liszt, and at times there are lines that imply lyricism as well as the development of ruminative depths.
The Tenth Suite
shares some of these characteristics but has a wider range of dramas in movements given markings such as squillante
or ‘shrill’, pungente
or ‘stinging’, and violento
or ‘ferociously’. These remain controlled and disciplined pieces in their own right however, and there is little in the way of directly pianistic virtuosity in the romantic sense. The demands are more those of interpreting and inhabiting the multi-layered inner worlds of the performer/composer who had already ‘delivered his messages’ in sounds, whether they be of beauty or of barbarism.
It is fascinating to compare and contrast the aforementioned Preludi
with these Suites
and hear how the intense and compact language of the earlier works overlaps into a world where intuition and physical response take on as important a role as intellectual rigour. Sabine Liebner’s performances are as convincing as any I could imagine, and the Wergo recording is very good indeed, providing a concert-hall perspective with a nice balance between detail and atmosphere. By chance Steffen Schleiermacher’s recording of the Eighth
and Ninth Suites
has also recently appeared on the MDG label but I haven’t had a chance to hear this one – it seems now there is ever more Scelsi to explore than before.