Giuseppe MARTUCCI (1856-1909)
Piano Trio No 1 in C major, Op.59 [39:18]
Piano Quintet in C major, Op. 45 [38:23]
Piano Trio No 2 in E flat major, Op.62 [50:20]
Momento musicale in B-Flat Major [3:24]
Minuetto [5:19]
Georg Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Minuetto, Musetta & Gavotte (transcr. string quartet,  Martucci) [5:04]
Quartetto Noferini/Maria Semiraro (piano)
rec. Bartok Studio, Bernareggio, Italy, December 2014
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 94968 [78:01 + 64:30]

After the heyday of composers such as Vivaldi and Boccherini, throughout the late eighteenth and all of the nineteenth century—and, for that matter, well into the twentieth century—Italian musical taste was dominated by opera. Purely orchestral or chamber music was discouraged in Italy during this period, not least because impresarios and concert managers were disinclined to commission, promote or schedule anything else. This was for sound commercial reasons as much as for any other justification. For most lovers of classical music Respighi is probably the most prominent Italian composer of purely orchestral works after the operatic era, and even he made several forays into opera. Any Italian composer who eschewed the operatic form in the century or so before Respighi was bound to have a somewhat frustrating career, yet there were just a few who felt the need to widen Italy’s musical perspectives. Sgambati and Martucci were the two who made the most impact at the time. Like so many neglected composers, however, their music has only relatively recently began to be resurrected.

I first became aware of Martucci’s music when I bought an ASV LP of his First Symphony, conducted by Francesco D’Avalos, a keen promoter of the composer’s music. At the time the works seemed to me pleasant and well-crafted but over-orchestrated and somewhat faceless with no particularly memorable melodies. Much the same could be said for the composer’s Second Symphony and both his piano concertos. Now that we have all the composer’s mature chamber music for piano and strings (apart from a Serenata for string quartet, sonatas for violin and cello and assorted pieces for either instrument with piano) represented on this new 2-CD set from Brilliant Classics, I wondered if smaller forces might have prompted a different level of inspiration.

I started with the Piano Quintet. This work was completed in 1877 and the fairly high opus number of 45 indicates that the late teenage years of the (by then) 21-year old composer had been an industrious period. There are the usual four movements. An initial Allegro giusto well and truly belies the designation. The work opens with a gentle and captivating, shimmering passage but continues too much in this vein, interspersed with even more serene pastoral passages. The subsequent tranquil Andante has a slightly less gentle central section but is in very much the same mood as the first movement, and there is an unfortunate lack of variety. Fortunately, there follows a mischievous Scherzo, although that almost becomes motionless before it jolts back into life, only to finish. The Finale is probably the most memorable movement, dominated by the piano, but it is all a bit insipid.

In a brief review of an Aura disc of the Quintet (review) Rob Barnett mentioned being reminded of Widor’s chamber music in places, or even music of the next generation of French and Austrian composers (Vierne and Schmidt, amongst others). Schmidt certainly comes to mind in so far as what little there is for the piano to do could largely be played with one hand (a frequent characteristic of Schmidt’s piano chamber music). Anyway, despite its limitations this piece earned Martucci the top prize of the annual competition of the SocietÓ del quartetto di Milano in 1878.

The First Piano Trio of 1882, Martucci’s Op. 59, was actually his second essay in the medium (there having been an early Piano Trio of 1869, written when the composer was all of thirteen) but it does not strike me as a particularly mature utterance. It also opens with a movement designated Allegro giusto and this is almost as gentle as its counterpart in the Quintet. I suppose one can vaguely hear the influence of Brahms but the music has little development worthy of that great name. It meanders with a theme reminiscent of Wieniawski’s “Legende” and erupts for a brief bluster twice in the middle before sidling to a quiet close. Fortunately, there follows a light-hearted Mendelssohnian Scherzo with a very simply-harmonised trio—possibly suggestive of rustic bagpipes—which provides a welcome contrast. Back to a gentle third movement Andante con moto, led by the cello, where we are treated to a mildly disturbing chromatically-developed central section. The jaunty and busy Finale explores distant keys to a rather greater extent than elsewhere before returning to the home key. This trio also won the annual competition of the SocietÓ del quartetto di Milano. Presumably there was little competition.

The Second Piano Trio in E flat was composed in the following year. It also opens with a vaguely Brahmsian gentle Allegro with notably contrapuntal interplay in the development section. The following Scherzo starts rather like Morse code with the initial dotted rhythm and its repeated clash of G and F sharp but, although this is not developed in the same vein, the music is quite arresting. Moreover, some tonal uncertainties follow, surrounding a mildly mysterious trio section. By contrast the material of the third movement, Adagio, is actually developed in a central Animato section; it even has a passage quasi Cadenza before the return of the opening tempo. The finale, an Allegro vivace, opens with a bouncy melody in the piano with a contrasting Meno Allegro in triple time making two appearances. This has the effect of providing a combined second scherzo and finale. In fact, the Scherzo theme of the second movement—together with the opening melody of the Adagio—are both quoted as the trio draws to a close. If the Quintet sprawls a bit, this Trio is positively effusive. The first and last movements in particular could beneficially have been significantly cut, but I suspect that the musicians here take the first movement too slowly.

This is not the first appearance on disc of the quintet, which turned up on a Claves disc (Giovane Quartetto Italiano/Borciani) coupled with what sounds to me like a much too slow performance of the First Piano Trio (review) and on Dynamic (by the Ex Novo Ensemble) coupled with Respighi’s Piano Quintet. Both the trios have also appeared in performances by the Trio Mezzena-Bonucci (probably no longer available) and, more recently, by the Trio Vega (review). I sampled snatches of some of the competing discs but there was nothing sufficiently different to justify listening at greater length. The Claves performance of the Quintet sounds pretty similar, although the overall duration is about 10% less, so this may be due to observance of a repeat on the present disc. That said, performances on the present discs are on the leisurely side. The Vega Trio on Naxos takes the first movement of the Second Trio at a much faster speed—very much to its advantage—and is slightly faster elsewhere as well. The present pianist, Maria Semiraro, is pretty reliable and the Quartetto Noferini is generally acceptable. Even so, the quartet members playing the strings in both Trios 1 and 2 lack commitment (difficult to achieve at the generally leisurely tempi adopted). There were occasions when I was mildly concerned about uningratiating string tone. Unfortunately, in this kind of repertoire, one cannot really expect top performers. The short pieces for string quartet that fill out the second disc do not amount to very much but are given reasonably sympathetic performances anyway.

The recorded sound is luminous. It is all to the good except that it sometimes sounds in the gentler passages, of which there are many, as though the piano’s sustaining pedal has been over-used. The second disc is notably more closely recorded than the first.

Booklet notes are readable and go on at length about Martucci’s career and times, although there is an irritating lack of information about the actual works on the two discs.

So, a bit of a curate’s egg, largely confirming my limited expectations of this composer. (No wonder the Italians stuck to opera!) The music for quartet alone really does not justify completists going for this set. From the little I have heard of them, the competing readings of the Trios (Naxos) and Quintet (Dynamic) are probably preferable.

Bob Stevenson

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