Martucci’s Chamber Music Given Elegant Treatment

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MARTUCCI: Piano Trios Nos. 1 & 2. Piano Quintet in C, Op. 45. Momento Musicale for String Quartet. Minuetto for String Quartet. 3 Pieces of G.F. Handel transcribed for String Quartet / Maria Semeraro, pianist; Quartetto Noferini / Brilliant Classics BRI-94968

Several years ago, I discovered the music of Giuseppe Martucci through some rare broadcasts by Arturo Toscanini: the Canzone dei Ricordi with mezzo-soprano Bruna Castagna, the Piano Concerto No. 2 with Mieczyslaw Horszowski, the First Symphony, the Tarantella and the Noveletta. I thought it surprisingly good and interesting, but when I tried to share my enthusiasm with others in the music critic biz I was rebuffed with deprecating comments. The Canzone dei Ricordi was “drippy and depressing” (oh, like Bruckner isn’t?), the Symphony and the Concerto just ripped off Brahms. To them, Martucci wasn’t an original composer, just an Italian wanna-be hack.

But wait a minute. I’ve yet to hear any serious composer in the years between 1803 and 1850 who wasn’t influenced to some extent—and sometimes to a great extent—by Beethoven, and this includes Schubert, Schumann and young Brahms. And I’ve heard very few composers during the period of Brahms’ height who weren’t influenced by him, or by Wagner (who actually heard Martucci play piano once), and this included a fair amount of French composers. What I hear in Martucci is an Italianate expression of the Brahmsian approach to writing, but also a style informed to a large extent by Wagner (harmonically) and Schubert (melodically). Yet in the end, what I really hear is Martucci, a fine, serious yet lyrical composer who really did try to recover the lost art—in his time—of Italian instrumental writing. Yes, he was eventually superseded by such composers as Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Ghedini, Rieti and Petrassi, but it was a start.

Pianist Semeraro and members of the Quartetto Noferini—specifically violinist Roberto Noferini and cellist Andrea Noferini, when they’re not playing together in the string quartets or piano quintet—do their level best to bring this music to life. They do not have what I would describe as a “dynamic” sound profile, but rather a lyrical and reflective one, thus the music presented here is not attacked with razor-sharp downbows or crashing piano chords. In lieu of that we hear sweet and gentle phrases coaxes out of the strings and a bubbling rhythmic undercurrent from the piano. Once in a great while, when the strings play rapid passages together, I hear very slight intonation differences. But taken in whole, these are performances of great love and respect for the music, and that overcomes any small defects one hears along the way. Yes, I would have preferred a bit more energy here and there, but these musicians make the music swell and pulsate; they give it life; they sing it from their hearts. And that is enough to make one realize that Martucco may not have been a great master, but he was indeed great enough to express something deep within him

Like so many Romantic-era composers, Martucci put melodic content above harmonic or rhythmic innovation. Having just reviewed C.P.E. Bach’s organ sonatas before listening to this set, I was a bit taken back by the more conventional harmony one hears in the later Italian composer, but this was to be expected. Even Brahms liked good melodies, only occasionally (as in his Fourth Symphony) moving past the creation of recognizable tunes to produce complex music that was tonal and melodic but relied more strongly on the interworkings of the score than the projection of songfulness. If I had to pick one movement here that I felt was a bit too songful and not strong enough structurally, it would be the Andante con moto of the Piano Quintet. Despite a wonderful moment around 6:50 where the music swells into a climax of remarkable proportions, most of it just sort of toodles along, and I’m not so sure these musicians know what “con moto” means because there is very little “moto” in their mojo. But there is a tradeoff. Pianist Aldo Orvieto and members of the Ex Novo Ensemble di Venezia play this movement a bit quicker on a Dynamic CD, but in turn they lose the feeling that Semerano and the Noferinis put into it. And certainly, the Noferinis rip into the Scherzo with tremendous brio and vigor.

I was particularly taken by the Second Piano Trio, a work of great vigor, invention and emotion. In her liner notes, Andrea Noferini correctly points out that Martucci’s style never evolved, even in the early years of the 20th century (he died in 1909), to the heights achieved by French (Debussy, Dukas and Ravel), Russian (Scriabin and Stravinsky) or German composers (Mahler, young Schoenberg). He was a bit too set in his ways; yet he, like York Bowen after him, found new expression in conventional tonality. Somehow when critics want to tar Martucci for not “growing” harmonically they exempt his model, Brahms, because somehow Brahms was superior to all living beings. Indeed, the huge (almost 11 minute) Scherzo is one of Martucci’s finest creations, and in this movement pianist Semeraro really opens up her sound and plays with both passion and vigor. It’s quite a performance!

The short pieces for string quartet are charming but lightweight, yet the main point of this set is not that Martucci was a transcendent genius whose music was far ahead of its time, but that he was a serious and uncompromising composer who did not crank out insignificant or inferior music to order but who spent a great deal of time and thought putting his scores together. And Maria Semeraro and the Noferini Quartet bring it to you at a bargain price. How can you go wrong?

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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