If I could vacation anywhere in the world, I’d pick Italy: the food, the art and culture, even the inconsistent trains and crazy drivers. There’s a slim chance I’ll get there later this summer. But it’s time now to indulge in some armchair listening, and I’ve been soaking up new releases of 20th-century Italian music, wonderful discoveries among them.Between 1994 and 1997, Metier released live performances of six contemporary Italian pieces by the Firebird Ensemble under the proficient direction of Barrie Webb (who has a second career as a virtuoso trombonist).
Opening with blasts of frenetic energy, Enrico Correggia’s Già l’Eolia di Notte … takes a bit more than seven minutes finally to wind down to nothingness. Winds, brass and strings take on different material and personalities. After the opening, flutes enter with trills suggesting Nielsen’s landscapes while the violins twitter like mechanical birds. Defying conventional form, the instrument groups gradually intertwine as the work’s pulse slackens and fades away. The form of Ada Gentile’s delicate In un Silenzio Ordinato is similarly unusual, the sparse chamber ensemble evoking night sounds, unsure whether to be soporific or sinister. In the Correggia and the Gentile, the violins occupy the foreground; the works with soloists are more appropriately balanced.
Soprano Alison Wells appears in two song settings, Francesconi’s Viaggiatore Insonne and Dario Maggi’s Im finsteren Wald. Maggi’s setting of Georg Trakl’s Passion for voice, clarinet, marimba and piano reveals a distinct sensitivity to Trakl’s potent text. Curiously, Francesconi’s setting of Italian is more Teutonic than Maggi’s handling of German. Viaggiatore Insonne (“Sleepless Traveler” by Sandro Penna) is craggy and restless.
Roger Heaton is the clarinet soloist in Scelsi’s concerto-like Kya. With respect to Francesconi’s Viaggiatore Insonne, this is like stepping out into wintry weather from the bustle and warmth of an indoors party. Heaton provides a velvety line to Scelsi’s otherworldly music. The three-movement Kya (slow, slower and fast) builds from a single-pitched background, the clarinet ornamenting the pitch as if tuning. The accompanying ensemble is a mere seven players, but the microtonal playing and the rich layer of harmonies create the illusion of many more. Heaton and Firebird best Rémi Lerner with the Ensemble 2e2m on Adda 581 189, and the clarinet’s timbre is preferable to the saxophone version (Federico Mondelci on Ina Mémoire Vive 262009).
Christopher Redgate alternates between oboe and English horn as soloist in Francesconi’s Plot in Fiction, an agitated, irritable composition with a supporting ensemble of 11 players. The difficult solo part calls for repeated notes, double-tonguing and multiphonics. The work is over in a flash. Oboist Marieke Schut’s recording from 1990, with David Porcelijn and the ASKO Ensemble, originally on Attacca Babel 9057-4 and reissued on Montaigne MO 782032, is more diffuse than this Metier recording and lacks the unbridled intensity that makes the piece so exciting.
There’s no music by Franco Donatoni in this collection, but he’s definitely in the background. Donatoni is the dedicatee of Francesconi’s Plot in Fiction, Maggi studied with him, and his influence is audible in the Correggia and the Gentile. Yet, it is good to know that a rewarding program of contemporary Italian music can be made without relying upon Donatoni and Berio.
We should hear more of the Firebird Ensemble. Their recording on Vienna Modern Masters 3055 featuring music of Margaret Lucy Wilkins (Webb conducts the ensemble and plays Wilkins’ 366" for solo trombone) is worth seeking out — I’ll cover it after I get back from Italy.
