Luigi Cortese (1899-1976)
Suite Française, Op.29 for piano (1951)
Sonata Op. 39, for cello and piano (1960)
Psalm VIII, Op.21, for voice, flute and piano (1943)
Five Pieces, Op.45, for piano (1964/5)
Introduction and Allegro, Op.40 (1961)
Deux Odes de Ronsard, Op.25, for voice and piano (1948)
rec. 1960s-1987, Genoa, Italy
No texts or translations of the vocal works.
Dynamic CDS8000 [65]

It has to be said that Luigi Cortese, although he had a solid reputation as a composer, pianist, critic, teacher and musical administrator, was not a ‘big name’ in Italian music even during his lifetime; since his death I have come across few mentions of his name. Yet he has never been entirely without admirers. I first came across his name from some music students in Milan, when visiting the city (in the 1990s) while one of my daughters was working there. A couple of the students (eschewing the fashionable avant-garde of the day) told me that they thought that Franco Margola (1908-1992) and Luigi Cortese were underrated Italian composers from earlier in the Twentieth Century. Recent years have seen something of a revival of interest in Margola’s music but not, so far as I can see, in that of Cortese.

Some biographical information may be in order, given this neglect and because it bears on his music. Cortese was born in Genoa and spent most of his working life there. His father was Italian and his mother French, née Jeanne Constant; she had studied piano. According to Sergio Martinotti in his entry on Cortese in Volume 29 of the Dizionario biografico degli Italiani (1983) the composer began the study of the piano “very early” which suggests (especially given that Luigi’s music often sounds as much, or more, French than Italian) that his mother may have been his first music teacher. Though he studied mathematics and music at Bologna University, before serving in World War I, it was to Paris that he went in the mid-1920s (staying with his wife’s brother) to further his study of music. There he studied piano (briefly) with Cortot and composition with André Gédalge, whose impressive roll-call of pupils included Honegger, Ibert, Koechlin, Milhaud and Roger-Ducasse. Cortese stayed in Paris for a few years and began to call himself ‘Louis’ Cortese.

On his return to Italy, he studied in Rome with Alfredo Casella before settling back in Genoa, where he taught piano, composed and wrote about music – for both the local and the national press. By the end of the 1930s he establishing himself as a composer. Preludio e Fugo, forharpsichord, was very well received in 1939 at the Paris Societé National de Musique and his setting of Psalm VIII (Salmo VIII) was performed at the Ninth International Festival of Contemporary Music in Venice. His oratorio David, Il re pastore was premiered in Genoa in 1941. He was also active as a solo pianist and accompanist, and as a critic and scholar. His pioneering study of Casella was published in 1930 and a later monograph on Chopin appeared in 1949. From 1954 until his death, he was the Director of Genoa’s Paganini Violin Competition and he also served on the juries of several other international competitions. In short, he had a substantial and distinguished career in many respects, without ever achieving huge international fame.

Cortese’s decidedly Mediterranean (as distinct from Central European) music fuses Italian and French influences. The first work on this disc, played by the composer, makes its Francophone nature explicit in its title, the Suite Française; it carries a dedication to Alfred Cortot. It is made up of six movements: ‘Prelude’, ‘Invenzione’, ‘Gavotta’, ‘Musetta’, ‘Aria’ and ‘Rondò. This attractive and charming work has its ultimate origins in the eighteenth-century instrumental suite (there are moments in listening to the Suite Française when one might almost be hearing François Couperin or Rameau played on the piano). But it is also, and more immediately, influenced by the revival of such suites by Parisian ‘neo-classical’ composers like Milhaud, Poulenc and Tailleferre. Casella, most of whose music after about 1920 was essentially neoclassical in manner, was also a relevant influence here. The ‘Prelude’ with which Cortese’s Suite Française opensis gracefully fluid, though the ‘Invenzione’ which follows it is rather disappointingly stolid. Of the other movements, the brief ‘Gavotta’ has a lively charm and the ‘Musetta’ is appropriately pastoral, while the closing ‘Rondo’ has some unexpected rhythmic touches. The other older recording, of the Sonata for Cello and Piano is emotionally expressive, especially in the first of its two movements (Adagio molto). Although the recorded sound here is not very good, I was impressed by the work of cellist Giorgio Lippi.

