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ClassicsOnline Home » PETRASSI, G.: Piano Concerto / Flute Concerto / La follia di Orlando Suite (Canino, Ancillotti, Rome Symphony, La Vecchia)
Petrassi’s long creative life was marked by ceaseless absorption of ideas and by constant invention. His Flute Concerto is notable for its boldness of design and the surprise of its unorthodox sound world, where instruments rotate in block form. The Piano Concerto is more overtly virtuosic, even showing some influence from Prokofiev. The orchestral suite drawn from the ballet La follia di Orlando (The Madness of Orlando) is often clothed in Petrassi’s experimental orchestral sonorities. ‘The rehabilitation of Italian twentieth-century music by the Naxos label continues unabated: the latest release is this remarkable collection…that any genuine Petrassian will rush to purchase’. (International Record Review on href="http://www.naxos.com/catalogue/product.aspx?pid=8.572411">8.572411)
Goffredo Petrassi (1904–2003)
Flute Concerto • Piano Concerto • La follia di Orlando – Ballet Suite
Goffredo Petrassi was one of the most productive composers of the twentieth century, his style characterised both by a sense of logical coherence and by his willingness to consider and embrace the latest aesthetic principles—his early works reveal just how aware he was of contemporary developments in European music. On the one hand, Petrassi followed in the footsteps of Malipiero and Casella in harking back to earlier Italian vocal and instrumental traditions; on the other, he was inspired by Stravinsky and Hindemith to explore the architectural economy of Neoclassicism. The Baroque music of Rome was a clear influence on early compositions such as Psalm IX for chorus, strings, brass, percussion and two pianos (1936) and the Magnificat for soprano, chorus and orchestra (1940). From the 1940s onwards his music is marked by a more introverted tone and draws on a broader range of technical and linguistic material, while also moving further into the spiritual and religious dimension. Works from this period include the Coro di morti for men’s chorus and orchestra (1941), the Quattro inni sacri for male voice and organ (1942–43) and the two ballets La follia di Orlando (1942–43) and Ritratto di Don Chisciotte (1945). In the early 1950s Petrassi focussed primarily on instrumental music, producing, among other works, a series of concertos for orchestra which develop so remarkably from an idiomatic point of view that they call traditional aesthetic principles into question as the musical material is liberated and assimilated into twelve-tone and serial procedures. The composer himself described the creative process as follows: “each work has its own identifying colour…and once this colour, or atmosphere, or whatever you want to call it has been established, I let the music itself have its head and suggest ideas to me. What does music feed on if not music itself? As soon as the work gets under way, it’s the material that steers the procedure and the procedure that steers any subsequent development, in the kind of autogenesis that lies at the root of so many imaginative processes.”
Petrassi spent little of his sixty-year career writing piano music. In addition to the Partita (1932) and a few other, unpublished, pieces from the 1920s, he wrote a Siciliana e Marcetta for four hands (1930) and a Toccata (1933), both of which were inspired by piano works by Alfredo Casella—the former by the 11 Pezzi infantili [Naxos 8.554009] and the latter by the Due ricarcari sul nome B-A-C-H [Naxos 8.554009]. The sonorities and polyphonic writing of the Toccata also reflect the composer’s organ studies with Fernando Germani, while the three short pieces Oh, les beaux jours! of 1941–43 (revised in 1976) are more stylised in nature. The Divertimentino scarlattiano dates from 1942, and at around the same time Petrassi also wrote a number of solo songs with piano accompaniment, but after 1944 he more or less gave up composing for the piano—one exception to the rule being the elegant Invenzioni he wrote during the war (published 1945).
Petrassi’s Piano Concerto, a lengthy, three-movement work written between 1936 and 1939, is very different in style from his earlier piano pieces. There is a subtle virtuosity to its writing which, with its sudden shifts of register, wide chords and leaps, shows the influence of Prokofiev. The first movement, Non molto mosso, ma energico, is characterised by frequent suspensions and changes of tempo. Its principal theme, clearly articulated by the brass, becomes the main musical thread of the movement as a whole. Between its two appearances, in the exposition and recapitulation, we hear a secondary episode which is intrusive to the point of rendering the bithematic sonata form unrecognisable. In the second movement, Arietta con variazioni, the theme is given solely to the piano and unfolds in an extended adagio; only in the final bars, at the marking Poco più mosso, does a chordal string accompaniment appear, along with a few interventions from the woodwind. As the variations progress, the writing gradually becomes denser, until the tension eases in the third, as the piano plays a recitative like passage supported by brief statements from the brass in chorale style. The climax is reached in the fourth variation, Allegretto, alla marcia, which is followed by the repeat of the Arietta theme, now transformed by the orchestra. The finale, Andantino mosso, is a free rondo whose refrain is never treated to a full, literal repeat, but instead broken down into brief fragments. In the final section, meanwhile, the writing becomes increasingly virtuosic, requiring the soloist to play double-octave passages with sudden changes of register. It appears Petrassi himself was not overly fond of his Piano Concerto, and even declared that he had lost interest in the instrument, saying “its timbre didn’t gnaw away at me or stimulate me in any way”.
