Gian Francesco Malipiero (1882-1973)
Cello Concerto (1937)
Giorgio Federico Ghedini (1892-1965)
L’Olmeneta, concerto for orchestra and two concertante cellos (1951)
Alfredo Casella (1883-1947)
Notturno e tarantella, Op.54 (1934)
Nikolay Shugaev (cello), Dmitrii Prokofiev (cello: Ghedini), Royal Academic Symphony Orchestra/Valentin Uryupin
rec. 2020, Rostov-on-Don, Russia
Naxos 8.574393 
To varying degrees all of these composers, while far from being unaware of international modernism, shared a belief that Italian composers of their time should learn from the early music (of the 18th century and before) of their native country, so as to escape what Malipiero once called the “tyranny of 19th-century opera”, and place greater emphasis on instrumental music.
So, for example, Malipiero when studying at the Liceo Musicale in Venice in 1902 spent some of his time transcribing music by composers such as Monteverdi, Giovanni Gabrieli and Frescobaldi in city’s famous Biblioteca Marciana. In 1926 he began the huge task of editing a complete edition of the music of Monteverdi, completing his sixteen-volume edition in 1942. Ghedini also studied early Italian music and, like Malipiero, transcribed works by several Italian baroque composers, including the Gabrielis and Frescobaldi. His interest in baroque forms and idioms is most obvious in works such as the Partita for orchestra (1926) and the Concerto funebre per Duccio Galimberti (1948). Alfredo Casella’s interest in Italian baroque music was not as ‘scholarly’ as that of Malipiero and Ghedini, but it was real enough. It is vividly symbolised in the fact that in 1939 he occupied the position of Artistic Director of the Settimana Vivaldi at the Accademia Chigiana in Siena (his main collaborators being Ezra Pound and the violinist Olga Rudge, his mistress), an event which played a major role in the huge revival of interest in Vivaldi.
None of these three composers was interested in the mere imitation of the older Italian masters, whether through the production of pastiches or, indeed, the skilful ‘dressing up’ of older music as, for example, in the three sets (1917, 1923 and 1931) of Respighi’s Antiche danze ed aria. Their debts to their predecessors found expression at a deeper level than superficial imitation. It is, I believe, worth quoting an illuminating passage from a very interesting essay by Maša Spaić, ‘Moderate Modernism as the Third Way in the Opus of Alfredo Casella’ (New Sound: International Journal of Music, 55:1, (2020), pp.47-69). The passage occurs on page 57 of the essay, “Casella emphasised in several different texts that the work of young Italian composers should be based on the instrumental tradition of Girolamo Frescobaldi, Claudio Monteverdi, Antonio Vivaldi and Domenico Scalatti, but that, at the same time, it must contain elements of contemporary music styles. Only in that way, according to Casella, would their work contribute to the creation of ‘Italian music in which the artistic cosmos is seen through the prism of the Italian tradition’.” (The quotation from Casella with which this passage closes comes from his book 21 & 26: Ventuno piú ventisei, originally published in Milan in 1931. Maša Spaić cites the edition published in Florence in 2001 by L.S. Olschki.)
The implications of [Modernism] “viewed through the prism of the Italian tradition” would serve as a good introduction to the three works on this disc. The Italian instrumental tradition largely stands apart from the Romanticism of the Nineteenth Century so that, as David Gallagher observes in his excellent booklet notes, “[a]lthough two of [these works] have the word ‘concerto’ in their titles, they are all more akin to a Baroque concerto grosso than to a 19th century concerto designed to show off a soloist’s prowess. In this music the solo cellos are ‘first among equals’, dialoguing with an orchestra which supports and seconds them, allowing them space to speak.”
While on the subject of the revival of interest in ‘early’ Italian music, it is worth remembering the name, since it will occur later in this review, of a great Italian writer, Gabriele D’Annunzio (1863-1938), poet, dramatist, novelist, and much else. Outside Italy at least, his role in the revival of early Italian music has sometimes been forgotten (perhaps because of his ambiguous association with Italian fascism). As early as 1919, Ferrucio Bonavia, writing in The Musical Times, Vol. 60, No. 918, August 1919, pages 430-1, found it necessary to declare that renewed knowledge of such music “was due to the profound knowledge and enthusiastic research of a poet keen on all that belongs to the artistic history of his country. But for the leadership of D’Annunzio […] it is probable that this whole epoch of Italian composition would have been known to us only through two or three ill-chosen examples issued by musicians whose strong point was not scholarship”.
I find Ghedini’s L’Olmeneta (The Elm Grove) the most fascinating, beautiful and profound of the trio of interesting compositions to be heard on this disc. The use of two concertante cellos guarantees that we are not presented with the solitary protagonist of so many concertos. The Naxos booklet contains, delightfully (and valuably), not only the booklet notes by David Gallagher, but also a translation by Gallagher of Ghedini’s own programme note for L’Olmeneta, as published in 1951 in connection with a performance at the Venice Biennale. In it the composer explains the work as a response to the “singular power of suggestion contained in certain names” (one of these being ‘L’Olmenta’) “which are names of real places, but ones I have never seen”. This concerto sprang, writes the composer “from a wholly autumnal atmosphere. The name, perhaps that of a large farmhouse set among elm trees, suggested to me images of surrounding walls, and of old trees with roots deep in the soil”. He also writes that he was inspired by lines spoken by a character (Anna Onna) as she gathers herbs, in Gabriele D’Annunzio’s play La figlia di Iorio: tragedia pastorale in tre atti. In the original the speech begins thus: “V’è un’erba rosa che si chiama Glaspi/e un altra bianca che si chiama Egusa”. David Gallagher translates the relevant lines as follows:
There is a red herb called Glaspi
and a white one called Egusa,
and they grow far apart from one another;
but their roots come together
beneath the blind earth and intertwine
so subtly as to be imperceptible even to
St. Lucy. Their leaves differ
but they put forth a single flower, every seven years,
And this too is in the Writings.