Cortese’s setting of Psalm VII (Salmo VIII), which was premiered at the IX International Festival of Contemporary Music in Venice, is for the most part subtle in its effects, though there are also moments of direct power. Soprano Gabriella Ravazzi (well-established in Italian musical life, but perhaps less well-known elsewhere) makes a good impression. The Cinque Pezzi (Five Pieces) was the last work Cortese wrote for his own instrument, the piano; predominantly slow, this definitely feels like a sequence, not merely a ‘collection’ of short pieces (the longest is just over four minutes, the shortest less than three minutes in length). The titles of the five pieces are ‘Preludio’, ‘Canzone’, ‘Berceuse’, ‘Aria’ and ‘Epilogo’. The transformations of keyboard colour are often strikingly beautiful, not least in the contrasts between resolution and tenderness in the ‘Canzone’. The playing of Massimo Lauricella is sensitive and he is a fine advocate for this neglected work.

The two works which close the disc – one for flute and piano (Introduzione e Allegro) and one for voice and piano (Deux Odes de Ronsard) present rather different cases. The first, according to the booklet essay, was commissioned “by the National Conservatory of Paris for its Flute Competition”. It has to be said that as one listens to the writing for the flute in this piece it is difficult to forget that it was written to test the technique of flautists and to allow them to show off their technique. This is, unsurprisingly, particularly true of the Allegro which opens the work. The demands are evidently no problem for Gina Fontana, the soloist here. However, the work’s origins do somewhat limit its aesthetic appeal for later and less specialised listeners. On the other hand, the two Ronsard settings present no such difficulties and have an instant and, I suspect, an enduring appeal. Certainly, it is to these two songs and the Suite Française that I have returned most frequently. Cortese clearly has a respectful understanding of Ronsard’s words and is careful not to obscure or distract from them in this setting, making sure, indeed, that his setting enhances and articulates the way the poems work. It is particularly disappointing, therefore, that no texts are provided. Those who are prepared, as I was, to take the trouble to locate the texts elsewhere, will need to know that the first is a setting of Ronsard’s Ode 23 (in his First Book of Odes) and the second of Ode 19 (in the poet’s Second Book of Odes). These excellent songs, originally scored for voice and orchestra, but here beautifully performed by Gabriella Ravazzi with Massimo Lauricella at the piano (the last perhaps better known as composer and conductor, but on the evidence of this disc also an accomplished pianist). These settings make me eager to hear more of Cortese’s songs, such as his Tre Poemi di Rilke (Op.27) or his Canti popolari della liguria, Op.47. These two Ronsard settings bring the disc to a memorable conclusion.

The booklet essay accompanying the disc, by Roberto Iovino and Danilo Prefumo, is knowledgeable and insightful, but in other respects Dynamic’s presentation leaves something to be desired. The first two works on the disc are recordings of which we are told only that they date from the 1960s (and of which the recorded sound is barely satisfactory; for that matter the later recordings, made by Dynamic in 1987, are rather variable in terms of sound quality). As noted above, no sung texts – let alone translations thereof – are provided. Yet for all these caveats (which are not about the music or the performances) this remains a worthwhile disc for its sampling of the work of an interesting minor Italian master of the Twentieth Century.

Glyn Pursglove

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Suite: Luigi Cortese (piano)
Sonata: Giuseppe Lippi (cello), Luciano Sgrizzi (piano)
Psalm: Gabriella Ravazzi (soprano), Gina Fontana (flute), Riccardo Agosti (cello),
Massimo Lauricella (piano)
Pieces: Massimo Lauricella (piano)
Introduction: Gino Fontana (flute), Massimo Lauricella (piano)
Odes: Gabriella Ravazzi (soprano), Massimo Lauricella (piano)