MALIPIERO: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2; Sinfonie del silenzio e dalla morte – Moscow Symphony Orchestra/Antonio de Almeida – Naxos 8.570879, 77:40 ****:
I first came upon the composer Gian Francesco Malipiero (1883-1973) via a Cetra LP of his Seventh Symphony “Of Songs” as led by Dimitri Mitropoulos. Later, I discovered that Guila Bustabo had performed his Violin Concerto. Antonio de Almeida (1928-1997) recorded the present works in 1993 for the Marco Polo label as part of eleven issues of numbered and unnumbered symphonies by the composer – an ambitious project, to say the least.
The expansive, so-called “Symphonies of Silences and Death” (1910) appears to mis-label a three-part tone-poem that might be a distant cousin of Debussy’s La Mer. Impressionistic in the manner of Respighi, the music often recalls aspects of Rimsky-Korsakov’s expressive syntax, especially as found in Le Coq d’Or. Written as musical response to Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death,” Malipiero’s sinfonia manages some antique sounds that signify the presence of the Grim Reaper in the midst of mortal, Renaissance festivities. Lamentation mingles with death-rattles, sighs, whimpers, and somber gaieties. Malipiero writes melodically, to be sure, but the effects are pastiches of pleasant chords and colors–strings, harp, and airy woodwinds–a step away from innocuous Delius. The last movement, “The Mill of Death,” folkishly represents its morbid subject with xylophone, tympani, blazing horns, percussion, and devices to equate Death (simultaneous C Major and E-flat Minor chords) with an infernal machine. A detractor would credit the score as “effective” for a silent film. Harp and xylophone (a nod to Saint-Saens) bestow upon Death a tender aspect; the last minute of music flutters, a snare drum softly underneath, the final cords as enigmatic as those which close Debussy’s Jeux.
The Symphony No. 1 (1933) has the subtitle “In Four Tempos, like The Four Seasons.” Malipiero had intended to orchestrate some poems by Venetian poet Anton Maria Lamberti, his “The Seasons.” The first movement (Quasi andante) of the “typical cycle” progression sounds almost a parody of bucolic sentiments, an astringent, capricious temper infused into the leas and strolling cows and shepherds. The second, “summer” movement proves more chromatic, violently dissonant, a driving, “Roman” rhythm moving the music forward. A kind of oriental martial pageantry soon suffuses the piece – perhaps an allusion to the architecture of St. Marks Cathedral? Autumn (Lento) clearly evokes aspects of Debussy’s ethos, especially that radiant melancholy found in his Martyrdom of St. Sebastian. An antique atmosphere insinuates itself, and we might be stepping softly by moonlight with Romeo in old Verona, perhaps passing near the Capulets’ tomb. Winter (Allegro, quasi allegretto) tries to smile amidst the tears: a jaunty dance, a burlesca, it gathers texture and force to achieve ceremonially and contrapuntally-inflated pomp that might have accompanied a newsreel of Il Duce.
Symphony No. 2 (1936) bears the subtitle “Elegiaca.” It resembles a classical symphony in its four-movement construction, and the dominant mood remains quietly meditative. The first restless movement moves in relatively predictable chromatics, the sense of sonata-form apparent enough, the melodic shape airy and contrapuntally abstract. The movement ends with a hymn, at least a resolute peroration of some power. The Lento non troppo lies at the heart of the work: perhaps former dreams of vainglory have passed on. What consolation endures comes from Nature, it seems; and in pastoral picture-evocation, Malipiero might be an under-rated master. Composed of two themes, the music progresses to a point where the independent lines merge as treble and bass. Marked “Mosso,” the short Scherzo enjoys strings, flute, and horn flourishes in quirky, rhythmic figurations, with harp glissandi and active tympani. The last movement, Lento, makes it plain that Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique” Symphony or perhaps Mahler provides a formal model for this expressive work. The elegiac moments more than once could be thought to sound like Barber or Randall Thompson. But the formal, “Roman” capacity for imperial gloom and shadowy melancholy asserts itself, even in the form of a fugue. A true song finally emerges, a lovely lament that ought to be programmed more often.