Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Stradivarius Releases Sciarrino’s Complete (?) Works for Violin and Viola

At the beginning of this month, the Italian Stradivarius label released a recording of Marco Fusi playing the “complete” works for solo violin and viola by the Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino. One has to be careful about using the adjective “complete” when the composer is still alive. This may turn out to be particularly the case where Sciarrino is concerned.

Mind you, finding out about his catalog is no easy matter. The usually reliable Wikipedia provides little more than a list of titles and dates to the point that the “Music for a solo instrument” section never bothers to identify the instrument. Fortunately, those with access to Oxford Music Online will find themselves better informed. Grove Music Online has compiled a somewhat more detailed list of works, whose Chamber section has subsections for five or more instruments, two to four instruments, solo piano, and other solo instruments. Instruments are completely specified in all categories.

From this list one learns that Sciarrino composed four works for violin or viola between 1975 and 1979. The earliest of these is “Per mattia” (for Mattia), from 1975, followed by his set of six caprices, presumably reflecting back on Niccolò Paganini, from 1976. On the viola side he composed three “brilliant” nocturnes for viola between 1974 and 1975, followed by “Ai limiti della notte” (at the limits of the night) in 1979. After that David Osmond-Smith, author of the Grove Music Online biography, observes that Sciarrino shifted his attention to the flute. (This does, indeed, account for most of the “other solo instruments” entries in the Grove listing, which also includes, in the “Transcriptions and arrangements” category, a transcription of Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 565 D minor toccata and fugue for amplified flute!) However, the Chamber entries go only as far as 2002, meaning that there is no mention of two pieces he composed in 2009, both for solo violin. One of these seems to reflect back on the six caprices, but this caprice must be played on a single string. The other has a title that seems like a rather prankish dedication, “Fre sé” (to himself). (The prevalence of coyness in this music’s rhetoric provides the strongest suggestion that Sciarrino is poking someone, performer or listener, in the ribs.)

Sciarrino has attracted at least moderate attention among musicians in San Francisco interested in contemporary works. His music has been performed in recital by both sfSound and the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players. In addition those following this site may recall that this past December, violinist Francesco D’Orazio included two of the six caprices in the program he presented at the Italian Cultural Institute. Considering that I had never even heard of Sciarrino prior to moving to the Bay Area in 1995, that definitely counts for something!

However, what is most interesting about this album is that it leaves the impression that in 2009 Sciarrino decided to pick up where he left off in 1979. Because it must be played on a single string, the new capriccio explores glissando playing in greater depth than one encounters in the earlier work. However, all of those early pieces display what may best be called a microscopic attention to instrument sonorities; and that “microscopy” is just as evident in the 2009 compositions.

The result is an album that offers up some fascinating cases for the virtues of fine-grained detail. I have to say that, from a personal point of view, this is an aesthetic stance that appeals to me. The first time I went on a mushroom hunt with John Cage, it was a very dry day, meaning that no mushrooms were to be found. Ever resourceful, Cage took out a pocket magnifying glass; and we spend the time looking at the intricate patterns of lichen formations!

Nevertheless, such detail demands focused attention; and it is unclear just how long one can maintain such a high level of focus. Thus, while any individual track of this album can be highly engaging, there is a case to be made that piecemeal listening with be to the advantage of both the composer and the listener. I would conjecture that D’Orazio decided to play only two of the caprices in his recital not only due to limitations of time but also due to limitations of highly focused attention. There is much to discover on this new album, but the listener who takes his/her time in working through the tracks will likely be the one best equipped to enjoy the fruits of that discovery.

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