Giuseppe Martucci’s Full Orchestral Works

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by Giuseppe Pennisi

In 2009, the death of Giuseppe Martucci was an important centenary that received scant notice, even in Italy. The main event was a series of concerts by Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma (OSR; see La Scena‘s blog on December 18th) in the gardens of the Caserta’s Royal Palace. Caserta is near Capua, where Martucci was born in 1856. Its Royal Palace is the Southern Italian equivalent of Versailles. Naxos and the OSR have taken a major step to preserve the memory of Martucci with the release of an elegant blue and gold box set of four CDs containing Martucci’s complete orchestral works. In Europe, it reached the record stores just in time to be a nice Christmas present for music lovers.   

Who was Giuseppe Martucci? Why is his name nearly forgotten in his home country? Why do his symphonies and concertos still deserve attention today? Reportedly, Martucci was a superb conductor: Richard Strauss considered him very highly after listening to a Tristan und Isolde he conducted in Bologna. Arturo Toscanini also had great consideration for him – in 1932, Toscanini’s last two concerts in Italy (before leaving for the US) only included symphonic works by Martucci.   Martucci absorbed German symphonies and tone poems and became the Italian apostle of Beethoven, Schuman, Brahms, Franck as well as, of course, Wagner and many other German, French and mittle-European composers. Musical theatre – especially various forms and types of melodrama but also operettas and comic operas – domineered the Italian musical scene in the second part of the 19th century and in the first decade of the 20th century, the period when Martucci was at work as a conductor, teacher, director of Licei Musicali and Conservatori (music schools) and private musical organizations (in Milan, Bologna and Naples) as well as a composer. Martucci was one of the few composers to give his talent and efforts entirely to pure music (without a plot, a libretto, a stage set and all the operatic paraphernalia). In addition to its intrinsic values, his music has an important historical meaning: it was a seed that a few pioneers planted in the latter part of the 19th century (e.g. Sgambati, Busoni, Bazzini, in addition to Martucci himself) to prepare the Italian symphonic development (Malipiero, Casella, Respighi, Petrassi, Pizzetti) of the 20th century. This was quite an original development; it molded German romantic and late Romantic influence with innovative elements rooted in the ancient Italian musical tradition.   Are Martucci’s orchestral work still relevant today? In February 2009, the performance of some of his tone poems by the ORS (after decades of neglect) was received with standing ovations at the Berlin and Krakow Philharmonic and at the Ludwigshaven Concert Hall.   

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The main item on the first record is Martucci’s First Symphony, a large-scale work which displays a strong lyric impulse, experienced craftsmanship, and an exquisite sense of fancy. One can hear quotations from Schumann and Brahms. The Scherzo-Allegretto is a sly contrast to the solemn and warm Andante that precedes it. The real impressive movement is the soaring, intensely dramatic finale, a 15-minute Allegro-Resoluto that builds skillfully to a powerful, surging climax. The listener can feel Martucci’s Neapolitan soul, while there is the anticipation of Resphighi’s major works. 

The record includes four short pieces, mostly orchestral transcriptions of piano works for recital tours. None quite attains the eloquence of the symphony’s best pages, but none is without its charms either. Especially enjoyable is the Andante No. 2, which turns into a fairly effective miniature cello concerto.

The Second Symphony is the centre-piece of the second record. It combines Sibelius’s majestic symphonic sweep with Italian lyricism in a wonderfully stirring first movement. Later movements sometimes sound like Elgar, with his sweetness and nobility of expression. It shows how Martucci brought these influences to Italy as early as 1904, and it is no wonder that Toscanini championed this piece. The first movement Allegro Moderatom seems to anticipate Sibelius: while the horns and strings enjoy much of that rich German Romantic texture, there are some little woodwind figures which seem to leap straight out of something altogether more Czechoslovakian. The second movement, Scherzo, deserves full special attention with its quirky running string figures and lively commentary from the winds. The Adagio, ma non troppo is a 13-minute musical landscape where Martucci walks from a low string sequence (with a similar mood to Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen) to an extended build-up and massive climax with strings and blazing brass to a soft and restrained final section and coda. The final Allegro is full of bristling mustaches and jaunty top hats.
The most substantial of the three pieces on the rest of the record is the 14.5-minute Theme and Variations. Besides his two concertos, this is Martucci’s only work for piano and orchestra. It was originally written for solo piano in 1882. The Gavotta No. 2 is brighter, the strutting outer parts framing a pastoral scene. The concluding Tarantella No. 6 is a noisy, colorful, hedonistic dance.   The other two records have as the key compositions two piano concertos. Particularly impressive is the First Piano Concerto. A horn call sets the first movement in motion, with the initial orchestral theme building to a climax which is followed by more reflective music then a poetic theme on strings. The mood again darkens, then after a brief passage for strings the soloist enters with a stormy rendering of the opening theme. Piano and orchestra expand on this, before the former takes up the strings’ theme and develops its expressive qualities accordingly. This grows in ardor, leading to a lengthy transition to the intensified return of the opening. The central section commences with some impetuous piano writing, though woodwind allusions bring back to the initial theme a brief climax that is cut short. Anticipatory gestures on woodwind and strings build to a crescendo to the finale, where the main theme provokes alternately stormy and poetic exchanges.

The Second Piano Concerto is embodied in pyrotechnic virtuosi from the very first movement: a long (21 minutes) Allegro Giusto where, after a terse orchestral gesture, the soloist takes up virtuosic passages. The central section is a Larghetto that revolves around a sustained theme for lower strings which builds in intensity to a confrontation between the pianist and the orchestra and ends with the initial melody on woodwind decorated by a piano arabesque. The final movement, a compact (9 minutes) Allegro con Spirito, ends with scintillating piano which leads into a breathless close.
The third record offers the song cycle La canzone dei ricordi (The Song of Remembrance). Setting poems by Rocco Emanuele Pagliara, the piece is significant in that orchestral song cycles were then all but unknown in Italy, although Martucci probably knew Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été. The first song sets the tone of the overall work with its recollection of a past happiness such as can never be recaptured. The second song then intensifies this in its evocation of spring as a time for hope and anticipation, with the shimmering accompaniment evoking ‘forest murmurs’ of a decidedly Italianate sensuousness. The third song alternates deftly between past and present as the words of an old serenade are recalled with a wistful regret, intensifying markedly towards the close. The fourth song is the shortest and the simplest, its description of a boat at sea conjuring forth images of joy and freedom that are both mirrored in the liveliness of the orchestration. The fifth song is the most intense: the revisiting of a place where love once blossomed has become a source of lament now that it can offer no comfort. The sixth song is the climax of the cycle and also unusual in that its  opening section is merely an introduction to the fonder recollections of time and place that follow, with the initial music returning in an orchestral postlude. The seventh song functions as an epilogue to the cycle as a whole: extracts from the first song return in a setting where the voice is made secondary to the orchestra’s allusions to earlier themes, as the work draws slowly to its close in a mood of rapt serenity. 

Of the three composition which follow the Second Piano Concerto on the fourth record, especially interesting is Colore Orientale, a pièce d’ambiance to create an atmosphere.   

About the artists
Under the baton of Maestro Francesco La Vecchia, the OSR, although comparatively young, has reached full maturity and compares well with the major European symphony orchestras. The OSR policy is to encourage and promote young artists. Gesualdo Coggi interacts with the OSR in a fascinating dialogue in the two piano concertos and Lya De Barberis confronts the OSR in Theme and VariationsSilvia Pasini is a skilled mezzo in La canzone dei ricordiAndrea Nocerini is the skillful cellist in Andante No 2. They all deserve full marks.


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