20th Century Italian Piano
Sanna Vaarni-Stradivarius 37214–76 minutes
Variety is the keynote in this imaginative collection of Italian piano music from the first quarter of the 20th Century, played with clarity, liveliness, and scintillating tone by Finnish pianist Sanna Vaarni, an artist with high intelligence and a singing line. The album opens with two hauntingly poetic pieces by Castenuovo-Tedesco from 1916 and 1920. The impressionist sounds Vaarni evokes from the piano are bewitching. Sound for its own sake is explicit in Malpiero’s Resonances, based on piano sonorities the composer was (in his words) “very much in love” with, providing a “sonic orgasm”. Dallapiccola’s six short pieces he wrote for his daughter are dodecaphonic but playful and imaginative. Dallapiccola’s style was often lyrical even in nontonal pieces, not unusual for Italian modernists.
My favorite offerings are Nino Rota’s 15 Preludes. Dancing with wit, color, and song, they are challenging show pieces, an occasion for Vaarni to show her formidable technical abilities. Rota was one of the great film composers, scoring masterpieces by Fellini, Visconti, and Coppola. (During Covid lockdown, I watched all of Fellini with a movie group: we agreed that after Rota died, some of Fellini’s magic disappeared with him.) Rota also wrote operas, concertos, and symphonies, now largely forgotten. His music is melodic, nostalgic, witty, and wildly colorful, alternating between a carnival rambunctiousness and a nostalgic melancholy.
The 1964 Preludes, mercurial and unpredictable, are largely divorced from movie associations, but not always. 4, for example, has a phrase that anticipates the gorgeous Sicily scene in “The Godfather”. 2 is dreamlike, with a shadow of darkness. 3, like so much Rota, combines whimsy and sadness. 5 moves in perpetual motion through inventive modulations. 7 is playful and romping, conveying the circus atmosphere we find in so much Fellini. Rota’s harmonies are lush or elegantly dry (he came to admire Stravinsky during his sojourn in America), as the mood requires. The finale brings the series to an exciting, virtuosic close. Christian Seibert plays all of Rota’s piano music on CO and does an impressive job. Vaarni is terrific as well, capturing the full range of Rota’s constantly shifting colors and moods.
Vaarni programs two Scelsi pieces, one early, a bangy Capriccio, the other an Orientalist fantasy. “Krishna’, gives this excellent collection a close that is both meditative and dramatic.