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Marco STROPPA (b. 1959)
Miniature Estrose – Primo Libro, per pianoforte d’amore (1991-2003; rev 2009)
Erik Bertsch (piano)
rec. February-March 2020 at the Sala Musica, Fondazione Spinola Banna per l’Arte, Poirino, Turin, Italy
KAIROS 0015071KAI [63:00]

“Each Miniatura is based on a complex system of resonances created by a sizeable number of keys being lowered silently prior to the performance and then held by the sostenuto pedal, leaving the relative strings free to vibrate throughout the duration of the Miniatura. In this manner, the other notes played interact with the free strings, generating countless sympathetic resonances and giving rise to the formation of latent harmony. This mechanism, which lies at the basis of a metamorphosed instrument which Stroppa refers to as the pianoforte d’amore, demands a radical change from the performer in his or her approach to the piano. Indeed, the study of the Miniature Estrose forced me not only to focus my attention on the sound produced directly by the movement of my fingers on the keyboard, but also to listen with just as much concentration to the prism of sounds emerging as a secondary consequence of this action.”

It’s a long quotation from pianist Erik Bertsch culled from the booklet note, but necessary to explain in detail what Marco Stroppa means by ‘pianoforte d’amore’, a specific adaptation to the conventional modern instrument necessary for the performance of this cycle. To cut to the chase, what the composer seems to have been seeking is a piano ‘to boldly go where no piano has gone before’, ie to a realm beyond the “…impossibility to control the sound beyond the moment in which it is emitted” to quote Bertsch again. In other words, to sustain the note. As for the strange, untranslatable title of the cycle itself, Miniature refers here to intricacy and detail rather than brevity, whilst the word Estrose projects an unusual degree of ambiguity; it lies somewhere in the crevices between the concepts of inspiration, intuition and imagination (Vivaldi’s L’estro armónico is oft translated as ‘harmonic inspiration’, but Stroppa’s idea here seems more elusive).

Whilst Ben Bazalgette’s booklet translation of Erik Bertsch’s foreword in the booklet is a model of clarity and comprehension, his brave attempt to render Oreste Bossini’s technically impregnable introduction to the cycle itself digestible to the layman falls short, alas; fortunately for the likes of me, the composer has added brief descriptions of each of the seven pieces which do help. Rather than being overwhelmed by the technical specifications then, perhaps its best just to focus on the sounds emitting from the speakers.

It seems that the performer can select the order of the individual pieces. In Bertsch’s case, a Passacaglia canonica, in contrappunto policromatico gets the sequence underway. Whether the appellation ‘canonical passacaglia in polychromatic counterpoint’ is helpful, its inference pertains to a certain severity of form underpinned by a breadth of colouristic effect. That’s certainly what I sense; the instrument is certainly prepared in such a way as to make the sustaining idea do-able but also to maximise the timbral palette. The Passacaglia unfolds slowly but ultimately with something approaching certainty. The Kairos recording is helpful in this regard – a model of clarity, depth and range which points up a singular colouristic vision. Passages of almost impressionistic delicacy and tenderness are triggered by abrupt, virile effusions. But anchoring the whole seems to be a palpable sense of goal-directed order. Needless to say, the piece makes extreme demands not just upon Bertsch’s prodigious technique, but also upon the necessity for him to constantly listen with an acute ear. It is followed by a shorter number, Brichino, come un furetto; we are told that Stroppa was moved to complete it in the immediate aftermath of the deadly anti-globalisation riots which disrupted the 2001 G8 summit in Genoa – indeed it is dedicated it to the memory of Carlo Giuliani who was shot dead by the carabineri. The composer’s pithy note however compares the activity of the piece to the effect produced by 20 balls of differing sizes and weights being bounced simultaneously, the diffuse repetitive beats ultimately being killed off by odd, intervening slivers of legato. I’m pleased to report this analogy worked for me, up to a point. Brichino seems oddly light on its feet given its inspiration, almost jazzy.

