On two discs here, we get all six of the piano concertos written by iconoclastic Italian composer Gian Francesco Malipiero. (1882-1973) The discs hold super audio surround sound, plus a regular red book CD layer. He finished the first in 1934, the second in 1937, then went on to do a third (1948), a fourth (1950), a fifth (1958), and a sixth (1964). Our piano soloist is Sandro Ivo Bartoli, who studied at home in Italy and in London at the Royal Academy of Music. His mentor, Russian pianist Shura Cherkassky encouraged him to specialize in the relatively neglected Italian composers of the first decades of the past century. Our band is the Saarbrucken Radio, which has something of a well-deserved reputation for its own attentions to twentieth-century music under the direct leadership of conductor-composers like Bruno Maderna or Hans Zender or Bern Zimmerman, supplemented by a starry roster of music directors and guest conductors. The current music director is Michael Stern, son of famed violinist Isaac Stern.
Summing up Malipiero's style in music, even in the multiple streams of twentieth-century music, is not particularly easy. Some elements are fairly clear on first hearing. Malipiero is a past master of tonal color and he knows a lot about how to make the orchestra flow, float, shine, and sparkle. In that regard, we can consider him a distant musical cousin to that better known Italian, Ottorino Respighi. Yes, that would be the very composer who wrote those three huge and popular tone poems, Pines of Rome, Fountains of Rome, and Roman Festivals.
If we come to Malipiero expecting Respighi redux, though, we are going to be confounded. Other elements contribute to a fascinating sound with an accessible, yet still elusive, modernist sense of style. Part of Malipiero's sense of musical flow throughout the structures of his traditional-seeming three movements in all six concertos, well, actually sounds as if he is indebted to the iconoclastic example provided by that Austrian, Anton Bruckner. Rather than lay out musical motives, then develop them, even in anything like a crash-modernist manner, Malipiero is content to juxtapose sections, within which he explores and unfolds his distinctive musical vision. His orchestrations are nothing like Bruckner's as such - the mass choirs of organ registration are far, far from us in these concertos. But the intuitive, considered progress from one Malipiero 'panel' to another is somehow reminiscent of Bruckner's self-confidence in his own religious-musical-mystical visions.
Within a given panel, that is a musical section, Malipiero has an expert ability to stay true to the basic tempo (fast, slow) while letting the panel come into more detailed musical focus. So another implicit signal here would seem to have some indescribable analogue with the visual arts, especially those more abstract and colorful panels we associate with prominent figures in twentieth-century painting. Working in music rather than brushwork, Malipiero nevertheless is able to disclose panels which linger distinct as they fall on the listening ear, much as Mark Rothko or Jackson Pollock seem abstract in painting yet reach out directly to viewers.
In some manner, Malipiero is bypassing some customs and contexts in western classical music, yet remains surprisingly accessible in his musical materials, such that few will need prep classes to be ready to meet his piano concertos. Once introduced, one gets another surprising flavor of association - Darius Milhaud. Part of that is Malipiero's spiced-up harmonies. But not all of that. A breezy sense of cinema and travelogue comes across through all six concertos. Yet none of the concertos ever jells into anything nearly as musically positioned, as, say, much of Francis Poulenc.
Finally, Malipiero is artistically Italian to the roots. His tonal colors are brilliant and vary according to a long-established sense of how light falls upon the world in Italian arts. The first connotations may be linked to visual arts; but just think of the open-air sense of outdoors (both countryside and great public squares?) that Vivaldi or Respighi captures, and you will be associating in the right musical or expressive directions.
Malipiero's piano writing also has its own odd style. He keeps his pianists busy, but hardly ever in any traditional or usual sense of virtuoso display. Busy, declamatory, figurative - the piano sounds off. But the piano's music in Malipiero is nearly ever integrated into the overall orchestral landscape. So yet another subtle influence may arise, since among warhorse composers we already know, such an integration of the piano with the orchestra is a fair description of Johannes Brahms.
Given these disparate associations, review readers must be thoroughly confused by now. Yet, these and other associations are true as far as they go, and Malipiero makes something that is his only, from his influences and his myriad musical colors.
The super audio surround sound really helps to put all of this color and play, on display sonically. The upper strings can go a tad steely at times; but the bright lights and glowing forces of Malipiero's tonal palette are all present, thanks to high resolution and multiple channels.
I find myself thinking that - if you as a listener like Darius Milhaud, or Canadian Pierre Mercure? - you will have a very good chance of really warming up to the Malipiero piano concertos.
Recommended, all adventurous, five stars.