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ClassicsOnline Home » PILATI, M.: Concerto for Orchestra / Suite for Strings and Piano (Nemec, Slovak Radio Symphony, Adriano)
Born in Naples in 1903, Mario Pilati belonged to the generation which included such disparate personalities as Petrassi, Dallapiccola, Salviucci, Rieti, Mortari, Scelsi and Rota. Pilati was a prolific composer of chamber, vocal and orchestral music. Like many of his contemporaries, he was drawn to the instrumental music of the past, especially that of his own country. An example of this is the Suite for Strings and Piano of 1925, which is neo-classical in style. His other love, that of folk music, is also evident in later works, such as the Concerto for Orchestra, with its ebullient finale ‘alla tirolese’. The attractive lullaby Alla culla comes from the very end of his short life.
By David Denton
Now almost forgotten, Mario Pilati’s life was tragically cut short in 1938 by an incurable illness at the age of 35, and without anyone to promote his music, it was soon forgotten. He had been a talented young student in Naples, but the advice to live in Milan, where there would be more musical opportunities, proved to be to his detriment, his precarious financial situation leading him to the task of teaching young students. Yet for such a short life he left a quite substantial and comprehensive catalogue of works, the Concerto for Orchestra generally regarded as his major score. Completed when he was 29, and in three movements, it would today be more readily classified as tuneful light music, much in the mode that Eric Coates produced so successfully in England, the finale a boisterous peasant dance. Completed two years earlier in 1929 the Three Pieces are also dance movements, opening with a Minuetto that could have come straight from a Hollywood period film. A spicy Habanera leads to a final capricious Furlana. The Suite for Piano and Strings is more serious in content and with English pastoral tendencies. In four short movements, the Saraband comes from Elizabethan times, with a finale that creates a happy conclusion. The final work, Alla culla - Ninna-nanna ( By the Cradle), was completed just weeks before his death, its beauty seemingly his own final lullaby. The disc was released six years ago on the Marco Polo label, the Slovak Radio Symphony playing with an obvious sense of enjoyment for Adriano, Tomas Nemec being the piano soloist.
Mario Pilati (1903-1938)
Concerto for Orchestra in C major
Three Pieces for Orchestra
Suite for Strings and Piano
By the cradle (Alla culla – Ninna-nanna)
Mario Pilati was born in Naples in 1903 and was sent by his parents to a commercial school, where he qualified as a bookkeeper. He had studied Latin and Greek on his own, however, and had also started composing music. This allowed him at the age of fifteen to enter the composition class of the Conservatorio di Musica San Pietro a Majella, after a short period of study at the Naples Liceo Musicale. His teacher Antonio Savasta recognised Pilati’s natural talent, the cause of envy in his fellow students, who frequently teased him, calling him a revolutionary. His outstanding gifts also drew the attention of the director of the Conservatory, Francesco Cilea, who did much to encourage him. At the age of nineteen Pilati was awarded his composer’s diploma summa cum laude and was shortly afterwards appointed as a teacher in the composition class of the Conservatory of Cagliari. In 1925, on the advice of Pizzetti, he decided to move to Milan, a musical capital that would eventually suit better his taste and ambitions, but not without enormous initial difficulties. In Milan Pilati survived as an arranger of vocal scores for Casa Ricordi, as a teacher and as a music critic. He also gave private lessons in composition and Gianandrea Gavazzeni was among his pupils. Gradually his works came to be performed and appreciated and to win awards in Italy, with the Piano Quintet in D of 1926, the most important of his earlier works, exemplifying his most personal style. His name became known to leading musicians of the time, such as Ottorino Respighi, Alfredo Casella, Arturo Toscanini, Mario Rossi, Franco Capuana, Victor de Sabata and Dimitri Mitropoulos, and he was admitted to the Biennale, the prestigious Venice festival of modern music. Three important companies, Casa Ricordi, Fratelli Curci and Carisch started publishing and promoting his works.
In 1930 Pilati accepted appointment as a professor of counterpoint at the Conservatory which he had left less than a decade earlier, returning to his beloved Naples, which now furnished him with all the necessary musical inspiration. In 1933 he was nominated a professor in composition at the Conservatory of Palermo and, in 1938, again in Naples. He held this final position only a few months: the fatal illness, which had been diagnosed two years earlier, had reached its final stage. He succumbed to it on 10th December, dying at the age of 35.
