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Caetani's piano works (CD Brilliant Classics - Alessandra Ammara, 2014)

Roffredo Caetani (1871 – 1961) is one of the most interesting Italian composers active at the turn of the 20th century. His aristocratic origins allowed him, right from his childhood, to be in contact with some of the most eminent personalities of the cultural world at the time. Godson of Liszt and a pupil of Sgambati, Caetani was able to keep up with the latest musical tendencies of the period, adapting them to his own needs and personal style. A large part of his not so extensive output was dedicated to the piano. This CD contains two of his most significant works for piano: the Sonata op. 3 and the pieces that make up op. 9, including the Ballata, the 4 Impromptus and the Toccata. Listening to these pieces it is possible to appreciate the eclecticism and originality of his music and, at the same time, perceive its link with the great musical tradition of European Romanticism. Typical features of his style are the fatalistic conception of the musical narration, and his preference for gloomy atmospheres and veiled sonorities. His systematic use of a rigorous polyphony and the relentless search for particularly daring and dissonant harmonies are evidence of his solid grounding as a composer and his open-mindedness towards the very latest tendencies in European culture. 


Written in 1893, when he was just 22, the Sonata op. 3 is Caetani’s most ambitious piece for piano and is one of the most accomplished works for piano written by an Italian composer at the end of the 19th century. The three broad movements are cyclic in nature, making use of the same group of themes. The first movement owes much to the classical sonata form, although with a notably extended exposition. The first theme lends the opening of the Sonata a pastoral and intimate character, that nevertheless gradually takes on more fervent tones, reaching moments of strong intensity and harmonic complexity. 

The second movement, Un poco lento, is a vast canvas of melancholy and pensiveness. Its intricate structure is enlivened by episodes of a more animated character and sudden dynamic flairs, and represents the poetic core of the entire Sonata. The concluding Allegro assai constitutes the virtuosic peak of Caetani’s piano writing that exploits the potentials of the piano to the full: there are numerous split octaves, tremolos and double thirds, within an emotional climate of the highest tension. Typical of Caetani is the coexistence of darkness and light, and this movement too is not lacking in moments where the mood passes, without warning, from desperate gloom to sudden joy, for instance in the re-emergence of the first theme of the first movement and in the swirling final coda. 


The Ballata op. 9 (1899) is perhaps the most modern and most inspired of Caetani’s works for piano, on account of the bold chromaticisms and the obsessive insistence on the tonic pedal of F sharp minor. The narrative tone hinting at ancient medieval legends, present also in the Ballades of Chopin and Brahms, here takes on a fatalistic character. This is further accentuated by the constant, dauntless ternary rhythm which, without a pause, pervades the entire formal structure of the piece, reinforcing its cohesion and dramatic tension. Caetani had a profound and impassioned knowledge of the works of Wagner: in fact, in the Ballata one can distinguish numerous Wagnerian touches, here efficiently transposed into the piano idiom. The predominance of the lowest register of the piano creates a climate of enchanted gloom. This gives rise to a sense of restless pessimism, no longer stemming from concrete experience, but rather sublimated to a higher level of abstraction. 


In the Impromptus of op. 9 Caetani embarks on a shorter pianistic form, of a lighter and more intimate nature. The pieces were most likely conceived for performance in the refined environment of a salon, rather than in the concert hall. However, beneath the apparently carefree tone there lie more complex ripples: the fine contrapuntal writing is in fact enriched by a persistent chromaticism in the melody lines. The resulting harmonic ambiguity expresses an underlying unease, a search for gratification that is only partially satisfied. The Impromptus are not without echoes of other composers (there is a clear homage to Schumann in n. 3) or popular references, as in Impromptu n. 1. March rhythms (central part of n. 1) alternate with prevalently lyrical atmospheres, and there are frequent similarities between the themes of the four pieces: for example, the similarity between the opening themes of the first and second Impromptu is quite evident. From a formal point of view, the Impromptu n. 4 is certainly the most complex. Particularly surprising are the repeated interruptions of the discourse and the polyrhythmic overlappings of the countermelodies, this too a clear inheritance from Schumann. 


The Toccata op. 9 belongs to the tradition of the virtuoso Toccatas for keyboard, dating back to the baroque repertory for harpsichord and organ. Caetani draws on this world for the clarity of the polyphony and freshness of the writing, while, once again, the most explicit reference is to Schumann, to his Toccata op. 7, especially in the insistence on tricky passages of double notes and the almost obsessive reiteration of the same thematic cells. The boldness of the harmonies and the occasional polyrhythmic tracts make the Toccata, too, a modern piece and representative of the singular piano idiom of Caetani. 


This is the first commercial recording dedicated to Roffredo Caetani’s piano music. Many listeners may ask themselves why music of such quality and expressive power has remained neglected and unrecorded. One of the reasons can surely be found in the reserved character of Roffredo Caetani, composer by vocation, but certainly not of necessity: he clearly wrote just for himself and did little to promote or diffuse his music publicly. Another reason, by no means secondary, lies in the dispassionate complexity underlying the interpretation and performance of his music, and in particular of the Sonata. We hope, then, that this CD, made with the precious contribution of the Fondazione Roffredo Caetani, will help to do justice to the value of this composer, who without doubt is one of the most important representatives of Italian instrumental music at the end of the 19th century. 


Roberto Prosseda