Grant Chu Covell
[David Lefeber] has also given some enterprising projects a degree of permanence, such as the activities of the Firebird ensemble, formed in 1988 and conducted by Barry Webb, whose disc of contemporary Italian music stems from a series of concerts they gave outside the Huddersfield Festival. This is a well-planned programme, covering several generations of composers, as well as different styles. The most obvious choices have been ignored in favour of lesser-known figures, thereby showing that the work of Luciano Berio, Luigi Nono and other living Italian composers emerged from a rich context. Luca Francesconi is the youngest composer represented, and his two pieces underline the significance of his output during the past two decades. Plot In Fiction is the better-known of the two and, though a comparatively early work, remains one of his finest achievements. It deserves to give the disc its overall title, but the other composers provide some attractive and fascinating items.
Although formed in 1988 and despite regular appearances at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, the ensemble Firebird are still not as prominent as they deserve to be. They numbering some excellent players amidst their ranks including clarinettist Roger Heaton, oboist Christopher Redgate and conductor Barrie Webb. Mr Webb also happens to be a trombonist specialising in the contemporary repertoire for the instrument.
The booklet note mentions that the principal objective of the ensemble is to tackle new works alongside the more established repertoire of the last century. They have no special allegiance to any one school or stylistic genre. This disc was recorded over a period of three years in Huddersfield where the ensemble have a residency at the university. They offer six works by five Italian composers, ranging from Giacinto Scelsi, probably the best known name, to figures who are considerable less familiar.
The only composer represented twice is Milan-born Luca Francesconi, a former student of Stockhausen and one time assistant to Luciano Berio. His Viaggiatore Insonne, of 1986, sets the fleeting poem 'Sleepless Traveller' by Sandro Penna, a text rich in visual atmosphere. This is set with the instruction that the singer delivers the words in a non-operatic way, a manner the composer relates to baroque or pre-bel canto technique. Francesconi creates passages of considerable beauty here. There are soaring and notably lyrical instrumental lines that coalesce well with the voice of Alison Wells, who is careful to never over dominate. The textures can be complex yet at the same time gentle and transparent. By comparison, the work from which the disc takes its title, Plot in Fiction, of three years later, is a harder edged affair with a greater degree of textural density. It has a solo part of stamina-sapping virtuosity, admirably played by Christopher Redgate. The key here is to find the "plot" through the "fiction", or as the composer puts it, the narrative thread that runs through the complexity and intricacy of a "forest of daily symbols".
Enrico Correggia takes as the premise for his work Già l'Eolia di Notte, the principle of Yin and Yan, or masculine and feminine. The strings assume the role of the former in astringent, melodically deprived material whilst the wind carry the greater melodic interest. An attempt at integration by the strings sees them adopt a midway point between the two initial extremes. What results is a work of interesting shifting textures, colours and textural imagination.
Ada Gentile has the distinction of being the only female composer represented. The title In un Silenzio Ordinato, gives a clue as to the low dynamic levels that figure throughout much of the work. It's a curiously satisfying piece, full of scurrying, restless energy that ultimately works itself out and fades away to nothing.
Alison Wells is at the forefront in Dario Maggi's Im finsteren Wald, a ten-minute cantata to a dark text by Georg Trakl, scored for soprano, bass clarinet, marimba and piano. Wells once again is a highly convincing soloist although I was perhaps less convinced by this work's ability to sustain interest in the manner that some of the other works achieve.
In several ways Giacinto Scelsi is the odd one out amongst these composers, the obvious reason being that he is the only non-living composer amongst those featured. But musically he also ploughed very much his own path, coming to reject the use of melody in favour of gradually shifting changes of pitch, dynamic and timbre influenced by forms of eastern meditation and actually lending his work a noticeably eastern atmosphere. Kya, for clarinet and seven instruments, is representative of this later period of his career. What his work from this period does is to effectively take music back to its very barest constituent parts. It's not easy listening but given the chance it does possess the ability to draw the listener into its very personal world.
This is a disc very much in the true Metier mould of challenging and probing our musical senses. It is however a disc that offers undoubted rewards upon repeated listening for those who allow themselves to become immersed in the "plot". The performances by Firebird are accomplished and it is to be hoped that we hear more from them in recordings to come.