Hyperion Records

Violin Sonata in A major
composer
1918/9; published by J & W Chester

Recordings
'Pizzetti & Castelnuovo-Tedesco: Violin Sonatas' (CDA67869)
Pizzetti & Castelnuovo-Tedesco: Violin Sonatas
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Details
Movement 1: Tempestoso
Movement 2: Preghiera per gl'innocenti: Molto largo
Movement 3: Vivo e fresco

Violin Sonata in A major
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Pizzetti’s Violin Sonata in A major was started in September 1918 and completed a year later. Gatti certainly wasn’t alone in considering it a major addition to the Italian chamber music repertoire, and Pizzetti’s pupil Castelnuovo-Tedesco devoted a long article to it in the Turin journal Il Pianoforte (July 1920, pp.1–5). However, at least one contemporary critic was less convinced. In The New Age (21 October 1920) Ezra Pound reviewed the first London performance of the work, given at the Aeolian Hall on 1 October 1920 by Kathleen Parlow and Charlton Keith. Pound wrote:

Pizzetti … has attained a style, or at least a personal idiosyncrasy—something to bind his various works together … in Pizzetti’s case it often causes one to wonder just why, if he is so anti-classical, he retains certain classical phrasings, on what grounds he accepts, on what grounds he rejects this or that part of the tradition. Here he has joined piano and violin so that the combination is not annoying, but he has hardly discovered a unified musical dialect. The second movement did not retain one’s attention; the third demonstrated Pizzetti’s capacity for dance tune.

Reporting on the same concert, The Times was rather more enthusiastic:

There is a severe reliance on the plain statement of ideas which shows the matured mind. The emotional sequence of the three movements is described by headings, ‘Tempestoso’, ‘Preghiera per gl’innocenti’ and ‘Vivo e fresco’, and, though a more detailed programme has been put forward connecting it with the war, it is as music and not as musical description that the hearer is asked to perceive its impressions … The influences of ecclesiastical plainchant are felt in several themes of the first two movements, and the lilt of a folksong rhythm is strong in the finale… . His most interesting moments are generally found in the entries of the violin, the first one of all, for example, where its long-drawn notes and the rise of a semitone make a remarkable contrast with the reiterated rhythm which the piano has been developing.

The Sonata was published by the British firm of J & W Chester and it was welcomed enthusiastically by Ferruccio Bonavia in The Musical Times (May 1921):

Pizzetti’s Sonata has had already an exceptionally favourable reception. Time alone will prove whether its qualities are enduring—they are undoubtedly striking … Pizzetti seems to have drawn his inspiration and his strength from the popular national form—opera. There is nothing ‘theatrical’ in the usual sense, yet he does give us the atmosphere of the drama of the theatre, but with the power, freedom and art that are essentially of the classicist.

These early reviews allude to three significant aspects of the work: its programme, specifically its link with the war; its dramatic, almost vocal style of writing in places; and Pizzetti’s individual amalgam of earlier music (particularly plainchant) with a more progressive harmonic language—all within a classical framework. The first movement is marked Tempestoso and begins with a terse piano theme, characterized by falling fourths; this rises to a climax before the first entry of the violin which plays a long phrase marked by rising and falling semitones, over the obsessive, agitated piano writing. Throughout this opening section, the violin and piano stick strictly to their own musical ideas. Following the introduction of a more solemn, chant-like melody in the piano’s lower register, the violin again answers with contrasting material: only later in the movement does it take up the piano theme. As this long, motivically rich movement draws to a close, fragments of the falling fourth idea from the start, and the violin’s plangent falling semitones push the music towards a strong close in A minor.

The second movement is the emotional heart of the work, a ‘Prayer for the Innocents’. In an article about Pizzetti for Musical Quarterly in 1923, Gatti described its programmatic outline in poetic terms: ‘Here the tempest is stilled; man again finds his faith, and clings to it with every fibre of his being; that peace which his fellow men are unable or unwilling to grant him, he humbly implores of God, while from his lips fall the tenderest, the simplest, the most heartfelt words that he has spoken since childhood.’ In a form that feels spontaneous and fluid, Pizzetti’s music in this ‘Prayer’ is sometimes declamatory, but always intensely melodic. There’s an explicitly song-like character to the aristocratic opening theme in C major: Gatti noted that the composer imagined this melody being sung to the words ‘O Signor Iddio nostro, o Signore, abbi pietà di tutti gli innocenti che non sanno perchè si deve soffrire’ (‘O Lord our God, O Lord, have pity on all the innocent ones who know not why they have to suffer’). The same theme makes an intense and passionate return later in the movement (now in E major, and on the violin).

The finale brings with it a sense of optimism and renewal, though in purely musical terms it is not perhaps as imaginative and resourceful as the first two movements. But it bristles with dance-like vitality, leading to a broad and noble close.

The late John C G Waterhouse, Britain’s leading authority on twentieth-century Italian music, was in no doubt about the quality of Pizzetti’s Violin Sonata, describing it as ‘much the most impressive sonata for violin and piano that has ever been written by an Italian’. It was regularly played abroad, and the composer himself included it in a concert of his chamber music at the Library of Congress in Washington DC on 5 March 1930, during his first visit to the United States. He was already a familiar name to American concert audiences: announcing the 1930 visit, Time magazine described Pizzetti as ‘the famed Italian composer’ and hailed his stay as ‘a major musical event’—its patrons included Pizzetti’s friend Toscanini, the Director of the Metropolitan Opera Giulio Gatti-Casazza, Helen Astor, and Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, who had commissioned Pizzetti’s Piano Trio in 1925 and would later commission his Second String Quartet. Yehudi Menuhin recorded the Violin Sonata with his sister Hephzibah in May 1938—a remarkable but well-deserved vote of confidence from a British record company in a modern Italian instrumental work lasting almost half an hour.

from notes by Nigel Simeone © 2014

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