The Flute Concerto is one of Petrassi’s boldest compositions. Dedicated to the talented flautist Severino Gazzelloni, it was composed in 1960, in the wake of the Concertos for orchestra Nos 2–6 (1951–57) and three chamber works—a string quartet, a Serenata (both 1958) and a string trio (1959)—traces of which are clearly audible here, particularly in the sections in which the orchestra is treated as a chamber ensemble.
Here Petrassi does away with the high strings, using only cellos and double basses; he also omits flutes and oboes, but includes clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets and trombones as well as a large percussion section, harp and guitar. Throughout the work, the instruments work on a rotational basis: the introduction is entrusted to the solo cellos and basses, guitar, harp and percussion. The brass only come in at bar 35, the woodwind at bar 57. These interventions are characterised by a vast formation of different timbres.
The rigorous nature of the solo part is accentuated by jolting moves into opposing registers and by the never-ending variety of figures and figurations, smaller and larger-scale elements, wide and narrow intervals. Orchestral episodes are alternated with numerous cadenzas in which the orchestra is apparently treated in more orthodox manner, with the insertion of moments of immobility, particularly for the strings, which are brought to a standstill on clusters or chords.
As musicologist Giuliano Zosi has noted, the concerto consists of four macro sections, the first of which is built on essentially fixed melodic structures inserted in compact blocs into a more freely moving overall articulation. A long orchestral chord underpins the darting motifs played by the soloist, while an element of surprise is provided by rhythmic variety: semiquaver and demisemiquaver quadruplets, quintuplets, sextuplets, triplets and little ornamental notes are all to be found in the introductory cadenza, adding an even greater wealth of detail to the solo part. Section two presents instrumental dialogues rhythmically and melodically linked by the gradual incorporation of different combinations into the orchestral ensemble. By contrast, the third section is based on the play between different blocs of figures. Finally, the fourth and last section sees the return of orchestral fixed points and the free cadenza-style writing for the solo flute.
Thematic statements as such are hard to pinpoint in this concerto; imitations and repeats are often entrusted to the orchestra, the instruments developing their own subtle replies and dialogues. Underlying the work is the concept of “sequentiality”, whereby the musical fabric is “organised” in some sections, “free” in others, and everything feels very fluid because the different episodes are so frequently alternated. The two opposing modes—“organisation” and “freedom of action”—as musicologist Mario Bortolotto has noted, are based on the same intervallic procedure so as to control “the way in which they flow so as to allow no discrepancy between them to be heard”.
The flute cadenzas extend structural forms already used within the work, marking out different compositional zones in which the orchestra predominantly plays in concertante style. The percussion has a key rôle too, particularly in the last section, where an array of instruments of indeterminate sound acquire full autonomy—over a long chord held by the strings, they breathe life into a flute cadenza which is also dotted with occasional harp and guitar chords.
In 1942–43 Petrassi composed the music for La follia di Orlando (The Madness of Orlando), a ballet in three Quadri with recitatives for baritone, and with choreography by Aurelio Milloss. The ballet was based on episodes from Ariosto’s Orlando furioso, and the baritone acts as narrator, singing his lines at the start of each scene. In this way, the characters are introduced even if they are not present on stage, and “the dances depict only the most significant moments in the action”, expressing the emotions experienced by the protagonists. These include the passion for Angelica with which Orlando is consumed, Angelica and Medoro’s love for each other, and the madness of Orlando, which lasts until Astolfo journeys to the moon, discovers a bottle containing the paladin’s lost wits and brings it back to earth to restore Orlando’s sanity. The ballet was first staged at La Scala, Milan, on 12 April 1947.
The Orchestral Suite drawn from La follia di Orlando, first performed on 9 December 1945 in Rome, does away with the vocal line but retains the ballet’s subdivision into an Introduction and three Tableaux, the third including two episodes: Astolfo’s Dance and the Warlike Dance.
The theme on which the whole suite is based relates to the character of Angelica and is distinguished by a succession of descending thirds (derived from a B minor diminished-seventh chord). As the work progresses it is presented in various guises which, according to Zosi, represent the different ways in which Orlando views and feels about Angelica. In the Introduction, it is heard in the form of descending major and minor thirds played by the trumpets and trombones. The following Andantino grazioso, con fantasia is a fully fledged dance movement and seems reminiscent of the “Danse de la poupée” from Debussy’s ballet La boîte à joujoux. In the “Angelica and Medoro” scene, Medoro is portrayed using successions of fourths, above which we again hear the Angelica motif, this time in the clarinet part. There is a warlike tone to the musical idiom of the final dances, along with tonal experimentation that results in new orchestral sonorities. The use of the twelve-tone series seems to be the result of a clearly thought-out chromatic and circular vision, achieved by the superimposition of equal intervals, as if the composer wished to translate into music the concept of cosmic harmony as understood by Ariosto, according to which everything in the world returns to its origins.
English version by Susannah Howe
Petrassi quotations taken from Luca Lombardi, Conversazioni con Petrassi, Milan, Suvini Zerboni, 1980
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PETRASSI, G.: Piano Concerto / Flute Concerto / La...