More Donatoni: The Piano Music

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DONATONI: Leoncavallo. Cloches II.* “…la Renzo de Marcella.” A Françoise. Rima. Estratto. Black and White No. 2.* Tre Improvvisazioni. Compozitione in Quattro movimenti / Maria Isabella di Carli *& Mariarosa Bodini, pno / Stradivarius STR33627

Here is yet another album, this one dating from January 2002, of Franco Donatoni’s bizarre music, these pieces being written for piano(s). You’d have a tough time guessing that the first piece on this disc, which lasts all of 35 seconds, is his tribute to Ruggiero Leoncavallo, since it sounds nothing like his music.

If you think Donatoni’s music sounded fragmentary and quirky in his chamber works, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet. These pieces are as strange as you could possibly imagine: not even motifs are present, only little grunting notes, often separated by a half-second of silence, played in succession in such a way that the music almost stumbles along. Interestingly, the almost minimal biographical information on Wikipedia gives no indication as to his composing style; I don’t think even they could figure it out. Donatoni gave you the barest possible musical gestures and let you put them together in your head, and they’re far more complex than a jigsaw puzzle. Yet at the same time, there’s something curiously attractive about this music, in part because it’s so whimsical that it somehow makes you smile. It’s just…nutty.

Yet one never gets the impression that Donatoni was someone who just threw notes against the wall to see what would stick. There was a definite method to his musical madness; it’s just not always apparent to the untrained ear. The closest I can come to characterizing his compositional style in just one word would be to call it “pointillistic.” His music is the aural equivalent of a Paul Klee pr D.U.R.A. painting. Occasionally, as in the first section of Rima,  one hears rhythms that sound somewhat regular, but these too are uncommon occurrences.

One thing I found interesting is that Donatoni stayed primarily in the high upper end of the piano; there are extremely few bass notes played in these pieces (Black and White No. 2, for two pianos, is a rare exception). This, too give the music a whimsical sound and keeps the listener on his or her toes. Somewhere along the line, it suddenly struck me that this music sounds like a musically trained piano tuner who decided to have some fun while tuning up the old 88s.

I’m not sure that pianist Maria Isabella di Carli has ever made another commercial recording besides this one, yet oddly enough there’s a live performance of the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 20 available on the Guild label, a performance conducted by Leopold Stokowski at the 1969 International Youth Festival. Personally, I’m glad that she ditched Mozart for Donatoni, but apparently she paid the price for her daring move.

The question, however, is whether or not this is music that will “stay” with you. My own personal opinion is that it is not as varied and therefore not as interesting as his chamber works. Even so, playing a few of these pieces in a recital would probably make more of an impression that hearing them all at once on this disc. Good performances, then, even if the music tends towards sameness.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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