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Claudio AMBROSINI (b. 1948)
Chamber Music
De vulgari eloquentia for piano and ensemble (1984) [16:55]
Icaros for solo violin (1981) [7:18]
A guisa di un arcier presto soriano for solo flute (1981) [5:33]
Rondo di forza for piano (1981) [4:25]
Rousseau, le Douanier: 'Follia d’Orlando' for clarinet (1983) [7:53]
'Oh, mia Euridice…' A fragment for clarinet, violoncello and piano (1981) [8:15]
Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un fauve for flute, violin and piano (1994) [8:33]
Tutti Parlando for soprano, flute and cello (1993) [6:54]
Sonia Visentin (soprano)
Ex Novo Ensemble
rec 1988-1999, various locations in Italy
Text and translations of Tutti Parlano included
KAIROS 0015084KAI [65:51]

This is the second Kairos record of Ambrosini’s intricate and enigmatic music. I very much enjoyed the previous offering, a beautifully rendered disc dedicated to the Italian’s attractive, surprising guitar music interpreted with insight and conviction by Alberto Meserca (Song Book, on 0015012KAI). Ambrosini is preoccupied by the colour potential of every instrument, a focus made manifest on this new issue. The small ensembles involved (between one and five instruments) frequently sound much larger as the composer taps into the extremes of each instrument’s possibility, not to mention the extraordinary versatility of the six performers involved. Apart from the unusual timbres Ambrosini conjures throughout, another quality that seems to matter to him is energy – the word is used repeatedly in the booklet. It will be obvious even to the unsympathetic listener that all eight of these pieces incorporate it in abundance, although in some cases its presence is latent rather than manifest.

Indeed the adrenaline is in full flow for much of the duration of De vulgari eloquentia (‘Concerning the vernacular’, after Dante), a substantial piano quintet. Many of its opening gestures seem to emerge from the depths of the piano, muscular angularity yielding in time to ethereal overtones and impressionistic harmonies. At this stage the accompaniment is limited to tiny comments from single instruments, although from 2:35 the ensemble’s contribution begins to increase exponentially, blending trills, sustained notes, dramatic scales and glissandi. The energy involved throughout this unsettling and vivacious piece is tangible. The fruity white-knuckle-ridden lines produced by the two strings and two winds of the Ex Novo Ensemble are matched by the rapidity of Aldo Orvieto’s pianistic pyrotechnics. Ambrosini takes no prisoners in the demands he makes of his collaborators, not least in terms of their listening skills. At its midpoint De vulgari eloquentia’s extreme volatility dissolves into music of fragility and quietude. This emergent tranquility borders on the ecstatic. If there is some aesthetic overlap with the music of Salvatore Sciarrino, I would argue that Ambrosini strives more overtly for emotional directness; it is certainly projected by those passages which imply vulnerability but it also shoots out of the speakers during the many moments of restlessness. The close of the piece implies conflict between calm and irregular voices; the latter seem to prevail. The Ex Novo players ooze relish and engagement, not least when asked to produce glissandi. The gentle closing moments of De vulgari eloquentia are left to Orvieto’s piano, at least until its gossamer twinkling is brutally extinguished by a final tutti chord of shrill finality.

The solo violin miniature Icaros is by turns virtuosic and analytical; at one moment the performer is forging deft sonic metaphors for light and flight, at another we are faced by the microscopic granularity of string sound (as the booklet note puts it “…like a cinematic zoom, the listener is so close as to hear [Icarus] panting”). Carlo Lazari’s playing is jawdropping, the fragment of the score reproduced in the booklet attests to Icaros’ extreme detail and degree of difficulty, but Ambrosini’s complexity never seems to be purely for show. In this case it serves one overriding purpose; the compelling ends of the whole depends on these extraordinarily demanding technical means.

A guise di un arcier presto Soriano (‘In the guise of a swift Syrian archer’, after a sonnet by Cavalcanti) is a vivid flute solo which places similarly exacting pressures upon the performer throughout in order to ensure a riveting experience for the listener. Ambrosini‘s gymnastic and seemingly unfeasible writing effectively turns the single instrument into an ensemble, such are the panoply of colours, textures and effects produced. This stunning piece is at once coherent and likeable whilst Daniele Ruggieri’s performance is necessarily remarkable.

In the brief piano solo Rondo di forza the energy is released by rapid cascades and runs of notes up and down the keyboard and Ambrosini’s bizarre pedal games which seem to mediate colour and decay. I found it impossible to detect rondo form per se, but in seeking to do so I was probably missing the point. One can sense Aldo Orvieto struggling to hold back – this Rondo is a curt précis of repressed energy. A strange background ambience betrays the live provenance of the recording of this piece although this fails conclusively to impede Rondo di forza’s punchy impact.

In the strangely titled Rousseau, le Douanier: 'Follia d’Orlando' (Ambrosini is apparently seeking to bring to musical life a non-existent painting by Rousseau) low gentle clarinet murmurs hint at multiphonics, trills, microtones, overtones, wa-wa, and boogie-woogie. Exaggerated vibrato creates a very un-clarinet impression. Multiphonics duly arrive in unexpectedly crystalline terms in the form of two intricately and ingeniously blended voices. It’s a massive challenge for Davide Teodoro who is clearly a phenomenally gifted clarinettist, but the piece also epitomises the three-dimensional embroidery of Ambrosini’s skilful craftsmanship. Mysterious percussive poppings prick the ears throughout Rousseau’s duration; these outliers are seamlessly absorbed into the weft of the whole.

The fragment Oh, mia Euridice for trio is all tingling piano strings, or are they harps? Almost inaudible, this cavernous echo is uncanny in its evocation of underground space. An elegiac, disembodied thread of spare cello melody emerges, an oasis of sad calm which is shattered thrice by brief piano-led explosions, and creepy tappings on the clarinet keys. And then those cherubic, tantalisingly out-of-reach harps again prefigure real human vocalisations from one (or each?) of the players. Oh, mia Euridice seems low key yet it’s densely packed with lucid quietness and heartfelt cantabile. ‘Fragment’ is such a dry word; this one is compelling and rich, teeming with luminous colour and possibility.

On reaching the allusive Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un fauve I thought I knew what it might sound like and whilst I wasn’t at all surprised by the heady mood the piece conveys, it’s the ornate granularity of the instrumental detail which transports one directly into its world. The romantic, intense violin shadows a descending phrase first presented by flute. The idea of breathing itself, illustrated by its repeated journeys through the core of the flute seems critical to this piece, as does the sound of bow on string, with or without pitch. The Prelude proves to be unexpectedly discomfiting as well as sultry. At 5:00 it comes to life; abrupt, curt piano solo triggering the skittering episode of aloof hyperactivity which concludes the piece. The Prelude has an uncanny vocal quality notwithstanding the profusion of unusually produced instrumental colours.

Tutto parlando (‘Everybody talking’) is the name of the intriguing vocal piece which concludes this fine monograph. It projects an ingenious illusion by evoking a mysterious crowd scene despite requiring just three performers. Ultimately its success depends on Sonia Visentin’s immaculately controlled vocal delivery. Ambrosini somehow manages to draw equally convincing vocal effects from both flute and cello. Tutti parlando is shimmering and rich and deeply impressive.

The eight examples of Claudio Ambrosini’s chamber music presented on this issue each exhibit a telling grace. There is an acute, very open-hearted lyricism at the heart of all this subtle music which renders it singularly attractive and accessible, despite the extreme contrasts and intriguing strangeness of the composer’s language. It’s gorgeous disc, one to which I anticipate returning with some frequency.

Richard Hanlon

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