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Sciarrino paradiso 0015119KAI
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Salvatore SCIARRINO (b. 1947)
Musiche per il Paradiso di Dante
Andrea Biagini (flute); Lorenzo Gentili-Tedeschi (violin); Garth Knox (viola & viola d’amore)
Orchestra di Padova e del Veneto/Marco Angius (piano)
rec. 2021, Teatro di Istituto Barbarigo, Padova, Italy
KAIROS 0015119KAI [76:15]

This is the ninth release from the Kairos label of the music of Salvatore Sciarrino and honours his 75th birthday in 2022. Sciarrino is among the most distinguished living Italian composers, with a catalogue of works in all genres, an autodidact who developed his own method and musical syntax. His discography is very large also. This release is devoted to a single work, an orchestral cycle from 1993, Musiche per il Paradiso di Dante.

It consists of three very unequal parts. The outer movements each take just over five minutes, the central one well over an hour, which gives it the feeling of a large work with a short introduction and short postlude. The booklet notes in English by the conductor Marco Angius are inevitably of some limited, effectiveness in explaining the processes of this unique music and advocating its aesthetic.

Thus, for the first movement, entitled Alfabeto Oscuro, we are told by Angius “the alphabet mentioned in the title (as if speaking, it’s written at the top of the score) refers to the language of sounds that desperately tries to transfigure into words.” Sciarrino himself is quoted; “the orchestra seems to want to talk…the nature of the instruments would not allow it, yet they obsessively act, and we hear almost without understanding.” Angius refers to the famous line Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita... (the first line of Dante’s L’Inferno, “Midway through the journey of our life”), and goes on, “The end of each journey presupposes and recalls its beginning. All Heaven, to express itself, declares the inability to express”. There is an echo here of T S Eliot’s Four Quartets, itself a poem drawing upon musical form; “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning”. Yet the sense this music gives me is less of ends in relation to beginnings as that midlife idea, as we seem to intrude upon music that has been going on in the world long before we first hear it.

 It takes longer to consider the significance of all this than to play the music of this brief first part, which is very halting, avoiding any expressive gesture much beyond the low breathing of a flute monotone. It has for me a sense of elusive, very hesitant half-statements, something struggling to be said, perhaps even something struggling to be born. The flute, of course, is the ideal instrument to suggest breath made audible, and breathing is common to wind and brass instruments and to speech.

The very large second movement, called L’invenzione della trasparenza, apparently retraces the third panel of an earlier work, the Sui Poemi Concentrici of 1987, a commission from Italian television to accompany a TV version of The Divine Comedy.  It uses the same form and solo instruments (flute, violin and viola d’amore) with the same tuning. That earlier title refers to the concentric circles of Dante’s vision of Heaven and Hell, while in this piece’s title L’invenzione della trasparenza, the ‘transparency’ refers to the luminosity of auras, rainbows and halos in medieval paintings, which inspired the composer.

In Dante’s Divine Comedy there are many characters and their stories suggest directly descriptive or programmatic music, as several composers have shown. There is none of that in Sciarrino. His music is full of evanescent moments, wispy figurations, fragile textures and subtle effects. There is a symphony orchestra, but it is not called upon for any of the loud, or even soft, rhetorical gestures of its core repertoire.

Much is at the threshold of acoustical perception. The just-audible background for much of this movement (it ceases suddenly after nearly fifty-one of its sixty-six minutes) is a low, distant, pitchless rumble, somehow produced by a metal plate, according to the booklet. The string and flute players listed above are experienced in performing Sciarrino, and certainly make the most of its fragmentary phrases and unusual sound effects, especially in subtle combinations. There is little that we can regard as a regular pulse, but then, a regular pulse implies both (musical) time and (human) life, but here we are in Paradise, eternal (outside time) and “after life”. When its sonic stasis seems on the point of stagnation, another intriguing shadowy sound is added, and the density of incident gradually increases through the long movement, and at such length it becomes hypnotic. David Angius clearly secures great concentration from his players over this long span.

Angius writes of Postille, the five-minute third part, “We go out into a more intimate constellation, an extreme reflection on the sound-light relationship. In the absence of dark backgrounds, every sound duplicates itself, encloses its shadow: this makes it luminous…we are following the ancient mystics, investigators of perception.” It starts with soft bass drum beats and a whistling harmonic on a solo violin (I think – the composer is very inventive in his use of instruments!). There are brass interventions, always short, and contributions from flutes and clarinets, resulting in, as Angius writes, “acoustic ectoplasms with luminous trails in a game of correspondence to limits of sonic esotericism." Sonically esoteric it certainly is, but then this is music which we have to approach with an open mind, and encounter on its own terms, not with our usual expectations. This is well-produced and recorded CD, and since there are no loud sounds, it is easy to set the playback volume. We can reasonably assume that this is an accurate performance, so the ideal vehicle for the repeated hearings the music needs. I have begun to find it haunting. Sciarrino admirers will want this, but for others it is one to try before you buy. Those who are deeply curious about the distinctive voices within contemporary classical music should certainly investigate – but be warned; if you catch the bug, there about a hundred other recorded works of Sciarrino.

Roy Westbrook

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