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CD Review

Vittorio Giannini

Chamber Music

  • Piano Quintet
  • Piano Trio
Joana Genova, violin
Stefan Milenkovich, violin
Ariel Rudiakov, viola
Ani Aznavoorian, cello
Adam Neiman, piano
MSR Classics MS1394 61:00
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Gobsmackingly good.

Music history books, particularly textbooks, tend to give the reader the impression that musical periods are as discrete as paint chips, that once Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Berlioz appeared, other composers threw over the traces of Classicism. More than occasionally, polemicists have also fostered this view, particularly in the Modern era, as they tried to make room for the new by burying the old – mostly a fool's errand, of course. Once Debussy, Stravinsky, and Schoenberg began to get heard, you still heard newly-written Romantic music. Richard Strauss died in 1949, Georg Schumann (a composer whose music needs rescue from oblivion) in 1952, both Romantics who simply hung on through the stylistic whirlwinds.

However, what of those composers who came of age well after the Modern revolution and who still practiced older styles? I don't mean someone like Samuel Barber, an artist who adapted older aesthetic attitudes to Modern idioms, but a composer like Ernst von Dohnányi, who stuck to a Brahmsian idiom throughout his life. Such composers often fall into the very difficult game of trying to equal, if not surpass, Brahms. The ones who avoid the trap seem to infuse their music with qualities Brahms doesn't have. If they're not as good as Brahms, at least they are their own selves. Such seems to me the case with Dohnányi, for example.

Until now, this embrace of a 19th-century idiom along with the lack of a strong artistic profile in Giannini bothered me, despite his rock-solid technique. After all, he taught composition at Juilliard, the Manhattan School, and Curtis. He probably had private students as well. Yet he seemed to me a classic case of "Why compete with Brahms?" Walter Simmons, in his maverick music history Voices in the Wilderness discusses Giannini among others and convinced me to take another look, but Giannini still didn't grab me. I didn't care that he chose a Romantic rather than a Modern style, because such a choice in itself obviously doesn't matter. On the other hand, despite his obvious mastery of his craft, I found him bland. Since Simmons has turned me on to so many composers, it struck me that I simply hadn't heard the right works. Now I have.

The Piano Quintet stunned me. I can call it only "magnificent." It has the oceanic roll of Brahms at his best and a lush texture. The first movement begins with a memorable, brooding theme in 5/4. I can hear some of you pounce. "Aha! Modern!" However, remember that Tchaikovsky also wrote in 5/4. Giannini takes the listener in a firm grasp and leads him through a complex argument – complex, yet easy to follow, since the themes are all memorable. The movement assumes various moods and builds to incredibly sonorous climaxes, while the texture remains clear. The sensuous slow movement, filled with the motion of rippling water, harmonically recalls French composers from the turn of the century, especially with the Fauré modulations Giannini throws in.

The finale returns us to Brahms territory, particularly the Brahms of the Zigeunerlieder (gypsy songs). A bravura sonata rondo (a rondo with architectural features from the sonata), the movement rises from two main ideas: a fast Zigeuner rhythm; a broad, soaring theme. The latter risks much. It could so easily go over the top into Max Steinerish Kitschsylvania, but never does. It sounds like an authentic expression of Giannini's musical mind. The movement proceeds like a steam locomotive interrupted by water stops and ends with a grand peroration of the gypsy theme.

The Piano Trio begins in a more relaxed manner than the Quintet, but with that same feeling of being carried along by a mighty Atlantic current. Where the Quintet always seemed to threaten emotional overflow, this movement more easily keeps its cool. Perhaps this comes down merely to the number of instruments and consequently leaner textures. At any rate, Giannini's enormous technical skill impresses me no end. Almost every facet of the composer's art stands out at the highest level: the invention of beautiful, memorable ideas; the writing for each individual instrument; the control over textural variety; the creation of argument or narrative. The first movement works with two ideas, an initially pastoral triple-time theme and a strong dactylic rhythm (the same as the first three notes of the Beethoven Ninth scherzo). Again, Brahms provides the procedural model. The seamless transitions between the two ideas – and without padding – struck me most. They lend the argument an organic quality; one theme simply grows out of the other and back again, almost like the snake that swallowed its own tail or a Möbius strip.

The slow movement also grows out of two ideas, the second again recalling Beethoven – this time, the "Abwesenheit" movement from the Piano Sonata #26, but with richer harmonies. What comes to notice this time are the gorgeous conversational interchanges among the instruments and the unusual structure – A-B-A-B-coda. Giannini labels the movement "Andante triste." If you fall into the right mood, this music can break your heart.

The finale, "Allegro non troppo, con eleganza," is a rondo of two or three themes (can't decide whether one is a variant of another), where Giannini submits each theme to extensive development, thus partaking again of sonata form. He also throws in scherzo elements. Again, this is a complex movement that is nevertheless easy to follow – another tribute to the composer's skill. The only thing I don't get about it is the "elegance" of the marking, but then I'm not very elegant myself. The movement isn't simply there pro forma; it really caps the entire work emotionally, if not motifically. All in all, a beautiful score and a trio that should have long established itself in the repertory.

These two works convince me that the Modern period overemphasized originality and lost sight of the main goal: producing intellectually and emotionally satisfying work. If composers like Giannini could achieve that within an older idiom, then more power to them, since in many ways they competed against established masters. As far as it goes, I couldn't tell Giannini in a blind drop-the-needle test, but so what, if the music satisfied me?

The Musicians of the Manchester Festival give exceptional – oh, what the heck – great performances of both scores. Each makes so much of his or her moments in the spotlight while observing perfect chamber-music courtesy that it makes little sense to single anybody out. Nevertheless, I have to name (senselessly) pianist Adam Neiman in the quintet and violinist Stefan Milankovich and cellist Ani Aznavoorian in the trio as those who gave me my deepest thrills. I'll also mention how much I like the cover art, a photo of a 1937 Alfa Romeo Spyder sports car. According to Walter Simmons, Giannini loved classic sports cars. Anyway, this album could well end up on my Ten Best of the Year list.

Copyright © 2014, Steve Schwartz