dallapiccola orchestral chandos

Déjà Review: this review was first published in November 2004 and the recording is still available.

Luigi Dallapiccola (1904-1975)
Tartiniana, Divertimento for violin and orchestra (1951)
Due Pezzi for orchestra (1947)
Piccola Musica Notturna (1954)
Frammenti Sinfonici dal Balletto ‘Marsia’ (1942-43; 1947)
Variazioni per Orchestra (1953-54) [16:34]
James Ehnes (violin)
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/Gianandrea Noseda
rec. 2004, Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester, UK
Chandos CHAN10258 [73]

Dallapiccola is one of those composers who have had a bad press. A brief survey of my musical friends reveals that either he is unknown to them or at worst he is seen as being a pale imitation of Schoenberg or Webern. Now at least the person who took this view is on the right track. It is reasonably well known that Dallapiccola was seriously influenced by a performance of Pierrot Lunaire in Florence. In fact, he claimed it changed his life. However it would be simplistic to say he was merely a follower of the 12-tone school of composition. If we look at the other key influences in his life we must note a decided Italian slant. He loved the writings of Dante and the music of Verdi and Monteverdi. In spite of being Italian, Ferruccio Busoni provided a Germanic correction to these predilections; however it was after hearing the music of Anton Webern that Dallapiccola decided to use the twelve note method of composition as the fundamental basis of his work. Yet, it is not as straightforward as this. There is nothing ‘academic’ about the music of the Dallapiccola. Like the British composers Humphrey Searle and Richard Stoker he does not allow the ‘series’ to take over his creativity. He does not fall into the Boulez-ian trap of total serialism. In most music by Dallapiccola it is the Italian lyricism that comes first. And it is this fusion that makes his music vital for today’s audiences. It combines structure with complexity but also a certain tunefulness that is nearly always approachable and often quite moving.

Luigi Dallapiccola is represented on only eighteen or so CDs by perhaps a dozen works. Yet he wrote a considerable amount of music in a wide variety of genres. Perhaps his most ‘famous’ works are the two operas Il Prigioniero and Ulisse, although I cannot remember having seen or heard either. His piano work Quaderno Musicale di Annalibera was written for his eight year old daughter and has had a number of recordings made over the years. Perhaps his finest choral work is the Canti di Liberazione.

So it is a minor revelation to be presented with a full CD of his orchestral works. I have to state straightaway that I am impressed with virtually every note of this widely varied programme. A generous seventy minutes of music from Chandos allows us to explore five major works from the late 1940’s and early 1950s.

The Frammenti Sinfonici dal Balletto ‘Marsia’ is a ‘suite’ of music drawn from Dallapiccola’s only ballet – Marsia. The original work was composed in 1942 based on a classical legend involving the satyr Marsyas, the discoverer of flute music. The story of the ballet tells how, due to jealousy, this musician was flayed alive. Obviously this comment about a society that is cruel was not suitable fare to be presented in Mussolini’s Italy so the work was not actually performed until 1948.

The composer salvaged some two-thirds of the music as part of the ‘Frammenti.’ It is very easy to play at ‘spot the influence’ – perhaps Respighi and Ravel spring to mind as prime influences. I love this work, in spite of its less than savoury subject matter. The orchestration is near perfect – so much tonal colour is present. One cannot help feeling that Dallapiccola was a master of instrumentation, even if the musical establishment does not place him on a par with Ravel himself.

The Due Pezzi (1946-47) originated from sketches made for a film score. This was to have been a documentary about the great Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca. The film was never made. Dallapiccola salvaged some of the music and used it in Due Studi for violin and piano. Later these Studi were re-scored and expanded for full orchestra. This is a full blown 12 tone score – however the constructional principles never get in the way of our enjoyment. The second ‘Pezzi’ is subtitled ‘Fanfara e fuga’ – this is an exciting exploration of cool twelve-note contrapuntal development. This work generally looks back to the baroque era in spite of the ‘modern’ sound. The work ends with a straightforward, but quite surprising, C major triad.

