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ClassicsOnline Home » Cello Recital: Macrì, Massimo - PETRASSI, G. / CILEA, F. / FUGA, S.
The unifying thread that binds these three works is not simply the composers’ Italian birth, but their early musical maturity. Petrassi became, with Dallapiccola, one of his country’s most outstanding 20th-century musicians. His broadly neo-Classical Preludio, Aria e Finale, composed when he was twenty-nine, embraces a wide range of emotions, from intense lyricism to desolate introspection. Francesco Cilea’s exuberant and melodic Cello Sonata is the work of a talented 22-year-old on the brink of establishing his reputation in the operatic world, while the very approachable Sonata of the gifted Sandro Fuga is suffused with elegance and serenity.
Francesco Cilea (1866–1950) • Goffredo Petrassi (1904–2003) • Sandro Fuga (1906–1994)
Petrassi, Cilea, Fuga and the pairing of cello and piano: a three-part lesson in style
The three works on this recording are rarely programmed, and their creators differ from each other in terms of temperament, education, style, idiom and era. What links these three cello sonatas is the maturity they show, despite dating from the early creative periods of their respective composers. Petrassi was 29 when he wrote the Preludio, Aria e Finale and his near-contemporary Fuga thirty when he composed his charming Sonata, while the piece by Cilea (born a couple of generations earlier, more or less) is the work of a talented 22-year-old on the brink of establishing his reputation in the music world.
Goffredo Petrassi: Preludio, Aria e Finale
Born in 1904 in Zagarolo, not far from Rome, the city in which he trained and then taught for many years (1939–78), Goffredo Petrassi was, along with Luigi Dallapiccola, one of the foremost Italian composers of his generation. Even his earliest works of substance—such as, for example, the “Casellian” Partita for orchestra (1932) [Naxos 8.572411]—though following the trends of the day, reveal a marked interest in reviving much older forms, hence the Toccata for piano (1933) and the Lamento di Arianna for solo voice and piano (1936). A musician of great intellect and learning, Petrassi successfully forged his own distinctive language—influenced by the leading figures in European music: Stravinsky, Hindemith and Bartók—in a catalogue that ranges from chamber music (a constant throughout his career, resulting in a sizeable body of works in this field), to orchestral and stage works. He also had a particular affinity for vocal writing and themes of a spiritual nature. Among his most notable compositions are Psalm IX for chorus, strings, brass, percussion and two pianos (1936), the Magnificat (1940), the superb Coro di morti (1941) [Naxos 8.572411], which sets a text by Leopardi, the opera Il cordovano (1949) and the ballet La follia d’Orlando (1942–43), as well as the eight Concertos for orchestra (1936–72) and the late Tre cori sacri for unaccompanied chorus (1983).
Completed in December 1933 and published the following year by Ricordi, the Preludio, Aria e Finale (dedicated to Luigi Silva) is therefore a work of Petrassi’s first period, during which, as mentioned, he was primarily focussed on reviving past forms and styles using modern linguistic means. Despite its Franckian title, this is very much a neo-Classical work, its idiom terse at times and imbued with modal diatonicism.
The concise Prelude is characterized by its solidity of structure, its incessant rhythmic continuum (broken only by a rarefied, magical “suspension”) and its lean polyphonic lines, yet also features occasional luxuriant moments of tonal warmth. While the demanding cello part explores the entire range of registers, with fragmentary cantabile sections and, in places, vague echoes of Ravel (some of the intense pizzicato playing), the piano here plays a supporting rôle, establishing a closely woven harmonic substrate which stretches as far as the final cathartic bars. A lively cadenza for the cello, anchored in the lower regions and featuring double stopping, leads directly into the Aria, an austere, meditative, strictly measured piece: an almost desolate threnody, yet with moments of drawn-out, typically Italianate lyricism, sustained by powerful chords. Little by little it emerges from the mists and, becoming more animated, reaches a tense, emotional climax in an intensified più che fortissimo, before turning back in on itself again. The prevailing atmosphere is one of pessimistic solipsism, like a meditation reaching out over the abyss, as if mirroring the mysterious accumulation of eternal questions about life (and death). The work ends with an energetic Finale with vibrant octaves in the bass—like sinister warnings—and full of contrapuntal writing which, with Bartókian vehemence, eventually pushes the Sonata towards its unbridled Presto conclusion.
Francesco Cilea: Sonata in D major, Op. 38
A sophisticated composer of operas in an elegant, elegiac and slightly fragile melodic vein, Francesco Cilea was born in 1866 in Palmi (in the province of Reggio Calabria). He studied music in Naples, where he was taught piano by Beniamino Cesi and composition by Paolo Serrao (a rigorous and expert tutor whose pupils also included Giordano, Leoncavallo and Martucci) and, after a few early works—Gina (1889) and La Tilda (1892, an opera with clear echoes of Mascagni)—achieved his first real hit in 1897 with L’Arlesiana. His great masterpiece, Adriana Lecouvreur, saw the light in 1902: still part of the international opera repertoire today, it boasts a score of superb melodic wealth and extreme tonal sophistication, reminiscent of the French composers (Massenet in particular) whom Cilea always held in great affection. Also worthy of note is his teaching career at the conservatories of Florence (1896–1904), Palermo (of which he was director between 1913 and 1916) and then Naples (where he was director until 1935). After retiring, he spent the last years of his life in Varazze (on the Ligurian coast), where he died in 1950. As well as operas, Cilea also composed orchestral and chamber works, into which he poured a distilled version of his musical inspiration and a graceful lightness of touch, if also the occasional Mannerist tendency.
