Contemporay Italian composers

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

Although unsigned, there is plenty of internal evidence to identify the following review of scores by contemporary Italian composers as Brian’s work

Three important miniature scores have recently bean issued by Ricordi. An orchestral arrangement of Bach’s famous Prelude and Fugue in D major by that Italian Bach enthusiast and composer, Ottorino Respighi, also an original Quintuple concerto by him for oboe, trumpet, violin, contra bass, piano and strings; a Concerto for piano and orchestra by Ildebrando Pizzetti. Could JS Bach have heard his own great Passacaglia in C minor played under Toscanini as arranged by Ottorino Respighi, it would have moved his heart with sheer delight, - an impression of superb grandeur recreated by Respighi’s masterly orchestration.

It is with Toscanini’s performance in mind4 that we opened Respighi’s arrangement for orchestra of the Prelude and Fugue in D. The high festive character of Bach’s work, with its almost overwhelming Handelian-like urge, has been most inspiringly created in a new and more impressive guise than in its original organ form. It may be heresy to organists to say that we never wish to hear the Passacaglia on the organ again after hearing it on the orchestra. Many will transfer their affection for the organ prelude and fugue to the orchestra when they hear Respighi’s score. It is scored for piccolo, two flutes, three oboes, three clarinets, bass clarinet, three bassoons and contra bassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, bass tuba, timpani, strings and two pianos. The latter, which help to give the work unusual sonority and brilliance, are discriminatingly used (3/6 [£0.18]).

Though the Quintuple Concerto is an attractive novelty and expertly written, the various short sections create a somewhat scrappy impression. The pronounced Bach-Brahms flavour has an unusual vigour in the opening and closing sections, suggesting that the composer may one day surprise us with a piano concerto (6/-[£0.30])5.

Pizzetti’s Piano Concerto [subtitled Canti della stafione alta, and composed in 1930 – MM] is scored for a comparatively modest orchestra; piccolo, flute, oboe, cor anglais, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, strings, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, chinese gong and piano. It is in three movements. The first is broad, modal and elegiac. A beautiful song-like Adagio, in which at the commencement the piano (right hand) has a long single line melody (which might once have belonged to the flute) accompanied by strings pianissimo. The last movement is a very high spirited Rondo, ablaze with colour and brilliance. Pizzetti bows to convention so far that in the first movement he makes a pause before the coda, - but does not write a cadenza, whilst in the last movement he does write a cadenza. His new concerto gives the impression of inspiration and finely imagined workmanship (12/- [£0.60]) . It remains for English pianists and conductors to take the hint. Ricordi & co., 271 Regent Street, London W1.

  1. This took place in Queen’s Hall in 1930 and made a deep impression on Brian. In turn, Brian (according to a letter he wrote to Harold Truscott in 1958) was moved to persuade Henry Wood to perform Respighi’s arrangement of the Prelude and Fugue in D, here under review, at the Proms. [Your annotator must admit to rather sharing Brian's taste for big orchestral Bach transcriptions, which seem to be on the way out in these ‘authenticity’-conscious days: only Schoenberg’s (magnificent) version of the St Anne Prelude and Fugue seems to be opera grata now.] ↩︎

  2. Brian was apparently ignorant of the existence of Respighi’s Concerto in modo misolodico for piano and orchestra of 1924. (There is also a very early Piano Concerto of 1902.) ↩︎

Musical opinion, March 1934, p. 512