Tartiniana (1951) is much more ‘light music’. There is a good tradition of ‘…iana’ pieces in musical history. We think perhaps of Alfredo Casella’s Paganiniana and Scarlattiana suites, or possibly Tchaikovsky’s Mozartiana and Korngold’s Straussiana. So maybe it is hardly surprising that for a Koussevitzky Foundation commission, Dallapiccola chose to use elements of Giuseppe Tartini’s sonatas. Tartini had an extra attraction for the composer – both had been born in Istria on the Adriatic.

This is an accomplished work that explores the style if not the timbres of the older composer’s sound-world. However this is not early music. There is, for example, no use of original instruments or contemporary scoring. Yet, it is a perfect union between two eras of music. There is a hard-edged freshness introduced to the ‘original’ themes that brings the music up to date.

The piano pieces Quaderno Musicale di Annalibera (1952) are one of the few Dallapiccola works that I have known for many years. It has always impressed me as being an extremely tightly controlled, well constructed work. It is usually regarded as his masterwork for the instrument. It was written in 1952 for his daughter, Annalibera’s 8th birthday. The English translation of the title is ‘A Musical Notebook for Annalibera.’ It is easy to see the allusion to the well known Musical Note Book for Anna Magdalena by Sebastian Bach. The present work is a complex investigation of canonical and contrapuntal devices within the context of 12-tone composition. Extensive use is made of the B-A-C-H note set.

In 1953-54 Dallapiccola reworked this piece for the Louisville Symphony Orchestra as his Variazioni per Orchestra. The programme notes give a detailed analysis. Suffice to say that Dallapiccola has created a totally new composition out of the original. It is a work full of variety and wonderful tonal colouring. There is much here that is introspective yet often great outbursts from the orchestra create ‘massive effects’. It is an extremely beautiful work that should be regarded as one of the masterworks of the nineteen-fifties.

The Piccola Musica Notturna was written after the ‘Variations’ in 1954. The very title is meant to conjure up Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. But this is not a divertimento in the classical model. It is a ‘nocturne’ that has its roots in the work of Busoni, especially in his Berceuse élégiaque and the Nocturne symphonique. This work is prefaced by a quotation from the Spanish poet Antonio Machado which sets the scene of a solitary traveller in a deserted village. This is not programme music as such; the text is simply there to give a ‘mood’ to the piece. Most of the ‘nocturne’ is restrained, yet there are one or two aggressive irruptions which suggest passing thoughts of a less than tranquil nature. The programme notes state that, ‘…this is among the most serene and mysterious of twentieth century nocturnes.’

Let’s dispose of the presentation. The sound quality is stunning; the balance must have been quite hard to realize because much of the music is soft. Chandos engineers have been able to create the magic that this music calls for. I must admit that I wonder how well the concert hall would serve some of this ‘pianissimo’ music. I think the CD player and the privacy of our own room allows us to appreciate the sheer beauty of these intimate passages.

The CD feels nice – a lovely ‘sky at dusk’ coloured cover seems just right for this music. The programme notes are excellent and give as much information as one could possibly need – bearing in mind that little is easily available in English on Dallapiccola’s life and works.

I had a look at the Chandos web site and was delighted to find that this release may be a part of an ongoing project. The conductor, Gianandrea Noseda regards it as a personal crusade to further the reputation of Luigi Dallapiccola. Let us hope that Chandos leads the way with re-establishing the repertoire of one of the finest composers of the twentieth century and one who is perhaps most unjustly neglected.

Finally, as alluded to above the playing is superb – by both the soloist and the orchestra. This is a beautiful, committed and stunning performance.

For all enthusiasts of lyrical (almost romantic) twelve tone music it is a ‘must have.’ For those who may have doubts about buying this CD because it is ‘serial’, be prepared to take a tiny risk – you will not be disappointed. I cannot praise this CD too highly.

John France

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