The general neglect of Pilati’s music may be explained by his early death, before much exposure outside Italy, and by the fact that his promoters were confronted by more modern tendencies and by the outbreak of World War II. After the war many earlier musical trends suddenly seemed outdated. Pilati’s promoters had also had to overcome their own problems. Pizzetti, in the composer’s obituary, praised Pilati as one of the purest, noblest and most generous among the younger musicians of Italy. “I admired his principles”, he wrote, “his qualities as a teacher, and he could be an example through his love for art and enthusiasm for every work of beauty”. Yet Pizzetti’s words seem little more than a mockery, with no mention of Pilati as a great composer. Pilati himself had been a great admirer of Pizzetti, especially of his opera Fedra and there are traces of homage to Pizzetti among his earlier works. It was Pizzetti who had found Pilati a job and some connections in Milan, but his later attitude illustrates one aspect of this composer’s unfortunate destiny.
Pilati was about a quarter of a century younger than Respighi, Pizzetti, Malipiero and Casella, the so-called Generazione dell’Ottanta (Generation of the Eighties), who in those years dominated the musical life of Italy. He belonged to the generation of such disparate personalities as Goffredo Petrassi, Luigi Dallapiccola, Giovanni Salviucci, Vittorio Rieti, Virgilio Mortari, Giacinto Scelsi and Nino Rota, composers followed some ten years later by revolutionaries such as Luciano Berio, Bruno Maderna and Luigi Nono. As will be seen, Pilati’s music seems like a cross-over between neoclassicism, post-impressionism and modern tendencies, but by simply using these terms we try to categorize him, which luckily is impossible, since he died too young to allow us a complete overview of his work. Doubtless there would have been more surprises and more exciting music, if he had lived longer. Nevertheless his output over a period of only eighteen years is already full of surprises and of great maturity, leading the present writer not to hesitate in regarding him as a genius.
The list of Pilati’s compositions is quite large for such a short period of time. His orchestral works, besides those recorded here, include shorter orchestral pieces, Sei Bagatelle (Six Bagatelles) for chamber orchestra, published in 1940, the orchestral Preludio, Aria e Tarantella of 1937, and Quattro canzoni popolari italiane (Four Italian Folk-songs), for small orchestra, from the same year. His chamber works include the magnificent Piano Quintet of 1928, a String Quartet (1931), a Flute Sonata (1926), and Sonatas for violin and for cello, both from 1930, and various smaller pieces. A dozen pieces, some orchestrated later, and a series of transcriptions of Paganini’s Capricci make up the series of piano works. There are also about forty compositions for solo voice or vocal ensemble, including songs with piano and with orchestra, madrigals and other choral works a cappella, with piano, or orchestral accompaniment. A series of transcriptions of works by Bach and Scarlatti and harmonizations of Italian folk-songs may also be mentioned. The almost exclusive use of popular poetry from Southern Italy, or modern poetry inspired by it are testimony of the composer’s deep interest in and love for the culture of his native region. Two years before his death, Pilati had started working on an opera entitled Piedigrotta, based on a libretto in Neapolitan dialect, concerning a Meistersinger-like song contest amongst different quarters of the city of Naples. Unfortunately only the first act of this work was completed.
The term concerto for orchestra is an invention of the twentieth century, applied to a work for symphony orchestra in the manner of the Baroque concerto grosso, with its concertante groups contrasted with the whole orchestra. The form has its origins in Italy, notably in Corelli’s Concerti grossi, written around 1680, imitated in Germany by Georg Muffat and the later inspiration for Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, completed in 1721. Pilati’s Concerto in Do (Concerto in C) was preceded by the first of Petrassi’s eight Concerti per orchestra, written between 1934 and 1972, and the first of Ernest Bloch’s two Concerti grossi, a work with piano obbligato, written in 1925, which may have roused Pilati’s interest, since Bloch was among his favourite composers during his “revolutionary” student years. In the same year came Hindemith’s Konzert für Orchester, while Respighi too, although not using this precise terminology, had written concertante works for orchestra, such as Metamorphoseon, Modi XII (1930) and Concerto a cinque (1933). Most of these twentieth century revivals use Baroque or other dance forms and partly the sonata principle, including the three famous Concerti for Orchestra by Zoltán Kodály (1939), Béla Bartók (1943) and Witold Lutosławski (1954).
