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ClassicsOnline Home » MALIPIERO, G.F.: Symphonies, Vol. 5 (Almeida) - Nos. 9 and 10 / Sinfonia dello zodiaco
This is the final disc in the series of Gian Francesco Malipiero’s published symphonies, originally issued on Marco Polo. One of the most significant threads in Malipiero’s huge and many-sided output, they strengthen his claim to be regarded as the most important and original Italian composer of his generation. Sinfonia dello zodiaco vividly depicts the ever-changing moods of the four seasons in twelve movements that are analogous to the signs of the zodiac. The perky capriciousness of his brief Symphony No. 9 is interrupted by an unforgettable but enigmatic outburst by trumpets and percussion marked ‘Ahimè’ (Alas!) in the score. Symphony No. 10, his musical tribute to an admired colleague, Hermann Scherchen, is named after the ancient Greek goddess who cuts short the thread of life.
By Jonathan Woolf
Gian Francesco Malipiero (1883–1973)
Sinfonia dello zodiaco (1951) • Symphony No. 9 ‘dell’ahimè’ (1966)
Symphony No. 10 ‘Atropo’ (1967)
The present recording completes the Naxos reissue of the Marco Polo five-disc edition of Gian Francesco Malipiero’s published symphonies, most of which had never before been commercially recorded. Not only does the collection include all his eleven numbered symphonies: room has also been found for five of the six other works to which he gave the Italian title ‘sinfonia’, without, however, numbering them. Only the very early, unpublished Sinfonia degli eroi (1905)¹ has been omitted, since no performing materials now survive—although two slightly different manuscript scores of the piece are preserved at the Fondazione Cini in the composer’s native Venice. The sixteen recorded works together, though not all of equal value, nevertheless constitute one of the most significant threads in Malipiero’s huge and many-sided output—strengthening his claim to be regarded as the most important and original Italian composer of his generation, despite the much greater fame of the relatively conservative Ottorino Respighi (1879–1936).
Admittedly, the thread is a discontinuous one: Malipiero did not write symphonies—whether with or without numbers—in all periods of his exceptionally long career. After the three early unnumbered pieces with this sort of title (among which the Sinfonia del mare of 1906 and the Sinfonie [sic] del silenzio e de la morte of 1909–10 are recorded elsewhere in the present collection), no further Malipiero symphonies appeared until he wrote his first two numbered ones in 1933 and 1936. In the mean time his rejection of the long-established Austro-German symphonic tradition had been so total that he temporarily developed an aversion to using the very word ‘sinfonia’ in his titles. Moreover, even when he resumed doing so from the 1930s onwards, the works in question were still hardly ‘symphonic’ in the normally understood sense: far from embodying close-knit thematic and tonal arguments, Malipiero’s symphonies tend to be wilfully free and unpredictable in their sequences of events and images. He himself once declared, in a characteristically sweeping generalization, that ‘the Italian symphony [sinfonia] is a free kind of poem in several parts which follow one another capriciously, obeying only those mysterious laws that instinct recognizes’.
Malipiero’s most prolific period as a composer of symphonies stretches from 1944 until 1951: during those years he wrote no fewer than seven works with this sort of title. Five of them, numbered as the Third to the Seventh inclusive, appeared in quick succession in 1944–8, followed, after a short interruption, by two further unnumbered symphonies: the concentrated, intensely expressive Sinfonia in un tempo (Symphony in one movement) of 1950; and the more relaxed, discursively picturesque Sinfonia dello zodiaco (1951), which is the earliest work recorded on the present disc. Malipiero’s reluctance to number these two symphonies seems to have resulted, at bottom, from a superstitious fear of ‘passing the fateful number seven’. However, he sought to justify his decision more objectively by giving the works unusual and distinctive overall shapes, which at least appear to differentiate them sharply from the preceding numbered symphonies. For one rather basic feature that the first seven numbered symphonies do all share with more traditionally-constructed compositions of the kind is the simple fact of being in four separate movements—whereas the Sinfonia in un tempo, as its name suggests, plays continuously, though its ‘one movement’ nevertheless comprises four quite distinct sections.
