GIACINTO SCELSI: Preludes, Series I – IV – Alessandra Ammara, piano – Arts Music multichannel SACD 47721-8, 73:10 [Distr. by Albany] *****:
Scelsi is felt by some musicologists to be such a path-breaking composer that now that his works are known a whole chapter of recent musical history must be rewritten. He only became known when less than a year before his death his music finally got performances at a series of concerts in 1987. In his first period he studied with Schoenberg and became the first Italian composer to use dodecaphony. He also became fascinated with non-European music, and his other teachers were authorities on both Debussy and Scriabin . In his second period he rejected the idea of composition in favor of sheer improvisation. Scelsi was enchanted with the sound of the piano and made it his chosen instrument for his musical explorations, which go far beyond serial techniques. He sought a unique, spherical and cosmic sound – expanding the potentialities of the black and white keys. Scriabin is not only an influence in some of his piano music but seemingly also philosophically: Scelsi felt that artistic creation could communicate a higher transcendent reality to listeners.
In his Preludes – and by the way this SACD is the world premiere recording of most of them – Scelsi found his own unique stylistic code, but within a cycle of piano pieces such as previously created by Chopin, Debussy, Liszt, Scriabin and Messiaen. Most of these 50 short pieces are unpublished and the result of years of research by the Isabella Scelsi Foundation. They are assembled into four series. The modernity of even the early ones composed in the 1930s is astounding. In the earlier pieces the harmonic and timbre writing is still tied to the traditional – though by a thin thread. But as Scelsi’s style evolves over the cycle, things progress into much more rarified realms. Instead of a feeling of updated Scriabin, we have overwhelming chromaticism, urgent sound gestures, and a powerful use of silences. When we get to the fourth series, Scelsi’s approach becomes as compressed and pointillistic as Webern. (I have to admit he lost me on most of these later ones, but I was unexpectedly captivated by the first three series.)
Pianist Alessandra Ammara came to attention with brilliant performances at important international piano competitions. Her fine playing of these amazing works is vital to their appreciation, and she wrote the short but useful descriptions in the notes on each of the 50 pieces. Also vital to appreciating the subtleties and wide dynamic range of these Preludes is the hi-res surround sound provided by Arts on this SACD. The concert grand used is a Borgato, which I hadn’t heard of before but it sounds fabulous.
– John Sunier