Malipiero: Symphonies Vol 2 / Almeida, Moscow SO

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MALIPIERO Symphonies: No. 1, “In quattro tempi, come le quattro stagioni;” No. 2, “Elegiaca.” Sinfonie del silenzio e della morte Antonio de Almeida, cond; Moscow SO NAXOS 8.570879 (77:40)

CDs containing the works of Gian Francesco Malipiero (1883–1973) occupy less than two inches of shelf space in my collection, so by no means can I claim more than passing familiarity with his music. My first encounter with this composer, however, was on a 1950s Nonesuch LP with the Stuyvesant String Quartet playing one of Malipiero’s string quartets. That recording, if anyone is interested, has been transferred to CD by Bridge.

Malipiero was one of the so-called “generazione dell’ottanta” (generation of the 1880s) composers that included Wolf-Ferrari (1876–1948), Respighi (1879–1936), Ildebrando Pizzetti (1880–1968), Riccardo Zandonai (1883–1944), Alfredo Casella (1883–1947), and Castelnuovo Tedesco (1895–1968). If permitted to engage in a bit of chronological stretching, I’d also include in this group Nino Rota (1911–1979) and Gian Carlo Menotti (1911–2007). In a 31:5 Rota review, I substituted for “generazione dell’ottanta” the “identity crisis generation.” Here were several Italian composers working independently of each other, but each in similar circumstances. Instrumental music in 19th-century Italy was all but dead, having been displaced by opera. And while all of the above-named composers made contributions to the operatic literature, one aspect of their shared dilemma was that Italian opera had by this time already achieved its apogee in Verdi and Puccini. At the same time, they also shared a desire to create a new legacy of Italian instrumental music, which led to their second dilemma. They retained strong roots in 19th-century Romantic traditions, yet their lives intersected those of other roughly contemporaneous 20th-century Italians—Dallapiccola, Nono, and Berio—who were committed to keeping abreast of the more modernistic and avant-garde trends elsewhere on the Continent. As a result, the “generazione dell’ottanta” came to be seen largely as a throwback to an earlier period.

Malipiero was enormously prolific, and much of his output is mostly of a serious nature, weighted towards Classical-form symphonies, concertos, and chamber works. His music never gained the traction of Respighi’s more easily digested style, but Malipiero’s smaller following of intellectual elites was significant and influential. Among his admirers was the aforementioned Dallapiccola, and Bruno Maderna was one of his students. It seems that Malipiero played a bit loose with musical terminology. No fewer than 17 of his works include in their titles the word “sinfonia,” and in the case of one of them on this disc, “sinfonie,” though not all of them necessarily fit the description of what is commonly thought of as a symphony. This also leads to some confusion, for the two numbered symphonies heard here are nowhere near being among the composer’s earliest efforts in the form. Three symphonies preceded the No. 1, and by quite a few years: the Sinfonia degli eroi (1905), the Sinfonia del mare (1906), and the Sinfonie del silenzio e della morte (1910) listed in the headnote. The Symphony No. 1, subtitled “In quattro tempi, come le quattro stagioni,” was not written until 1933, and its successor, the Symphony No. 2, subtitled “Elegiaca,” followed three years later in 1936.

The Sinfonie del silenzio e della morte (“Symphonies of Silence and Death”) is more like three interconnected tone poems than it is a three-movement symphony. Inspired by Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death , the first movement, “Danza tragica,” is a lot less macabre sounding than its description might suggest. The music has a distinctly Russian flavor to it, echoes of Mussorgsky’s Night on Bare Mountain being inescapable. But the specter of evil conjured by Malipiero is neither as vivid nor as visceral as that of Mussorgsky’s shrieking fiends. The second movement bears the heading that gives the work its name, while the third movement bears the heading, “Il molino della morte” (The Mill of Death). Whatever Malipiero’s morbid, ghoulish, and grisly intent may have been, his score too often belies it with interruptions by arching lyrical themes and infusions of lush orchestral writing. The work is simply too fetching to be anything other than a less-than-hair-raising ride on the lighter side of the dark side.

Malipiero’s Symphony No. 1 (“In four movements, like the four seasons”) was inspired by the Venetian poet Anton Maria Lamberti’s Le stagioni . The Symphony is programmatic only superficially and not representational in content. The music is abstract, and its formal structure laid out in four movements that proceed in a slow-fast-slow-fast order. The piece is fragrant with scents of the Orient, of the exotic, of early Debussy, and indeed of Respighi. In fact, if you like Respighi’s Roman trilogy, you are bound to find a close relative to it in Malipiero’s Symphony. It’s an exquisitely beautiful score, easily and immediately accessible, luxuriantly orchestrated, and filled with many memorable mood-evoking passages. I was so spellbound by the Lento, ma non troppo that I had to listen to it a second time before continuing on to the last movement. As the saying goes, “You can take the Romantic out of the 19th century, but . . .”.

Eschewing even the superficial program of the Symphony No. 1, the Symphony No. 2, “Elegiaca,” is also in four movements, but orders them in a fast-slow-fast-slow sequence. Three years in Malipiero’s life made no difference in his style. He was at this juncture still a dyed-in-the-wool Romantic, and this work dating from 1936 is as resplendent and gorgeous as the previous one. Again, it’s in the slow movements that Malipiero pours out his heart and soul in music that is never cloying but that nonetheless can make you weep. Considering the modernist trends of the time—Schoenberg’s Fourth String Quartet was written in the same year—it’s little wonder that history has marginalized Malipiero, along with many of the composers mentioned at the outset, as regressive and even reactionary. But unless one is an academic elitist of the worst kind, that should not be an argument against music written by any composer in any period that is beautiful and moving; and I can tell you that Malipiero’s music is both. I know that I, for one, having heard this disc, will be expanding my heretofore very limited Malipiero collection.

There do not appear to be any competing recordings of these works currently listed, so it’s providential that Antonio de Almeida and the Moscow Symphony Orchestra give exceptionally fine performances. I did not realize, however, until reading the fine print, that this Naxos disc is actually a re-release of a 1993 recording that originally appeared on the marco polo label. So make sure you don’t already have it before you run out and buy this one. If you don’t, this is a must-have purchase.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 8570879

  • UPC: 747313087976

  • Label: Naxos

  • Composer: Gian-Francesco Malipiero

  • Conductor: Antonio de Almeida

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Moscow Symphony Orchestra