GIANNINI Piano Quintet. Piano Trio

GIANNINI Piano Quintet. Piano Trio ● Joana Genova (vn); Stefan Milenkovich (vn); Ariel Rudiakov (va); Ani Aznavoorian (vc); Adam Neiman (pn) ● MSR CLASSICS MS-1394 (61:00)

There is a compact disc entitled, “Hopelessly Romantic” that features 24 heartfelt songs by Vittorio Giannini. This new release, comprising two chamber works composed at about the same time as those songs, could easily bear the same appellation. Giannini (1903-1966) is a hard composer for whom to form a Gestalt: In his not-especially-long composing career of less than four decades, he embraced a variety of styles and genres at different times, many of them seemingly incongruous. From the perspective of today’s listener—at least of one who is attentive to the history of American music—Giannini is best known for his five works for wind band, all composed between the years 1958 and 1964 (and all may be heard on Naxos 8.570130). One of these, the Symphony No. 3 (1958) is a highpoint of the “Golden Age of American Band Music,” and is performed more often than all his other works combined. However, more seasoned specialists are aware that Giannini’s sister Dusolina was one of the great operatic sopranos of the first half of the 20th century, and that her brother’s body of work centered around more than a dozen operas composed throughout his career, of which two—The Taming of the Shrew and Beauty and the Beast—enjoy occasional productions. On the other hand, elderly vocal aficionados as well as voice teachers and their students are likely to associate his name with the sort of middle-brow art song that flourished during the early days of radio. His best known of these, “Tell Me, Oh Blue, Blue Sky,” was championed by singers from Mario Lanza to Thomas Hampson. Less well-known is the fact that he composed a total of seven symphonies during the course of his career, a number of concertos, and a modest selection of chamber works, the latter appearing mostly during his early years. Although his music does not maintain a consistently high standard of quality, with many pieces that may strike one as “potboilers,” some works are true masterpieces. Perhaps because of these complications, he remains one of the least recognized and most poorly understood American composers of his generation, although this is gradually beginning to change. The fact is that while only a small portion of his output is currently available on recordings, they include representative examples of each aspect of his oeuvre. By presenting recordings of two ambitious chamber works, this new release contributes significantly to further filling out that picture. Giannini’s music clearly illustrates the distinction between the stylistic designations “late-romantic” and “neo-romantic.” Naxos 8.559352 offers both his Piano Concerto of 1934 and his Symphony No. 4 (really his sixth), composed in 1959, and these two works epitomize this distinction, which I will not belabor here.

The two chamber works presented on this remarkable and most worthy new release date from the early 1930s, and both are clear examples of his “late-romantic” style. His particular “sound” might be characterized as falling near the intersection of Fauré, Korngold, Grieg, Dohnanyi, and even Dvořák, enlivened by occasional harmonic usages suggesting the influence of Debussy. In short, they are thoroughly Eurocentric, without the slightest hint of Americana. To place the two works in historical context it might be useful to consider such approximate contemporaries as Howard Hanson, who  composed his “Romantic” Symphony in 1930, and Samuel Barber, whose equally Eurocentric, Brahms-influenced Sonata for Cello and Piano appeared in 1932, while the famous Adagio came just four years later. But it is also relevant to recall that Aaron Copland’s “Short Symphony” was composed at this time as well. (Interestingly, Giannini studied with Rubin Goldmark just a few years after Copland did.) In the works just cited, both Hanson and Barber had, despite their extreme conservatism and reverence of past masters, begun to develop identifiable voices of their own. But at this point in his career Giannini had not, and his delay in doing so, which provoked a good deal of criticism in the press, was perhaps largely responsible for the general lack of interest in his music to this day, although during the 1940s a distinct “Giannini sound” had begun to emerge.

Though Giannini repeatedly faced the charge that his music lacked an individual voice, there was little criticism of his compositional technique, honed during years of study in Italy on a Prix de Romeprior to his tutelage under Goldmark in New York. Hence he became one of the country’s most active teachers of composition, on the faculties of the Juilliard School, the Manhattan School of Music, and the Curtis Institute; his last major achievement was the founding of the North Carolina School of the Arts.

The one expressive element that runs throughout Giannini’s compositional output from beginning to end is its surging emotional fervor, and this is evident in both the Quintet and the Trio presented here. The luxuriant Piano Quintet, composed in 1930, is the stronger of the two works. Lyricism was always Giannini’s greatest gift, and it is his slow movements that tend to show his personality most clearly. That is certainly the case here: the Adagio introduces a limpid melody that builds gradually to a soaring climax that hinges on a harmonic device of which the composer was especially fond: an alternation between triads a tritone apart. The 12-minute first movement is based on a theme in quintuple meter that is subjected to an elaborate, leisurely, and extravagantly emotional course of development. The last movement is less interesting, and strongly reminiscent of the work of his esteemed predecessors.

Giannini’s Piano Trio of 1933 is passionately ecstatic from the outset, and, like the Quintet, boasts a slow movement of unabashed effusiveness. Also like the quintet, the essentially late-19th-century language is spiced with an occasional augmented-11th chord and parallel triads moving along the whole-tone scale. But despite these devices, and the music’s undeniable fervor, both works feel constrained by an almost slavish adherence to conventional expressive boundaries and obligatory developmental routines. This diminishes the impact of the Trio quite a bit more than it does the Quintet. True, Barber’s Cello Sonata displays a similar debt to Brahms and his compositional conventions; but the work itself does not exhibit the sense of excessive diligence and deferential compliance that mark these Giannini pieces, especially the Trio. In fact, the Trio comes to a rather striking and enigmatic conclusion: After the remarkably conventional working through of its material, it ends with a cadence so incongruous with the rest of the work that it seems to suggest some sort of mockery—of itself or perhaps of its limitations.

I must state unequivocally that the performances of both works, featuring musicians associated with Vermont’s Manchester Music Festival, are utterly superb. Both pieces are played with the care, refinement, subtlety, and precision usually accorded acknowledged masterpieces. Though these works may not reach that standard, they are fascinating early examples of a composer I consider to be the most unfairly neglected of his generation.

Readers interested in acquainting themselves with works that represent the heights attained by Giannini in his prime are referred to his Symphony No. 4—one of the great neo-romantic essays in the genre—as well as to his Piano Sonata, the Variations and Fugue for band, and the Psalm 130 for double-bass and orchestra. All these works are represented by good performances currently available on compact disc. However the work that is perhaps his greatest—The Medead, a four-movement monodrama for soprano and orchestra—has never been recorded.