Pilati’s concerto can be considered his major achievement. Completed in 1932 and first performed by Dimitri Mitropulos at the Sixth Venice Festival of contemporary music (Biennale) on 6 September 1938, it found immediate success. In the same concert at the Teatro La Fenice, works by Giuseppe Rosati, Ettore Desderi, Leo Sowerby and Heitor Villa-Lobos figured. The critics found Bachiana Brasileira No.2 irreverent, and Pilati’s piece became the success of the evening. The audience and the reviews were unanimously enthusiastic about this brilliant work with such excellent, magnificently orchestrated music full of joy and sunshine. Shortly afterwards, on 26 November 1938, Felix Weingartner would perform the concerto at the Royal Conservatory of Naples, coupled with Brahms’s Academic Festival Overture, Wagner’s Siegfried-Idyll and Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. Information about later performances remains incomplete, as, for example, a concert at the Italian RAI from the late 1960s or early 1970s, conducted by Ettore Gracis, and another, again at the Biennale in 1999, conducted by Emilio Pomarico. In February 2001, at the Leipzig Gewandhaus, this work was introduced to German audiences, but the conductor and the soloist had decided to lighten the last movement by making an unpardonable cut.
The Concerto in Do appears already in the first movement as quite unconventional. Its triumphant theme in C major is the source of its thematic material and creates a huge prelude instead of a sonata movement. From this theme the musical material of the Adagio and the Rondò derive, giving the work a concealed cyclic form, and these themes too create by themselves contrapuntal or contrasting themes or accompaniment figurations, all so cleverly conceived that the listener is no longer aware of their source. The Allegro allows the piano a unique chance to appear as a concerto soloist, before returning to concertante functions in the remaining two movements. The following Adagio, opening in E minor, offers a masterly example of neo-classicism. Here the horn quartet introduces a melancholy chromatic melody, gradually taken over and ornamented through elaborate piano, string and wind figurations in the Baroque manner, but with post-romantic harmonies. The piano produces occasional cadenza-like arabesques and thematic answers and presents a call-like motif, a foreboding of the theme of the third movement. There are modal touches, suggesting that Pilati may have known Respighi’s Concerto in modo misolidio of 1925, moving forward towards a lyrical climax. In the reprise, the orchestra refuses to take over again the recurring horn theme and leads instead to a suspended moment of reflection or meditation, causing a definite transformation into E major, and a fading away into ethereal murmurs. In the third movement, marked Allegro pesante e ben ritmato, Pilati creates a rustic theme in rough Tyrolean style and amuses himself with the rondo form. Not only through its build-up of thirds is this theme derived from the opening theme of the first movement. In almost all keys of the upper half of the circle of fifths, it joyfully dominates the orchestra and the piano part. A B flat Trio section is built-up from the tail of the Tyrolean theme, followed by a short, almost contemplative variation, revealing the necessity for the return of the entire theme. After a recapitulation a third higher than at the beginning, there follows a stretta, preparing for the luminous and masculine C major ending, but these various transitory keys are very cleverly masked by contrasting, almost dissonant cell-motifs and figurations, giving us the impression that the kinetic Tyrolean theme is not as authoritarian as that and perhaps does not really like to go through all those changes. In the orchestration a Mahlerian touch may be found in some places, and all the surprises Pilati delivers keep the listener alert and at the same time comfortably entertained. A 29-year-old composer proves not only to be already able to create great music, but also to play with it, with the objectivity and virtuosity of a master in his sixties.