If the basic structural outline of the Sinfonia in un tempo departs from the format of Malipiero’s previous symphonies by (in effect) linking four movements together in a continuous whole, the Sinfonia dello zodiaco does virtually the opposite: here the work’s four component main subdivisions (or partitas [‘partite’], as they are called in the score) are each further subdivided into three, making no fewer than twelve movements altogether. These are designed to be played with somewhat longer pauses between the partitas than between the individual movements within the partitas. Moreover it is clear from the symphony’s subtitle (‘4 partite: dalla Primavera all’inverno’), as well as from internal evidence, that the partitas correspond to the seasons of the year; while the component movements are analogous, at least in number, to the twelve signs of the zodiac mentioned in the main title.
Malipiero was himself extremely evasive about the inspiration behind this work (‘I can say nothing about this symphony—neither justify its form nor its title. I must keep the secret of its origins’). Examination of the music, however, reveals no obviously recognizable attempt to depict the zodiac signs themselves: the overtly descriptive elements seem to relate entirely to the cycle of the seasons. In this respect the analogies not only with Vivaldi but also with Malipiero’s own First Symphony (‘in quattro tempi come le quattro stagioni’) could at times hardly be more obvious. The relevance of each of the four partitas to its respective season is established unequivocally, and with notable vividness, in its opening bars: nothing could be more freshly and radiantly spring-like than the pastoral duet for oboe and cor anglais with which the symphony begins.
The first movement in the second partita (i.e. the fourth movement of the work as a whole) can be described in much the same words as Malipiero himself used about the second movement of the First Symphony (‘strong and vehement like summer’); while the seventh movement (the first in the third partita) exudes a poignant sense of autumnal chill and incipient decay. Most remarkable, however, is the beginning of the winter partita (i.e. of the tenth movement); here a plaintively inflected bassoon melody is introduced against a strange, frostily shimmering yet strictly canonic texture woven by four muted solo violins and reinforced by the harp. Admittedly not all the movements are quite as clearly illustrative of their respective seasons as are the initial passages in each partita: sometimes the need for contrast seems to have overridden precise descriptive considerations. Yet the work is pervaded throughout by at least a generalized sense of picturesque depiction of the natural world, in a way which at times seems to hark right back to the three sets of orchestral Impressioni dal vero that Malipiero wrote between 1910 and 1922.
Structurally the Sinfonia dello zodiaco is, of course, an isolated special case, although the motivic manipulations within the movements remain much the same, in principle, as in the composer’s symphonies of the 1940s. The length of the work (over 40 minutes, whereas Malipiero’s other symphonies never last as much as half an hour) is perhaps a point in its disfavour—especially as the musical invention is not always quite as striking and vivid as in the best sections. Yet even if the total effect in performance may be a little diffuse, even rambling, the piece contains more than enough memorable imagery along the way to justify its existence.
The other two much shorter works on the present disc both date from the last few years of Malipiero’s very long life, by which time he had overcome his superstitious fears sufficiently to resume numbering his symphonies. (The fact that, as a result, there are no fewer than three unnumbered symphonies between his so-called Seventh and Eighth is an on-going source of confusion even in Italy!) Malipiero was already 84 when he wrote his so-called Ninth Symphony in 1966, giving it the typically eccentric subtitle ‘dell ahimè’ (‘of the alas’). Yet the work shows singularly little sign of failing creative powers, or even of elderly sedateness: on the contrary, it is arguably his most wholly persuasive symphony written after the Sinfonia in un tempo.
The merits of this Ninth Symphony are closely bound up with its extreme brevity and terseness. Its three movements together play for barely a quarter of an hour, and their individual lengths are somewhat better balanced than are those of the three movements that make up the Eighth. Although, as in nearly all Malipiero’s very late works, the musical vocabulary is far more chromatic and dissonant than in his compositions of the 1930s and ’40s, the Ninth Symphony retains more of the clearly audible motivic processes to be found in his earlier symphonies than is the case in the first movement of the Eighth, not to mention the almost athematic Tenth. There is even a prominent thematic cross-reference between the Ninth’s slow central movement and its likewise slow concluding pages; yet such clearly perceptible recurrences do not significantly reduce the overall effect of free ranging, sardonically perky capriciousness.
