Roberto ESPOSITO (b. 1984)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in F sharp minor, ‘Fantastico’, Op 8 (2016) [26:49]
Piano Sonata No. 1 in B flat minor, Op 10 (2017) [25:01] Indigo Mirage (2015) [4:38]
Roberto Esposito (piano, celesta)
Michele D’Elia (electronics)
Budapest Scoring Symphonic Orchestra/Eliseo Castrignano
rec. 2017, Studio 22, Magyar Radio, Budapest; Mauro Esposito Studio, Tricase, Lecce, Italy
World première recordings GRAND PIANO GP781 [56:34]
I’m always something of a soft touch, whenever I see a piano concerto among the list of new releases. But when it’s described as ‘fantastico’ in the title and is a work by a composer new to me, it becomes even more desirable to get hold of.
The Italian-born composer, and pianist on this recording, Roberto Esposito, includes some five fairly short paragraphs in his sleeve-notes about the three works recorded (in English and Italian), though with actually a greater amount of space given over to the performers’ respective biographies, in both languages).
These initial five paragraphs about the music do, at least, give an insight into what he sets out to achieve, and might be summarised thus. The three works derive from his wish, both as pianist and composer, to impregnate musical forms from the last two centuries with those musical idioms closest to his heart today – jazz, and the folk music of his native southern Italy, and the wider Mediterranean area. ‘Fantastic’, I suppose, in the sense that he sees it as an otherwise improbable coming-together of two very different concepts – or, and this is always the real worry with such works that could enter the realms of ‘cross-over’, an idea which has little basis in reality. There have been many such examples over the years, and few, if any, have ever survived very long.
The Concerto’s opening ‘Moderato’ sets a seemingly calm Mediterranean evening-scene before the piano enters soon after and weaves some filigree decorations around the main thematic material, while a persistently rhythmic bass-line ensures some onward progression. About halfway through, there is a quickening of tempo, although the key remains quite stubbornly in F sharp minor, until a lighter, section which makes use of descending sevenths in the harmony, over a bass-pattern very reminiscent of Brubeck’s ‘Take Five’. This gives the pianist an opportunity to turn his attention to jazz figurations a little more, which he further develops on his own, without the orchestra, in quite an extended cadenza, where Esposito’s technical prowess at the keyboard is certainly never in question. There is a general broadening as the orchestra resumes, which leads to a semblance of a recapitulation, but one which is very short-lived, as the music closes abruptly. In writing about his opening movement, the composer mentions Beethoven, Ravel, Rachmaninov, Scriabin – and the language of improvisation. While it would be very challenging to acknowledge the input from these specific composers anywhere in the music, the somewhat amorphous construction did at least vaguely point in the direction of improvisation.
Esposito is more explicit about the second movement (Adagio ironico) – he claims to base this on the big-band tradition of Duke Ellington. The movement begins really sweetly on strings, as the piano sings out its plaintive melody, altogether a lovely few minutes of pure easy-listening. After some four minutes or so, a short, attractive chordal passage, harmonically à la Copland, leads into the next section, that can only be described as a swing-section begun on piano, and which many listeners will no doubt perceive as being uncomfortably like the well-known British pub singalong, ‘Side by Side’. I doubt very much that this was Esposito’s intention, having probably never been party to a typical pub sing-song. Strings take this up, though clearly its idiom is less suited to orchestral instruments than the usual out-of-tune pub piano. The piano then joins back in, to give it a more conventional workover, though which does grow on you, ever so slightly, after a while. Esposito even manages to slip in a fleeting snippet of the English sea-shanty melody, ‘What Shall We Do with a Drunken Sailor?’, but again I suspect this wasn’t intentional – and you’ll have to be pretty quick not to miss it. This section ends characteristically on a Full Close (Perfect Cadence), but delicate strings and harp arpeggios transport us without so much as a pause for breath, to a new section, which assumes the style of a modern ballad, firstly with a shifting, uneasy chromaticism, before the opening string-section makes its all-too-brief return before the slow movement’s close. Again, it didn’t quite seem to follow Esposito’s sleeve-note – where, for example, was the ‘Duke’, or perhaps he was sat there as the incumbent pub-pianist in the middle section – and something that frankly did seem really out of context.
