Giacinto Scelsi (1905-1988) was a modernist Italian composer who also wrote surrealist poetry in French. He was largely unknown for most of his career, although concerts in the mid-to-late 1980s finally premiered many of his compositions to great acclaim (as per Wikipedia). Belgian musicologist Harry Halbreich said, “A whole chapter of recent musical history must be rewritten: the second half of this century is now unthinkable without Scelsi… He has inaugurated a completely new way of making music, hitherto unknown in the West.”
That statement was made regarding Scelsi’s orchestral music of the 1950s and early ‘60s, which predated György Ligeti’s work yet had similar qualities. Scelsi was fascinated by microtones, smeared pitches and other techniques that became associated with Ligeti. That in itself would be fine except for the fact that many critics and musicologists gave Ligeti the credit for being the innovator of these techniques, which Scelsi clearly pioneered.
Most of the works that established Scelsi as a pioneer near the end of his life were orchestral, i.e. Uaxuctum, Hymnos, Hurqualia and the Quattro Pezzi for Orchestra, but this album focuses on his chamber music. Without a booklet or liner notes (neither were available for download), I don’t know the chronology of these pieces, but Chemin de cœur is clearly a tonal, Romantic piece for violin and piano, almost like early Debussy or Strauss, lovely but not cloying, and is played exquisitely by violinist Markus Däunert and pianist Alessandro Stella. Dialogo for cello and piano is, however, quite treacly, and I didn’t like it at all.
Next up is the Violin Sonata, clearly from another phase of Scelsi’s development. A powerful, bitonal piano introduction leads to a jolly but modern-sounding tune played on the violin, with the piano supporting and occasionally commenting. At this phase in his career, Scelsi was moving towards a different means of expression but had not yet found his groove, so to speak. Nonetheless, this is very fine music, well constructed and with a sense of purpose. By and large, the music sounds more like early Bartók than anything by Stravinsky (who didn’t write sonatas anyway) or Prokofiev. The second movement is particularly haunting, showing Scelsi’s more tender side while still retaining harmonic interest and a clear view of construction. In the second half of this “Lento” movement, Scelsi indulges in some quite animated, almost folk-like tunes taken in double time. The last movement, marked “Allegro drammatico,” is actually more energetic and purposeful than truly dramatic, but still very interesting music. Taken altogether, this is a fine concert piece for violinists who are bored with the usual Romantic stuff.
The Piano Trio was completed in 1939—finally, a date! This is mature Scelsi, the music being much more involved with atonality although he is still clearly thinking of the music in terms of melodic development as well. It has the feel of Hindemith about it, which of course was quite unusual for an Italian composer of the 1930s. Interestingly, he doesn’t give much solo space to the cello here, using that instrument largely in a supporting role. Even the piano has much more involvement in the music’s evolution.
This release is interesting in showing Scelsi’s musical development, but by and large fans of his much more advanced orchestral works may be disappointed due to the style being more old-fashioned. Nonetheless, it is a fascinating slice of musical history in the career of a neglected and enigmatic composer.
—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley
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