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Alfredo CASELLA (1883-1947)
Divertimento per Fulvia op.64 (1940) [15:21]
Franco DONATONI (1927-2000)
Musica (Music) for chamber orchestra (1954-55) [17:29]
Giorgio Federico GHEDINI (1892-1965)
Concerto Grosso in F major for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn and strings (1927) [20:00]
Gian Francesco MALIPIERO (1882-1973)
Oriente immaginario (Imaginary Orient) -three studies for small orchestra (1920) [10:49]
Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana/Damian Iorio
rec. Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano-Besso, Switzerland, 21-24 May, 2013
NAXOS 8.573748 [63:41]

Cards on the table. I have not heard any of these pieces before. Maybe that is not so surprising as three of the four are world premiere recordings. Furthermore, except for Ottorino Respighi, 20th century Italian music is rarely heard in concert halls in the United Kingdom. I would love to be contradicted on that last sentence. In addition, I have never consciously heard any music by Franco Donatoni or Giorgio Federico Ghedini. So, all in all, this CD presents a great opportunity for the innocent ear. The blurb on the CD packaging gives a good overview of this music: ‘This programme of four colourful, contrasting but complementary works for small orchestra celebrates the lighter side of four twentieth-century Italian composers…’

The first work is Alfredo Casella’s Divertimento per Fulvia op.64 which was composed in 1940 for his daughter. This is the only work on this CD to have been previously released (CPO 999 195-2). The Divertimento is derived from Eleven Children’s Pieces, op.35 written in 1920. This was initially expanded into a ballet for children, La camera dei disegni (The Room of Drawings) which tells the story of a child’s picture book which is stolen by a thief. The pictures in the book come to life and torment the miscreant. The present divertimento has included much of this ballet music and some new music and is presented in a multi-movement suite. Analysts have noted the allusions (conscious or otherwise) to Ravel’s Mother Goose (1911) and to Debussy’s ‘Gigues’ where Casella has also used a tune sounding remarkably like the Northumberland folk-tune ‘The Keel Row.’ Casella’s daughter, Fulvia, was a dancer in the corps de ballet that gave the premiere in November 1940. This Divertimento is a sparkling little work, that combines imaginative scoring with neo-classical sound: it is a delight. Whether the listener wishes to keep the plot of the ballet in mind, or just enjoy the music, is a personal decision. For me, I have always liked pictures (since first seeing Ruddigore) and toys (Pinocchio, Nutcracker and Boutique Fantastique) coming alive. It is good to hear that Fulvia Casella is still active in promoting her father’s music.

My favourite work on this CD is Franco Donatoni’s ‘Musica’ for chamber orchestra. Donatoni received his musical education in the immediate post-war years at the conservatoires of Milan and Bologna as well as the Accademia di S. Cecilia in Rome where he studied with Ildebrando Pizzetti. He was also influenced by Goffredo Petrassi. Much of Donatoni’s career has been spent teaching, especially at the Siena Accademia Musicale Chigiana. His pupils have included many prominent Italian musicians as well as students from abroad. Donatoni has worked through several musical styles in his career, including Bartok, modernism and the rising avant-garde as represented by Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luciano Berio and Luigi Nono. During the mid-1950s Donatoni was encouraged by Bruno Maderna to explore the serial music of Schoenberg and Webern. This included a detailed study of Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra Op.31. The resulting work was the present ‘Musica’ for chamber orchestra, which the composer regarded as his ‘worst work.’ This is not cod Schoenberg, Webern or anyone else. His musical world has been described as ‘Schoenberg gone a bit neo-classical.’ There are also echoes of Baroque music as well as Stravinsky. The liner notes are correct when they suggest that Musica must be one of the most appealing twelve-tone pieces ever composed. The work last for just over 17 minutes and is presented in four contrasting movements. The listener’s interest is maintained by the luminosity of the scoring as well as the energy of rhythmic development.

Giorgio Federico Ghedini’s Concerto Grosso for wind quintet and strings is heavily influenced by Bach and Beethoven. The composer had considerable interest in early music and spent much of his life transcribing and editing music by Giovanni Gabrieli, Girolamo Frescobaldi and Claudio Monteverdi. Ghedini was born in the Italian town of Cuneo in 1892. He studied music in Turin and Bologna. After a period as a conductor, he decided to devote himself to teaching. His most famous pupil is probably Luciano Berio. Giorgio Federico Ghedini died in Nervi, near Genoa in 1965. The liner notes suggest that the instrumental line up of the present work is ‘so fruitful that it is amazing how few composers have used it.’ Ghedini has used this form to explore virtually every possible combination of the five woodwind players with the main string orchestra. This music is not a parody or pastiche of the composers who majored in Concerto Grossi (Corelli and Handel for example) it is a reworking of these ideas using the harmonic language of the nineteen-twenties including ‘poignant harmonic sideslips, piquant dissonances and diverting rhythmic dislocations could only have been composed in the past century.’ I enjoyed this work, especially the hauntingly beautiful adagio which is the fourth of the five movements.

Gian Francesco Malipiero is well-represented in the CD music catalogues, at least with the number of works recorded. The only snag is that few of his compositions have multiple performances. Marco Polo/Naxos have released a survey of the complete (11) symphonies. The Oriente immaginario can be regarded as pastiche orientalism seen through the eyes of an Italian composer. The liner notes admit as much when they state that it is ‘awash with the typical chromaticism – including prominent augmented seconds – that are the stock in trade of ‘orientalism’ in nineteenth- and twentieth century western music that evokes a (putative) exotic east.’ What saves this three-movement work from itself is the ingenious scoring, the imaginative development of the entire score from a single theme and the frequent alternations of ‘pace and texture.’ It is a piece that I felt I should not enjoy, but did. Interestingly, the composer declared that it was ‘horrible,’ and he wished it had never been written. An over-exaggeration perhaps?

The CD liner notes by David Gallagher are excellent and provide much information about these rarely heard works and their composers. The usual biographical details of the orchestra and conductor are given. The Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana (Orchestra of Italian Switzerland) was formed in Lugano in 1935 and has been directed by many ‘greats’ including Ansermet, Stravinsky and Stokowski. A news report in the November edition of The Strad suggests that financial pressures are threatening the orchestra’s future, although this may just imply restructuring. Let us hope this situation can be happily resolved. The pieces are played with enthusiasm and great effectiveness. The recording reflects the vibrancy and tang of much of this music.

This CD gives the listener the opportunity to hear four varied 20th century Italian compositions. Looking at the catalogues of these four composers reveals much still to be explored. It has been a pleasure to hear these undiscovered works. Naxos have done much to bring the music of Italy (as well as many other countries) in from the cold and give it wider circulation.

John France

Previous review: Rob Barnett


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