The Eight Concertos for Orchestra
Netherlands Radio Symphony Orchestra
Recorded between June 2003 and August 2004 in Hilversum
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: September 2005
CD No: STRADIVARIUS
STR 33700 (2 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 40 minutes
The emergence of Italian orchestral music in the wake of Puccini is still misunderstood in the context of its era and under-represented on disc. What is certain is that the eight Concertos for Orchestra by Goffredo Petrassi (1904-2003) are central to its appreciation and, in particular, of a figure who was much lauded by his peers (not least Elliott Carter) but whose music has been little heard in the two decades after his effective retirement fromcomposition.
Although a recorded cycle of these works was put together under the auspices of Zoltán Pesko in the late 1970s (currently available on Fonit Cetra), this recent set – the result of intensive sessions in Hilversum between June 2003 and August 2004 – is superior both in terms of playing and execution. Moreover, the studio sound – clean and well-balanced, though never clinical – is ideally suited to the clarity and precision of these scores, which chart the composer’s stylistic evolution across four decades of a six-decade career.
Not that the individual pieces are equally spread out over this period. Composed during 1933-4, the First Concerto is a striking if unexceptional contribution to European neo-classicism of the inter-war years. The outer movements are both energetic affairs, shot through with an anxiety that recalls Honegger at the same period, but it is the central Adagio – moving from stoic intensity to a powerful climax – that leaves a lasting impression, confirming Petrassi as a master of abstract musical pacing.
Even so, it was not until 1951 that the Second Concerto emerged.Commissioned by Paul Sacher, it evinces a new instrumental refinement following a decade’s preoccupation with ballet and opera. The mode of expression, while not without its Stravinskian leanings, is correspondingly more elusive – not least in the slow third movement, whose sparseness verging on austerity belies the agile playfulness elsewhere and, following which, the brief final Presto seems rather too provisional a conclusion.
With the Third Concerto, composed during 1952-3 and premiered by Hans Rosbaud, Petrassi produced his first masterpiece in the genre. The subtitle, ‘Récréation concertante’, suggests a divertimento character that is belied not only by the acerbicvigour of the first and third movements, but also the becalmed anxiety of the second and fourth. This time, the finale – calm but hardly ‘serene’ as its designation might suggest – caps the work with a poised equivocation that could not be more fitting.
The Fourth Concerto of 1954 takes Bartók’s seminal string music of the 1930s as the starting-point for a resourceful and imaginative exploration of the string orchestra, balancing a searching restraint with rhythmic energy in a four-movementpiece which ought long ago to have secured a place in the repertoire of chamber orchestras the world over. Suffice to say that the strings of the Netherlands Radio Symphony do full justice to the superfine timbral and textural contrasts of a masterly work.
By this time, Petrassi was at the height of his success as a composer. The Fifth Concerto, composed in 1955 for the Boston Symphony and Charles Munch, is the biggest of the cycle in terms of length and impact. The five-movement ‘arch’ form is usedfor maximum contrast, with the limpid expression of the central Andantino offset by the rhythmic onslaught on either side, and given perspective by the fatalistic mood of the framing slow movements – resulting in a brooding and anguished utterance.
After this, the Sixth Concerto of 1956-7 seems something of adisappointment. Subtitled ‘Invenzione concertata’, this must have been a tough assignment for the BBC Symphony and Basil Cameron in its rhythmic subtlety and highly stratified writing forwind, brass and percussion. Save for the glacial manner of the ‘Estatico’ fourth movement, however, it feels expressively becalmed – as if Petrassi’s technical mastery was on the verge of becoming divorced from a concomitant emotional input.
It was not until 1963-4 that a Seventh Concerto appeared – itself a reworking of an orchestral piece immediately preceding it. By now the influence of the Darmstadt generation is making itself felt on the composer’s always-personal approach to serial writing. Four sections, ‘Primo’ through to ‘Quarto’, a symphony inminiature, are framed by a ‘Prologo’ and ‘Epilogo’ that draw the whole orchestra into a powerful outlining then a crystallisation of the music’s motivic and expressive essence.
It seems likely that only a commission from the Chicago Symphony and Carlo Maria Giulini persuaded Petrassi to essay an Eighth Concerto during 1970-2. Revealingly, it reverts to the three-movement form of the first in the series – though the fragmented emotion of the central panel and the superblycontrolled but somehow desperate energy of those either side confirm that age and experience have left easy ebullience far behind. In its disciplined virtuosity, however, it would be hard to surpass.
As will have been gathered, there is scarcely a work in this series that one would not want to revisit over time: something that is amply encouraged by the commitment and persuasiveness of these performances. The booklet notes, by Italian modern-music authority Paolo Petazzi, are as extensive as they are thought-provoking (though the English translation is a little labouredat times) while, at 81 and 79 minutes for the respective CDs, no-one could complain of short measure.
A pity that the nonagenarian composer did not live to hear resultof his endeavour so handsomely served, but the set makes for an ideal heralding of his centenary next year: and if 2006 should bring recordings of other facets of Petrassi’s substantial oeuvre – not least those choral and chamber works which dominate his output on either side of the main period of work on the concertos – to match these performances in sheer quality, then advocates of twentieth-century Italian music can consider themselves fortunate indeed.