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Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Estampes (1903) [14:05]
Maria Gabriella MARIANI (b. 1963)
Mediterranea, suite for piano (2009-2019) [29:07]
Francis POULENC (1893-1963)
Napoli, FP.40 (1925) [10:11]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Visions Fugitives, Op 22 (1917) [20:43]
Maria Gabriella Mariani (piano)
Rec. June 2020, Studio 'I Musicanti', Rome
DA VINCI CLASSICS C00377 [76:00]

Visions is a marvellous title; quite apart from the obvious reference to Prokofiev's fleeting chimeras it also ably sums up the other works here; evocations of places imagined and remembered rather than pinpoint documentary images. The Three Estampes, Debussy's prints or engravings, open with Pagodes, a work that reflects western composers' fascination with the exotic Orient as well as Debussy's wonder on first hearing a Gamelan orchestra at the Paris World Conference Exhibition in 1889. His later comment to a friend, "Javanese music is able to express every nuance of meaning, even unmentionable shades, and which makes our tonic and dominant seem like empty phantoms for the use of unwise infants?”, makes one wonder that he didn't follow this path more often but the piece itself is a startling amalgamation of western and eastern music. In a similar way La Soirée dans Grenade, the second piece " its most minute details, conveys Spain admirably", as Manuel de Falla wrote. Its habanera rhythm is hypnotic, only briefly broken by the strumming of guitars toward the end. Jardins sous la pluie may describe a thunderous storm in Normandy but one really doesn't need to know the specifics to appreciate this depiction – raindrops are falling all around and the distant rumble of thunder and the flashes of lightning are clearly heard.

Poulenc's suite Napoli brings together a Barcarolle, Nocturne and Caprice Italien; Poulenc may have written "I condemn Napoli...without reprieve", but these are charming miniatures, full of humour and atmosphere. The Barcarolle is a far cry from the gently swaying gondola songs by Chopin, Alkan, Mendelssohn or the like; it races along at a hectic pace and is breathless in its depiction of a sunny beach crowded with pleasure seekers. The Nocturne is almost more like a traditional barcarolle at first with its ostinato lilting accompaniment and floating melody; the dreamy mood is only a little disturbed by the brusque central section with its own sterner ostinato. The whirlwind experience that is the Caprice Italien combines a madcap tarantella with echoes of Scarlatti in some of its writing to a over-egged melancholy song and a stunning grand finale; its five and a half minutes are such a kaleidoscopic sensory overload that it is hard to take it all in.

Prokofiev's twenty short Visions fugitives were played by the composer at a soirée at which the poet Kontstantin Balmont (1867-1942) was inspired by the music to improvise a poem. The title was taken from this: "In every fleeting vision I see worlds, filled with the fickle play of rainbows". These are certainly bathed in a rainbow of colours and moods from the almost-waltz of the opening number to jagged toccatas (No 15), Ravel-like miniatures (No 16) via hypnotic scenes and dream sequences. Maria Gabriella Mariani's Mediterranea is an extended work in three movements titled Solo, Pulcinella and Chef Tango. Solo is perhaps the hardest to pin down, though as a vision that is presumably the idea. It begins almost as the gondola barcarolle that Poulenc failed to write but after the melody has established itself it takes twists and turns that are sometimes as fleeting as Prokofiev's miniatures; a hymn-like section begins, but is interrupted by a short chattering figure that never repeats, leaving the hymn as a more song-like version of itself. That song gives way to more stirring music, a brusque tarantella that grows ever more dramatic and insistent. A short solo line brings back the second theme though the more rustic elements keep breaking the lyrical reverie and it is a grand impetuous dance that ends the piece. How do we imagine Pulcinella as portrayed here? Is he a sad clown, forced to caper for base entertainment? That is certainly the impression given by the mournful opening and ungainly dance music that follows. Perhaps the slow but vivid waltz represents his real character...or the angry stomp that follows or even the vague and uneasy music that grows out of this? Maybe Pulcinella is the romantic depicted in the passionate ending music or maybe all these and more are how Mariani views this complex persona. The final work is Chef tango dedicated to Mario Chef. It opens with a slow introduction, gradually awakening into the tango rhythms that transported me to old black and white movies, smoky bars and the music of Ernesto Nazareth ringing in my ears. Ms Mariani uses this and the more lyrical dance that emerges half way through as a basis for a long stream of complex keyboard textures while letting the simplicity of the dance ring through. Its ten minutes are a joy to listen to; we are taken through so many emotions and the closing page would bring any audience to its feet, those that weren't already dancing, wrapped up in the rhythms. This is all post-romantic tonal music and remarkably approachable, combining a rich treatment of the capabilities of the piano with a exploratory feel for key and melody.

I am very taken with this music; as with the other disc I have reviewed by this pianist, Pour jouer (Da Vinci Classics review) there is a real joy in the sheer sound of the piano and Maria Gabriella Mariani evidently loves the grand gesture and passions writ large on the page. If I prefer Florian Noack for his more dramatically and dynamically vivid approach to the Visions fugitives (La Dolce Volta LDV74 review) Mariani is nonetheless as successful in the more concentrated essence of the other music here – and there are many marvellous moments, not least in the evocative soundworld of Debussy, especially Jardins sous la pluie or the singular wit of Poulenc – as she obviously is in her own sweeping panoramic music.

Rob Challinor

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