Martucci: Piano Concerto No 1, Etc / Coggi, La Vecchia

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MARTUCCI Piano Concerto No. 1. 1 La canzone dei ricordi 2 Francesco La Vecchia, cond; Gesualdo Coggi (pn); 1 Silvia Pasini (mez); 2 Rome SO NAXOS 8.570931 (67:53 Text, no Translation )

Giuseppe Martucci (1856–1909) was a forerunner to the so-called “generazione dell’ottanta” of composers (see Malipiero review elsewhere) that sought to initiate a new golden age of instrumental music in Italy to vie against the overwhelming dominance of opera. Most of those who would follow in his footsteps—and the list is long, including the likes of Casella, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Menotti, Pizzetti, Respighi, Rota, Wolf-Ferrari, and Zandonai—hedged their bets by playing both sides of the fence; but Martucci was unique for his time and place in that he wrote no operas whatsoever. Ironically though, in his role as a conductor, introducing Wagner’s operas to Italy may have done more to poison the well of Italian opera than any of his works as a composer did to stanch the opera rage. If you can’t lead the cattle away from the watering hole, do the next best thing: contaminate the water and kill them.

During his lifetime, Martucci was best known as a conductor, pianist, and teacher, Respighi being one of his more prominent students. His compositional output is not overly large, totaling fewer than 100 published opus numbers. Among them, however, are two symphonies, two piano concertos, two piano trios, a piano quintet, one sonata each for violin, cello, and organ, and a considerable volume of pieces for solo piano.

The current release—Volume 3 in Naxos’s complete survey of Martucci’s orchestral music—contains works that are not new to the recorded catalog. The Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor and La canzone dei ricordi were both coupled together, as here, in another Martucci survey a decade or so ago on the ASV label. The artists there were pianist Francesco Caramiello in the Concerto, soprano Rachel Yakar in the vocal work, and Francesco D’Avalos leading the Philharmonia Orchestra. That entire collection is now available in a super-budget four-disc set on Brilliant Classics. At about the same time that ASV was busy with their Martucci project, along came Sony with their release of the composer’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in B? Minor played by pianist Carlo Bruni, paired once again with La canzone dei ricordi , sung by Mirella Freni. The conductor and orchestra on that recording were Riccardo Muti and La Scala Philharmonic.

The good news is that I have the Freni/Muti CD, so I’m able to compare the Sony recording with the new Naxos. The bad news is that of the D’Avalos survey on ASV, I have only the two symphonies, but not the disc with the Piano Concerto; thus, I’m unable to compare Caramiello to Coggi. So let me begin with La canzone dei ricordi (“The Songs of Memories”), which seems to be one of Martucci’s more enduring works. As originally completed in 1887, the piece was conceived for mezzo-soprano and piano. It wasn’t until 11 years later (1898) that Martucci orchestrated it. The piece is a setting of seven poems by Rocco Pagliera. Unless one is fluent in Italian, Naxos’s printing of the texts in Italian only is highly frustrating. The Sony with Freni provides translations in English, French, and German.

The poems, as can be deduced from the work’s title, are about dreams recollected, mostly of longed-for, but alas, only imagined loves. More interesting are Martucci’s formal design and musical content. Each song ends in a different key from which it started. The song that follows it begins in the key in which the previous song ended. Thus, by the end, we have returned to the key and the poem with which the cycle began. Stylistically, Martucci’s indebtedness to Wagner is unmistakable, but it’s a Wagner tinted—some might say tainted—by some of Puccini’s more pastel orchestral touches that one hears in La bohème . Martucci undoubtedly knew the opera, which premiered in 1896, two years before his orchestration of La canzone dei ricordi.

Freni was 60 when she recorded the Martucci with Muti in 1995. Age had added a degree of weight to a soprano voice that in its youth was lighter and more lyric in character. I’m not suggesting she would have made a good Brunhilde, but her projection in these songs comes across as sounding more Wagnerian than does Silvia Pasini’s delivery on the new Naxos. Nor by any means is it just a matter of voice. Freni dispatches the cycle in just over 28 minutes, compared to Pasini’s drawn-out 33:50. The result is that Freni’s reading has tremendous dramatic thrust, frequently sounding like an agitated Brunhilde railing in high dudgeon against Wotan, while Pasini sounds more like Mimi in her “Mi chiamano Mimì” aria from La bohème.

If my description has led you to believe that I prefer Freni to Pasini in this song cycle, you’d be wrong. Martucci may have been a Wagner champion, but he was not Wagner; and Pagliera’s poems, to which Martucci set his music, are not about mythic warriors, heroes, and the downfall of the gods. They’re about dreams remembered in that half-conscious state of waking. Pasini, I believe, comes closer to capturing the more impressionistic character of the poetry and the music; and Francesco La Vecchia has under him in the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma a better ensemble than Muti did at the time in his La Scala Philharmonic.

Since I have no other recordings of the Piano Concerto against which to compare Gesualdo Coggi’s performance, I can be brief. If you love big, Romantic piano concertos, Martucci’s D-Minor Concerto is right up there with some of the best of them. Echoes of Schumann, Grieg, and Brahms’s First Concerto (his Second hadn’t been completed yet when Martucci wrote his score in 1878) reverberate throughout the score, and maybe even a hint every now and then of Tchaikovsky (assuming Martucci had heard it in its original 1875 version prior to starting work on his own Concerto). Gorgeous music, gorgeous playing, gorgeous recording; this one is not to be missed.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 8570931

  • UPC: 747313093175

  • Label: Naxos

  • Composer: Giuseppe Martucci

  • Conductor: Francesco La Vecchia

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Rome Symphony Orchestra

  • Performer: Gesualdo Coggi, Silvia Pasini