Esposito informs us that the finale (Presto) uses melodic fragments typical of the pizzica salentina, a traditional folk dance from Puglia, built on a characteristic triplet-based rhythm (in 4/4 and 12/8). The opening is certainly rhythmically challenging, and exciting enough, with the more prominent use of unpitched percussion adding to the excitement to some degree. Harmonically it has almost the same quasi-atonal feel as the finale of Chopin’s Piano Sonata in B flat minor, but with orchestral chords punctuating the texture to heighten the effect. The atonal harmony is maintained throughout this opening section, which clearly does have a Tarantella feel to it. But then, just after the two-minute mark, there is a gradual change, until a far slower and more expansive section takes over, which, on this occasion, is a particularly happy juxtaposition. A very short atonal section leads back into the Tarantella-like writing of the start, which then culminates in another climax, before building finally towards what might have been be a really exciting finish. But as Esposito did in the first movement, he once more favours a somewhat surprising, and abrupt close.
In his sleeve-notes, Esposito writes about each movement of his Piano Concerto together with its counterpart from his solo Piano Sonata No 1, given that he feels the two works share a fair degree of common ground. In fact, when talking about their respective first movements (the Piano Sonata’s one is labelled ‘Inquieto’), Esposito says: “the two movements are primarily distinguished by the use of two very different key signatures, namely F sharp minor and B flat minor”. Well, unless you have Perfect Pitch, this isn’t going make much difference in performance, either way. No, while the opening of the Sonata, and its subsequent brief repetition do show a similar harmonic footprint to that of the Concerto, here the jazz-inspired writing takes up a considerably greater amount of time overall, and clearly demonstrates where Esposito appears most at home – as a pianist, rather than as a composer per se. The frequently-shifting pianistic figurations, constant twists, turns, and restarts might impress at the superficial level, but after a while, it becomes not unlike watching the particular kind of World Cup footballer usually from South or Central America, who looks very impressive and confident on the ball, but in the final analysis invariably ends up losing control and giving it away. I also picked up on one fleeting reference to the opening number from Lionel Bart’s 1968 musical Oliver, when the melodic-outline of ‘Food, Glorious Food’ seems to pop up, disguised by some augmented-chord harmony (around 4:39), though, again it’s hardly likely that Esposito would ever have heard the piece all these years on.
Esposito describes the ensuing slow movement (Ballad) as a “slow ballad in perfect mainstream, non-blues style, typical of jazz song and American pop, although with a generous space set aside at its heart for the piano to indulge in some pure improvisation”. His original Italian might have been better translated as ‘typical of jazz numbers…’ – but for once, it does achieve exactly what it says on the tin, unfettered by the obvious limitation of an orchestral backing – and is decidedly easy-on-the-ear, to boot.
The finale (Barbaro) certainly lives up to its name for the first few moments, and there are, echoes of Bartók, as Esposito notes. But the jazz idiom soon takes precedence with some short passages of great rapidity, despatched with genuine panache. The music seems to prefer to shy away from too prompt a return to the barbaric music heard at the outset, where Esposito exploits the piano’s bottom register, until about a minute or so from the end, which then ensures a most dramatic dénouement with its relentless onward momentum.
The CD ends with Esposito’s Indigo Mirage, a short work inspired, according to the composer, by an adventure-filled trip to the USA and Central America. In it he makes use of electronics and claims that it represents a kind of watershed between his current writing-style, and the direction he intends following as a composer in the future. Somewhat bizarrely Esposito makes no mention of the piece’s recorded opening, where it would appear that some 12 seconds or so of random conversation between English and Italian voices precede the first electronic sound to be heard. This is joined almost immediately after by Esposito, initially having swapped to celesta, before returning to his Imperial Bösendorfer Grand Piano for the main thrust of the composition. All pleasant enough fodder, it must be said, but certainly something that’s been heard many times over in this particular crossover-genre.
I am sure that, in particular, the Piano Concerto, in a live-performance scenario, would no doubt be as exciting to watch as to listen to, since Esposito definitely knows his way around the piano keyboard, and is clearly au fait with the effective orchestration of an amalgam of essentially film-music and easy-listening styles. However, at the end of the day, it still must hang together musically, and show clearly-defined logic in its overall conception.
This, though, might just prove to be its unique selling point. Is it merely a meringue – impressive on the outside, but with little substance on the inside? Or is it a rich, multi-layered confection that leaves you completely satisfied? Well, of course, there’s really only one way to find this out.
Philip R Buttall
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