Italian Embassy brings pianist to Wellington with interesting programme

Luciano Bellini – piano
(presented by the Embassy of Italy)

Domenico Scarlatti: Sonatas, in E, K 380 and in D minor K 64
Luciano Bellini: from the Album Mediterrando (Spartenza, Habanera, Fado, Preludio e Aria Egea, Promenade, Tramonto sul Bosforo, Sirtaky, Bolero, Saltarello)
Luciano Berio: Six Encores for Piano: Brin, Erdenklavier, Wasserklavier
Verdi: Romance without words and Waltz in F major
Leoncavallo: Canzonetta
Alban Berg, Sonata Op 1
Ferruccio Busoni, All’Italia
Alfredo Casella: Due Ricercari sul nome B.A.C.H.

The Opera House, Manners Street

Sunday 19 April, 5:30 pm

A colleague picked up information about a piano recital by a visiting Italian pianist, under the auspices of the Italian Embassy. Luciano Bellini: not a name I knew; a bare outline of his programme; some names that suggested quite serious music among some oddities and curiosities.

One has to take seriously someone advertising Berg’s Piano Sonata, as well as a couple of pieces by Italian composers of real distinction: Berio and Casella, and a perhaps slight piece by the great Italo-German pianist/composer Ferruccio Busoni. Two of Scarlatti’s little sonatas are always a nice prelude to any piano recital.

So I managed to get back on the train from the New Zealand String Quartet’s concert at Waikanae, just in time – but sadly missing the last piece at Waikanae, Dvořák’s String Quartet Op 105.

Foyer quite busy with a number of notably well-dressed people – clearly Italian: glad I wasn’t in shorts and jandals.

Luciano Bellini does not disclose his age in the material I’ve been able to see on the Internet. I’d guess early or mid 60s.

I enjoyed his Scarlatti, relaxed, graceful, pleasantly rhythmical, by no means concerned to display brilliance or speed, but simply making music in his own way.

Then came an album of shortish pieces by the pianist himself, called Mediterrando, extremely colourful and varied pieces that evoke the sounds and rhythms of many – nine – parts of what the ancient Romans and evidently Italians today, called Mare Nostrum – ‘our sea’, the Mediterranean. They began with an inspiration from Sparta, touched Spain with a habanera and Portugal with fado, Turkey, modern Greece, and so on.

Luciano Berio was a leading figure in the Italian avant-garde after the second World War, associated with the Darmstadt school with Dallapiccolo, Boulez, Stockhausen, Ligeti, Maderna … His Encores for Piano, written in the 1990s, were three in number from a total of six. Four of them, according to
notes I have found on the Internet, only in Italian, explored the sonic potential of the four elements: earth, air, fire and water, as defined by the pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles (this from the pianist’s notes); he was famous in myth for perishing in an eruption by Mount Etna on Sicily. The first, Brin – the timbral possibilities of the piano achieved through clever games with pedals and sustained notes. The other two: the ‘Earth Piano’ and the ‘Water Piano’, considered these elements in terms that reflected the understandings of the ancient Greeks.

The music itself was both intriguing and attractive, even though cast, as to be expected from Berio, in a near serial language, and Bellini’s performance exposed its colour and variety.

Two piano pieces by Verdi were interesting if unremarkable, Mendelssohn close by in the Romance without words, and a charming Waltz, not Straussian, but operatic in tone, a bit blowsey as a composition and in its playing, appropriately.

If ever you wondered what Leoncavallo did with the rest of his life after Pagliacci, here was an example: a Canzonetta, an enjoyable fast piece in dance rhythm. Can’t find a reference to it anywhere, including the only CD of his piano music I can find, by Dario Müller for Naxos.

Then came the major work, clearly intended to demonstrate that we were not hearing a mere salon piano player: Alban Berg’s piano sonata, his Opus 1. It’s gritty, more gritty that the many songs he wrote earlier, and later. Though he’d started taking lessons from Schoenberg it is not a serial work, or even atonal; however, its tonality is often obscure and it is not notable for its tunes. This was a very competent if not highly illuminating or arresting performance. Its mastery doesn’t come readily, and Bellini is to be admired for its inclusion.

Ferruccio Busoni was born in Tuscany, a brilliant pianist and conductor as well as composer, who sought to promote contemporary music, but whose own music perhaps lacked something of melodic and emotional appeal. He lived in various parts of Europe, but mostly in Berlin where he died. His most famous work might well be his piano arrangement of the Chaconne from Bach’s solo violin Partita in D minor. Bellini played his approachable salute to Italy, All’Italia, containing echoes of turn of the century compositions; the second part was in a saltarello rhythm, rhapsodic with occasional smudges. This too was far from boring.

The recital ended with another moderately familiar and quite important Italian composer, Alfredo Casella, a near contemporary of Berg, musically educated in Paris and influenced by Debussy. His 1932 Due ricercari on the name BACH, followed many who had used the letters, in German notation, as a theme for variations. The repetition of the notes B flat, A, C, B soon became too insistent. After all, the range is very small and the emphatic playing tended to obliterate whatever interest there may otherwise have been in the work.

There were a couple of very suitable encores – Musetta’s waltz song from La bohème and a Chopin mazurka.

Though it was a curiously constructed programme, there was enough variety to entertain a general audience, and a few significant pieces by important composers to engage those more anxious to explore the unexpected or unusual. Professor Bellini’s visit to Wellington was worthwhile and the Embassy is to be encouraged to undertake such ventures again. One of the ambassador’s predecessors took a very real interest in Wellington’s musical life, taking every opportunity to bring Italian music and musicians to our attention.


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