Two of the next three pieces have titles inspired by the culture of Easter Island. Moai refers to the renowned monolithic human statues thought to have been carved by the ancient Rapa Nui. Out of the etiolated decay of the last note of Brichino emerges a huge dissonant chord which triggers an atmospheric collage of trills, bass resonance and awed reflection. The dynamic range of the Kairos recording does Bertsch’s uncanny instinct for the sonic tiering, upon which this music completely relies, full justice. Moai concludes with the threat of an endless sustain from the bowels of the instrument, but Bertsch pulls the plug unexpectedly. Ninnananna by contrast derives its ‘feel’ from the universal idea of the lullaby; Stroppa appropriates examples from Monteverdi, Stravinsky and African pygmy culture and absorbs these into the fabric of the piece, although readers will not need me to tell them that these ‘quotations’ will most likely prove as undetectable to the majority as they did to me; in any case this study is transfixing and involving from first note to last. The gentle trillings and tentative murmurings at its outset act as a decoy for moments of abruptness, pointed resonance, implied threat and almost violent agitation. Stroppa’s allusions seem to take the form of half-remembered fragments – to the innocent ear they could have been abstracted from literally anything, but Ninnananna seems to amount to a magnification of the personal to the universal. Tangata manu (bird man) is the other piece to have been touched by Rapa Nui culture. Conceived for the occasion of Luciano Berio’s 70th birthday, and ‘inlaid’ with fragments from that composer’s Sinfonia and Requies, its title alludes to an ancient ritual which involved a competition between individuals drawn from each of the four island clans – a race down the island’s sheer cliffs and across the waves to the outlying island of Motu Nui, and there to capture the first Sooty Tern egg of the season before returning via the same life-threatening route. Notwithstanding the composer’s explanation of the piece as a metaphor for ‘flight’, the music at once seems exotic and ethereal from its outset, shafts of sunlight bouncing off rippling Polynesian waves uncannily evoked by Stroppa’s glittering figurations before an unsettling sequence of thundering interruptions from resonant single bass notes and distant hints of thunder. The Kairos engineers again seem to have captured the seemingly unlimited depth and range of this adapted instrument with remarkable fidelity. The tentativeness and uncertainty that characterise this piece are twice obliterated by colourful, virtuosic and confident passages which hint at something beyond impending doom, as if the protaganists are soaring toward something altogether more mystical and alluring.

Bertsch saves the two most extended numbers in the Primo Libro till last. In Innige Cavatina Stroppa elaborates upon the main theme of the Cavatina, the fifth movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet in B-flat, Op 130. This again will not be obvious to those of us who don’t possess the most detailed technical knowledge of the source, but this does not prevent full appreciation of Stroppa’s vibrant and textured keyboard writing, nor of his fastidious approach to musical architecture. Bertsch’s nuanced reading of this complex, ornate panel renders each accent, pause and gesture essential to the overall arc of the piece. The open-hearted listener will feel convinced that there is far more to it than meets the ear. The repressed colours that struggle for attention towards its denouement are especially fascinating, almost as though Stroppa is filtering the music into some parallel universe. The title of the final number of Bertsch’s chosen itinerary seems as convoluted as anything to be found in the oeuvre of another Italian master renowned for verbose titles, Luigi Nono. Prologos: Anagnorisis I. Canones diversi ad consequendum. The Latin phrase seems to defy idiomatic translation but Stroppa’s note draws our attention to the word anagnorisis, which some readers may recognise as the term which describes any great revelation or unravelling which might occur at the climax of a classical tragedy. The composer goes further, explaining that “The form consists of five distinctly different canonic cycles, flanked by a brief prologue and an extended epilogue”. Casual listeners need not fear this. The prologue is characterised by repetition punctuated by loud outbursts, the body of the panel by ornate, decorative and indecisive collisions and the whole by a restless drive which suggests unexpectedness and points toward finality. The effect on this listener was one of invigoration and curiosity. Not for the first time, the sheer novelty of the timbres Bertsch conjures from his adapted instrument is sufficient to keep one glued to their seat. Prologos builds to a thrilling climax before subsiding gently and enigmatically as the lights slowly dim.

I was astonished to find that this is the first Kairos CD devoted to the music of Marco Stroppa. He has been a familiar name on the contemporary scene for the last couple of decades; his work has graced issues from Wergo, Stradivarius and Neos (Stroppa’s music has featured in their series of recordings from Donaueschingen). I hope that their recording of Miniature Estrose – Primo Libro encourages the label to lay down more of this Italian’s colourful and diverse work. The stature of the cycle seems considerable – I was impressed to discover that this is in fact its second recording; Florian Hoelscher issued an account on Stradivarius (STR 33713) some time before the composer revised the sequence (I haven’t heard it).

Of course there’s no set way for the listener to approach a completely unfamiliar cycle of contemporary piano music exceeding an hour’s duration. However I can confidently state that this is no ordinary cycle because Stroppa skilfully blends familiar sonorities with those which are anything but. If Erik Bertsch’s virtuosity and good taste is essential to the success of Miniature Estrose-Primo Libro, it is difficult to imagine the cycle eliciting the same impact without the input of the recording engineers. The sonics the Kairos team have realised here are truly stunning. I encourage the curious to toss away the notes in the first instance and simply immerse themselves in Marco Stroppa’s strange keyboard utopia.

Richard Hanlon

1. Passacaglia canonica, in contrappunto policromatico [8:30]
2. Brichino, come un furetto [3:41]
3. Moai [9:56]
4. Ninnananna [6:04]
5. Tangata manu [10:00]
6. Innige Cavatina [11:40]
7. Prologos: Anagnorisis I. Canones diversi ad consequendum [13:08]

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