Sunday, November 29, 2015

Autumnal Classics - Preludi Autunnali by Gian Francesco Malipiero

Popular culture has an unfortunate pattern of trying to filter whole artistic scenes into single, attractive figures, such as how Jackson Pollack is the only abstract expressionist and Ang Lee is the only Chinese filmmaker.  In that vein you can count on the bulk the Classical audience to assume that Ottorino Respighi was the only Italian composer of his time to write instrumental music, but that couldn't be less true if they also claimed he composed underwater.  It's certainly true that opera was the dominant medium in Italian Classical music during the whole of the 19th century, the era in which many people believe the whole Classical tradition parked its trailer and cracked a brew, but once the 20th century rolled into view there was a thriving scene of Italian composers trying to revive instrumental music to the prominence it held in their homeland in the days of Vivaldi and Pergolesi.  Once again we can thank the "Everything Old Is New Again" attitudes of performers and record producers in the 80's onward for renewing the public's interest in figures such as Alfredo Casella, Ildebrando Pizzetti, Giuseppe Martucci, Franco Alfano, Leone Sinigalia, Amilcare Zanella, Marinetti and all his wacky Futurist buddies, and today's composer, Gian Francesco Malipiero. Highly regarded in the first half of the century and possessing such creativity and work ethic to extend his career from the mid-1900's to the early '70's, not to mention his invaluable work in editing the works of Renaissance and Baroque Italian composers, Malipiero was an unmatched creative figure that would have left much more of an impression had his works seen the light of concert halls outside of his native country and had tastes not shifted away from his style near the end of his life.  Malipiero is both refreshing and vexing to musicologists, as his music didn't conform to one voice that lasted the bulk of his career, rather mutating and sharpening as he grew older and wiser; trying to categorize his work reveals how tricky it can be to embrace a "change is good" outlook on art, especially when you've got theses to finish.  That isn't to say that his style is untrackable, though, as its easy to see the impression that the introduction of the music of Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky left on his work in the 1910's and '20's.  Case in point: Preludi Autunnali (1914), one of his most wholly successful piano works.

Impressionist composers had a real knack for depicting autumn as they delighted in its metamorphosis, complex moods and lack of bombast.  They also loved to depict wind, as broadened compositional technique and improved musicianship among performers opened the door for great wind pieces like Debussy's Preludes "...Le vent dans la plaine." and "...Ce qua vu le vent d'ouest." as well as Ibert's Le vent dans le ruins.  Luckily for them Autumn is just lousy with winds that poetically whip fallen leaves around and cause traffic accidents, and Malipiero's first Prelude finds a novel way to depict continuous rustling as well as nature's shifting state of decay:

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Impressionist trickery allows for cells of music to be placed as is on top of conflicting harmonic material to create unity within dissonance, and in this case Malipiero was able to use the old "pedal bass" trick and switch the unchanging element from the bottom to the middle.  It's a low boil uneasiness, quiet enough to attempt to ignore but still able to insinuate itself into everything you hear, like a cello imitating a mosquito.  The "B" section features one of his loveliest melodic turns (as well as some good ol' planing):

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The second Prelude is more impish and nostalgic, highly reminiscent of Debussy's "Le fille aux cheveux de lin" and offers much room for yearning, rubato phrasing:

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It's the most simply pretty one in the set, though there's still dramatic interruptions:

The third Prelude is much more profound, both in its register and mood, kneading a lydian chord with added 7 and 9 notes deep into the listener's psyche.  Its melody is concerned and elliptical, as if failing to untie a metaphorical knot.  It also gets plenty of mileage out of letting the listener settle into one block chord and then sliding into an ingenious contrast:

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Not to mention a much-earned fortissimo:

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The final Prelude is even more impish than the second and twice as sarcastic, taking a xylophonic glance at the changing seasons, as if the leaf part of the leaves fell off leaving the veins by themselves:

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It's an oddly caustic way to end the set, though most audiences will be relieved that there's at least one up-tempo piece.  The Preludi has suffered a similar fate to the rest of Malipiero's piano works - recorded every ten years or so and then seeing its own record go out of print.  This article was an exception for me in that I was able to pick my favorite performance from multiple candidates, though I'd be hard pressed as to where to find cheap CD's of any of them, though I guess this is a better fate than the bulk of Malipiero's other works.  Pretty much all of his symphonies have been recorded if you're in an orchestrally adventurous mood and have a few hours to kill - and in the deep freeze coming at the end of every year killing time might be the only thing we've got.


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