His luminous and exuberant Sonata, Op. 38 dates from 1888, and brims with cantabile writing, a significant (and very early) example of the warm melodic spontaneity and harmonic-tonal elegance that were such distinguishing traits of Cilea, even at this young age. The opening Allegro in particular is appealing for its freshness and the immediacy of its lyricism, demonstrating that the composer was already skilled at thematic writing and balancing the resources of his two chosen instruments, as well as possessing a sound sense of form. With this in mind, we can easily forgive the slight naivety that raises its head here and there in some of the rather formulaic accompanimental writing (although there are echoes of Mendelssohn too, and fleeting reminiscences of Grieg).
As for the following Romanza, in the sombre key of A minor, it “relies on” an abundant lyricism tinged with a melancholy curiously similar to that heard in Slavic music: for example, the chill conjured by the opening recalls the Dumka of Dvořák’s Quintet, Op. 81 written barely a year earlier and a work which Cilea is very unlikely to have known. That is irrelevant, however—what matters here is the quality of the inspiration and the refined harmonic and tonal fabric of this lovely autumnal piece, which opens out at its heart into a more animated section, before brightening for the final, tenderly gentle and affectionate bars, now in the major mode.
The last movement is a sunny Allegro animato that makes extreme virtuosic demands on both players; linguistically, it is somewhat eclectic, some of its harmonies recalling a middle ground between Chabrier and early Debussy, but with an entirely Italian clarity, a reflection of the wide range of musical references on which the young Cilea was already able to draw. It crowns a sonata to which it is simply a delight to listen—a work of serene optimism, warm and communicative throughout.
Sandro Fuga: Sonata No. 1 for Cello and Piano
Born in 1906 in Mogliano Veneto (in the province of Treviso), Sandro Fuga spent most of his life in Turin, where he studied piano with Luigi Gallino, organ with Ulisse Matthey and composition with Luigi Perrachio, Franco Alfano and Giorgio Federico Ghedini. An elegant, highly cultured and affable man, with the aristocratic reserve characteristic of the Piedmontese, Fuga was a sophisticated and sensitive pianist and a uniquely gifted teacher. From 1933 onwards he taught at the Turin Conservatory, serving as its director between 1966 and 1977. Although he had successes in the opera house (with Otto Schnaffs, Confessione and L’imperatore Jones) as well as in the world of orchestral music (two highlights being the Passacaglia and, in particular, the moving Ultime lettere da Stalingrado for speaker and orchestra), he dedicated the greater part of his time and talent to chamber (instrumental and vocal) and piano music, continuing to compose into his old age without his powers waning. His works for piano include the Toccata (1932), Sonatina (1935) and Serenata (1940) as well as sets of preludes and variations, all informed by a conscious revisiting of tradition; and there is a special place reserved in his catalogue for his chamber works, notably three sonatas for violin and piano (1938, 1972 and 1989), a piano trio, six string quartets (1943–88), a viola sonata (1974) and a piano quintet, among others (see www.sandrofuga.it for full details).
Of his three Cello Sonatas (1936, 1973 and 1989) it is the first that features here. Dedicated to Luigi Gallino, and published by Ricordi, it opens with serene, rhapsodising music for the cello, the piano supplying a suffusive, glowing ostinato in support. This dreamlike prelude, with its nocturnal colours and slightly mysterious, magical touches, is followed by a broad and soaring Molto allegro with the feel of a toccata. The sumptuous and elegant piano line is central here: one moment marked by gleaming spacious passages, the next imbued with modal echoes or giving prominence to full-bodied agglomerations of chords. As for the cello, the youthful Fuga demonstrates consummate skill in making use of its full potential, availing himself both of its cantabile qualities and of its extensive expressive timbre and breadth. A climax is reached in a dazzling and vivid display whose sonorities are so vibrant they might almost be called symphonic. Then in the final bars, as if engulfed by silence, the piece returns to the changeable atmosphere of the opening, reworking some of the same elements, but then lightening into a serene and expansive E major.
By contrast, the Grave e sostenuto emerges with a majestic power rich in pathos. The cello then abandons the funereal tones of the opening for a more cantabile sound, without however turning away completely from the dramatic structural power that is the dominant feature of this movement.
Finally, to chase away the clouds comes the exuberance of the Vivace, rapsodico, con spirito full of hale and hearty joie de vivre and the attack of a Yankee ballad, with banjo-like pizzicati and a myriad harmonic treasures, evoking some of the magic of Ravel, while capriciously incandescent features seduce the listener from the start and here and there a hint of Spanish flavour creeps in too: all these elements are linked by a personal and peerless elegance in this, a true lesson in style.
© Attilio Piovano 2013
English translation by Susannah Howe
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