The Tre pezzi per orchestra (Three Pieces for orchestra) is a suite of three dance movements, Minuetto, Habanera and Furlana and is Pilati’s most daring, burlesque and mature work. It was completed in 1925. The general source of inspiration may at first hearing seem to be Maurice Ravel, but Pilati has less of the latter’s nostalgia and magical sleight of hand. He plays with all that by self-mockery and giving the music insolent and often even self-destructive touches, as, already in 1920, Ravel had dared to do in La Valse. Pilati searches for a more avant-garde style, as if he would try to sympathize with new tendencies, or prove that he too could create something new, deriving from impressionism and neo-classicism. This affects in the first place the structure of each movement, which is respected only as far as their titles are concerned. They all show a certain freedom of manners and a need for orgiastic outbursts under the old-fashioned titles they bear. The Minuetto starts light-heartedly, but turns gradually into a capricious and insistent Polonaise. The Habanera is interrupted by little cadenzas suggesting a dancer’s need to whirl round within the too slow and sensuous Spanish rhythm, and, finally, the Furlana suggests a religious procession, definitely more ironical than that interrupting the Tarantella of Respighi’s Rossiniana of 1925. Finally, Pilati’s Furlana reveals a strong relationship with the Tarantella form itself and brings the movement and the suite to a disrespectful ending, in which the orchestra pokes out its tongue and simultaneously sneezes at the audience. It seems no other work by an Italian composer of that time had shown such irresistible dynamism and humour both earthy and refined since Verdi’s Falstaff. Respighi’s opera Belfagor (1924) or his grotesque tone-poem Ballata delle gnomidi (1919) still remain tributes to the post-romantic, flamboyant style of Richard Strauss, without daring to show as much fun and irreverence, or even such a detached view.
The Tre Pezzi, a suite for large orchestra, was first performed at the Teatro San Carlo of Naples in 1932, in a concert conducted by Franco Capuana. The score used for this recording is the composer’s manuscript. The work was written between 1923 and 1925 and slightly revised in 1929. Minuetto and Habanera exist in earlier versions for piano solo and as well in earlier instrumentations.
Eight years before his Concerto in Do, Pilati had composed his Suite per archi e pianoforte (Suite for piano and strings), which was first performed in Cagliari, in Sardinia, on 30 May 1925. The local Accademia dei Concerti was conducted by the composer, with the piano part taken by Renato Fasano. The same programme included chamber pieces by Schumann and Boccherini, Respighi’s transcription of Tartini’s Pastorale and Pilati’s revision of Alessandro Scarlatti’s Overture La Rosaura.
That Pilati was quite at home in a musical culture ranging from Gregorian chant and madrigals to the contemporary can once again be proved by listening to the Suite, in which the piano has a predominantly solo function, compared to its rôle in the later Concerto. The four movements are based on old dance forms; the Introduzione turns out to be a Padovana (Pavane) and the Finale Toccata, both without being so titled. The theme of the Introduction reappears after the final Toccata nearly gets out of control, giving the piano the opportunity for virtuosity, as it insolently climbs and descends, and to thrill, influencing the strings, suggesting the future Trittico Botticelliano of Respighi, written the following year. The Finale is also very interesting, since it suddenly leads into an infectious, romantically ascending and scherzoso-like descending theme, actually a variation of the main theme of the Pavane and of the Suite itself. Closer examination of the Sarabanda and Minuetto in Rondò, shows thematic material deriving from the same source. Writing a suite, Pilati could create contrasting material by using a unitary thematic source. A great sense of humour and artistic maturity, almost incredible in a twenty-year-old composer, crown these attributes.
An unexpected return to simple tonality and structure appears in a short Ninna-nanna (Cradle-Song) in G major/B minor, Alla culla (By the Cradle), completed on 18 November 1938, about three weeks before Pilati’s death. By then he knew that there was no hope any more, so he may have intended to write a Berceuse for his own final slumber. This melancholy orchestral piece reminds us of some similar ones by other Italian composers such as Martucci, Respighi and Busoni, who in their earlier years had produced some less pretentious and successful, almost drawing-room-like miniatures in post-romantic style. The orchestration of Alla culla is limited to five wind instruments, celesta, harp and strings, and could enrich the repertoire of any chamber ensemble able to play Sibelius’ Valse triste or Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on Greensleeves. For reasons unknown, Alla culla was issued in score form in 1940, but had been held back as “unpublished” by Casa Ricordi during the years preceding this recording.
Edited by Keith Anderson
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