Petrassi
The Eight Concertos for Orchestra
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano della Rai
Philharmonia Hungarica
Zoltán Peskó

Recorded between 1972-1979 in London, Milan, and Marl in Ungheria
CD No: WARNER FONIT
8573 83274-2 (3 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 53 minutes
Reviewed: June 2004
Goffredo Petrassi nearly made it to his century. He died on 2 March 2003 aged 98. A prolific composer, Petrassi was also highly regarded as a teacher (British pupils included Peter Maxwell Davies, Gordon Crosse, Cornelius Cardew and Kenneth Leighton). Elliott Carter saluted him with his piano piece, 90+.
Petrassi’s eight concertos for orchestra span forty years of his compositions, from 1934 to 1972. The First is vigorous, rather formal, a piano well to the fore, a saxophone introduces a lyrical contrast. The slow movement is hauntingly beautiful with long, lovely lines and a climax of Roman intensity (i.e. akin to Respighi). An extrovert march closes the work.
Concerto No. 2 introduces more spectral sounds, melodies emerging from within, and dressed with a Stravinsky-like wit and polish (Petrassi also aligns himself to Hindemith in this work). Cast in a single movement, one episode is an intense nocturne, really quite special, rather American in its generosity.
The Third is demonstrative and light-hearted, and termed Récréation concertante. There are contrasts of pithy angularity and heartfelt tunes; the inventiveness is constant, relaxed and industrious. The surprise is the regretful final section; this is music with a heart that makes the coda seem even more skittish.
No.4, a 25-minute movement in six contrasted sections, is for strings alone, and has similarities with Bartók’s soundworld; Petrassi’s invention ruminates, searches, and holds the attention in eloquent arches and rhythmic perspicacity; the ‘air’ of Busoni’s Doktor Faust wafts in occasionally when a beguiling phrase is turned.
No.5, for the Boston Symphony, is acerbic, strictly rhythmic and momentous in gesture and contrasts with something more elastic and a return to the intense slowness of No.4 when the strings take centre-stage in the music’s tumultuous wind-down. This is a broad, serious piece held by some to be the best of this cycle.
The concentrated No.6 (completed in 1957 for the BBC Symphony Orchestra, although recorded here by the Milan orchestra) jettisons woodwind. The three-tier orchestra shines forth in stark layers, the brass trilling and straining, the strings lyrical and pointillist, the percussion tattooing and lending (non-gratuitous) colour.
In the Seventh, Petrassi starts to sink his teeth into his times; this is a 1960s’ piece, easily carbon-dated through its exploring and ornamenting. The brass cries anarchic roulades, the strings parade effects that seem outside of the musical argument; there’s a sense of conflict, and a labyrinth of melodic tentacles, and the work ends with a fortissimo question mark.
No.8 is dense in thought, complex in utterance; Petrassi has moved into refined, even confined thoughts (relieved by big blocks of dissonant brass chords), though a structure is discerned and each colour, inflexion and gesture is a link in the chain. The most sustained music is in the slow movement, electronic daubs given life by the orchestra, and a strange threnody emerges at its most heated moment; a wind machine seems to sound human breath. (Tippett included such respiration in his Symphony No.4, also written for the Chicago Symphony.) The finale is angular and prone to evaporate but a final gathering of strength, through non-ceremonial fanfares and clubbing percussion, brings an equivocal conclusion.
In his compositional journey, Petrassi undertook one not dissimilar to Roger Sessions. Maybe Petrassi is less rigorous; bolder and subtler in more directly emotional terms. Admirers of Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s symphonies (another important octo-cycle) will revel in Petrassi’s orchestral concertos.
It must be said that some of the playing here is a little scrappy, but each orchestra is dedicated under Zoltán Peskó’s sympathetic direction. The sound-quality is clear enough if a little dry and lacking in allure for the most part, and editing can be rudimentary. Yet the power of Petrassi’s invention shines through. This is a corpus of work that is well worth getting to know.

 

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