That the names of these supposed herbs (I haven’t been able to find references to any such actual herbs) were important to Ghedini is clear from the fact that, as David Gallagher observes, “On the first page of the score of L’Olmeneta Ghedini goes so far as to label the two solo cello parts ‘Glaspi’ and ‘Egusa’.”. I notice that Jonathan Woolf, reviewing a 1952 recording of L’Olmeneta, conducted by the composer writes that, “the cellos entwine with honeysuckle embrace that is at once compelling and almost anti-virtuosic”. Some such ‘organic’ metaphor seems to be inescapable in thinking/writing about this music. In Ghedini’s programme note he writes, “Glaspi and Egusa. Two protagonists, two voices of the same kind which harmonise, each speaking the same language in their own way; sometimes moving apart, sometimes coming together, but always striving towards the same poetic goal, the same ‘flower’”. In a sense, the (considerable) subtle power of this piece exists in this imagery of natural growth. In the first minutes of the opening movement (Allegro molto moderato e tranquillo) the two solo voices spiral upwards repeatedly, the herbs reaching up towards the sunlight, as it were, before falling back; there follows what Ghedini himself describes as “a sensuous oscillating figure, twisting back on itself”. This eventually returns the movement – as the orchestra plays a more dominant role – to the kind of meditative tranquillity in which it began.
The second movement (Caccia nell’olmenta: Allegro Vivace) contains the work’s most directly forceful music and focuses the listener’s attention, not on the subterranean activities of ‘Glaspi’ and ‘Egusa’, but on human activity in the daylight – and human activity of a decidedly vigorous kind – hunting. This hunt amongst the elm trees, with its horn fanfares and its “quavers in groups of six” (Ghedini) is initially boisterous, but also finds room for a subtler kind of excitement, almost joyous in nature. Less than three minutes in length, the movement is soon succeeded by the much longer (almost twelve minutes) third movement (Molto adagio), which David Gallagher calls, surely correctly, “the concerto’s heart”. This is a movement of remarkable beauty and quiet power, by no means unworthy of being seen, as it is by Gallagher, as “true heir to the Adagietto of the Fifth Symphony (1901-02) of Gustav Mahler … and the slow movements of his Ninth (1908-9) and unfinished Tenth”. The melodies Ghedini gives to the cellos and the first violins are full of troubled yearning. We are still ‘underground’ here, but ascent seems more likely as the movement goes on. In the last movement (Allegro quieto) things are less intense, and there is some sense, at least, of that septennial joint flowering of Glaspi and Egusa.
I haven’t, unfortunately, heard Ghedini’s own recording of L’Olmeneta, so can’t offer any comparative analysis of that earlier recording with this new one. Valentin Uryupin and his two cellists, Nikolay Shugaev and Dmitrii Prokofiev, certainly present a perceptive reading of the work and one senses a full commitment to the piece from all concerned, including the Rostov Academic Symphony Orchestra. The recorded sound, here and elsewhere on the disc is perfectly satisfactory, without being display standard.
I have written at some length about Ghedini’s L’Olmeta and its resonance is such that I am tempted to write yet more; but it would be wrong to neglect the two other works on this disc, Malipiero’s Cello Concerto and Casella’s Notturno e tarantella.
Looking at his work entire (so far as I can), I would say that Malipiero is a stylistically eclectic composer of inconsistent success. At its best, however, his music is powerfully lyrical in what might broadly be called an Italian manner. In his case, however, the finest of his lyricism is specifically grounded (for the most part), in his profound familiarity with the works of Monteverdi and Vivaldi; himself born into an aristocratic Venetian family, Malipiero’s lyricism was distinctly Venetian. This Cello Concerto has, indeed, an attractive lyrical quality, in which the fine writing for the orchestral woodwinds is almost as striking as the writing for the cello. The best movement, to my ears, is the central Lento, in which there is much real beauty. Although all three movements (Allegro moderato – Lento – Allegro) are neatly structured, I don’t find the work, overall, very compelling.
Alfredo Casella’s music is often at its best when, in the words of Reginald Smith Brindle (in his chapter on ‘Italian Contemporary Music’ in Howard Hartog’s European Music in the Twentieth Century, Pelican Book edition, 1961), it is “austere, lucid, and vital”. I’m not sure that his Notturno e taarantella could be said to be austere, but both pieces are certainly “lucid” and “vital”. The Notturno is marked ‘Adagio: ma non troppo’, the tarantella, “Allegro vivacissimo”. The Notturno articulates a spellbound fascination with darkness and night sky, while the tarantella has all the energy and vitality that its title and its marking imply. It doesn’t, however stay in the mind as long as its partner does.
Though the works by Malipiero and Casella are highly competent and pleasant works, it is Ghedini’s richly imaginative L’Olmeneta that is the heart of this CD and its strongest recommendation .
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