Petrassi Complete Concertos for Orchestra

Time to re-evaluate this distinctive contemporary musical voice?

Author: 
Arnold Whittall

Petrassi Complete Concertos for Orchestra

  • Concerto for Orchestra No 1
  • Concerto for Orchestra No 2
  • Concerto for Orchestra No 3, 'Récréation concertante'
  • Concerto for Orchestra No 4
  • Concerto for Orchestra No 5
  • Concerto for Orchestra No 6, 'Invenzione concertata'
  • Concerto for Orchestra No 7
  • Concerto for Orchestra No 8

Last year marked the birth centenaries of both Luigi Dallapiccola and Goffredo Petrassi, and although there have been signs of a revival of interest in the former, performances and recordings of Petrassi, at least outside Italy, remain rare. What better introduction to his distinctive musical world, then, than a complete set of works in a genre to which he devoted special attention?

The eight orchestral concerti span the best part of 40 years – No 1 was begun in 1933, No 8 was completed in 1972. They trace a remarkable technical and stylistic odyssey, from full-on engagement with a neo-classicism redolent of Hindemith, Stravinsky and their Italian contemporaries, to a no less forthright response to a post-war mainstream that acknowledged the achievements of Schoenberg and his followers while remaining sceptical about some of the musical consequences of various initiatives being taken in the name of progress.

It might sometimes be felt that Petrassi – an influential and revered teacher of composition – was too alert to the twists and turns of the musical world around him for his own compositional good: and he is certainly at his most immediately accessible when his distinctive angle on modernism’s fundamental features resists the seductions of opacity and turns the resulting tensions into high drama, in terms of musical argument and debate as well as of brilliant instrumental display.

In this respect the turbulent economy of the Sixth Concerto (1956-57) is exemplary, and I found the last three concerti particularly absorbing in the way relatively conventional features of rhythm and texture interact uneasily with those tendencies to unmediated contrast which more eagerly progressive avant-gardists were embracing at the time.

Compared to these later works, the concerti written between 1951 and 1955 – Nos 2 to 5 – are more difficult to warm to. Their range of reference includes such disparate mentors as Busoni, Bartók and (perhaps) Shostakovich: and at a deeper level Petrassi seems to share with other senior post-war composers like Roger Sessions and Karl Amadeus Hartmann a troubled response to a world in which old and new were in a volatile and uneasy relationship.

With the later concerti it’s possible to detect a degree of common ground with an even more disparate array of symphonists – including, from a British perspective, the likes of Fricker, Hoddinott, Gerhard and Tippett. But all this proves is that it takes time to work one’s way into Petrassi’s highly charged and deeply serious musical world. The effort, I believe, is well worthwhile, although these performances – like the earlier cycle under Zoltán Peskó – are not uniformly convincing.

Arturo Tamayo is a safe pair of hands, noted for his commitment to complex contemporary music, and he appears to be more at home with the later, abrasive Petrassi than with the textural refinements and more muted colours of the earlier pieces. The orchestra is never less than adequate but the recording seems over-reverberant for music which needs superfine articulation and balance at all dynamic levels.

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