The first 55 bars of the first movement are dominated by a spiky little phrase whose truculent insistence on major sevenths, semitonal clashes and tritones is typical of the rather barbed exuberance which lies at one extreme of the Ninth Symphony’s expressive spectrum. The melody that occurs both in the slow movement and in the closing bars of the finale is characteristic of the plaintively meditative other extreme—this being especially the case at the point where this melody first appears, on the cor anglais accompanied by softy tolling pedal notes and ostinati on lower strings, bassoons, piano and suspended cymbal. Between these two expressive extremes the symphony contains a wealth of divertingly unpredictable musical ‘incidents’—the most spectacular and memorable being the shamelessly naive outburst on the percussion and trumpets which stops the quick first part of the finale abruptly in its tracks. The published score makes no secret of this outburst’s intended verbal significance (which has given the Ninth Symphony its name): at this point the word AHIMÈ is printed twice over, in huge bold capital letters. Just what manner of mishap (if any) in Malipiero’s personal life may lie behind this bizarre interjection is not, as far as I am aware, known. But it is as impossible not to speculate about it as in the case of Beethoven’s ‘Muss es sein?’.
By comparison with the Ninth Symphony, the Tenth (‘Atropo’, 1967) is altogether more problematical and heterogeneous. This results partly from its origins in a personal tragedy which had profoundly shaken Malipiero and which conditioned the contents of the symphony in various more or less explicit ways. Significantly, the work’s subtitle refers to one of the Fates in classical mythology—the one whose task it was to cut the thread of life at the moment of death. The composer has explained that ‘The Tenth Symphony is dedicated to the memory of Hermann Scherchen, the conductor who was a great friend of mine. I was deeply moved by the fact that with [my operatic triptych] L’Orfeide [which Scherchen conducted] at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino of 1966, he concluded his life [collapsing immediately after the performance]. I wanted my Tenth Symphony to end with the last bars of L’Orfeide, that is to say with the last music he conducted in his life; and I wanted the first movement to develop a theme from Sette canzoni [the central opera in L’Orfeide]—a theme of Gregorian origin and therefore mystical in character’.
These prominent (though free) self-quotations from L’Orfeide (1918–22) which are in fact confined to the symphony’s first three and last six pages inevitably give rise to stylistic dichotomies and awkward transitions, rooted as they are in a much earlier phase of Malipiero’s creative development. Moreover they are not the only elements which stand out sharply from the thoroughly late Malipierian chromaticism that surrounds them. In particular, the very short, unpretentiously graceful second movement, which in itself lasts just over two minutes, is seraphically diatonic almost throughout, except in its last seven bars. Though not a self-quotation, this exquisite little movement clearly represents a deliberate reversion to the world of Malipiero’s music of the 1930s and ’40s, and most of all (perhaps) to comparably fragrant passages, for strings alone, in the purely instrumental sections of his opera I capricci di Callot (1942).
In its context this little movement has the air of a kind of mirage of lost happiness—flanked as it is by movements whose tense chromatic complications are altogether bleaker in effect than are those in the Ninth Symphony, reaching a climax of grim intensity at the end of the third movement. One notes, moreover, that in the second movement and its two successors alike (the first movement being a less extreme case in this respect) the incidence of motivic recurrences other than of the most fluid and transient kind is exceptionally low. This near athematicism, combined with the stylistic inconsistencies, may make the Tenth Symphony hard to come to terms with as a whole. Yet there is no mistaking the deep sincerity of its musical response to Scherchen’s death.
© 1994 John C.G. Waterhouse
¹ Editorial note (2010): The first performance of Sinfonia degli eroi since 1909 took place at the Thessaloniki Concert Hall, Greece, on January 15, 2010. The Thessaloniki State Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Myron Michailidis.
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