Paris Translantic

Niccolò Castiglioni was born in Milan in 1932 and died there in 1996. Between 1958 and 1965 he was a regular visitor to the fabled Darmstadt summer school, and from 1966 to 1970 a visiting professor of composition in the USA, where he taught in Ann Arbor, Seattle and San Diego. The first piece on offer in this fine representative selection of his piano music, splendidly played by Sarah Nicolls,Cangianti, dates from 1959. Vintage Darmstadt, you might guess ­ and you wouldn’t be far off the mark, but it’s hardly a frosty exercise in total serialism à laBoulez’s Structures. On the contrary, it’s closer to some of Luc Ferrari’s piano music of the mid 50s, a personal take on serialism filtered through the whole history of the repertoire, tracing a line back from the hysterical virtuosity of the Stockhausen Klavierstücke via Webern to expressionistic Schoenberg to Beethoven to the baroque masters the composer apparently enjoyed so much. No traces of neoclassicism, though (which can’t always be said of Ferrari). There’s a bit of a gap between Cangianti and the Tre Pezzi ­ nearly twenty years, to be precise, during which time Castiglioni, rather like Donatoni, was moving towards his own personal and utterly irony-free version of postmodernism. The “Kinderlied ohne Worte” is, as Michael Finnissy rightly points out in his liners, distinctly Webernian, but lest you get the impression it’s all getting heavy and Germanic, the busy figuration and fondness for upper register arabesques also point towards Messiaen and Ravel. Four years later, and the ten little miniatures that make upComo io passo l’estate (“How I spend the summer”) look even further afield, to ragtime (“Arrivo a Tires”) and Gershwin (“La Fossa del Lupo”), via Satie, Debussy and Scriabin. If the major seventh and minor ninth were the intervals of choice for the Darmstadt avant-garde, Castiglioni does his level best here to bring back the good old schmaltzy third, and pianist Nicolls is right to recommend this to kids learning the piano: it’s entertaining stuff, technically challenging but rewarding and beautifully heard (check out the ravishing chords on “Antonio Ballista dorme in casa dei Carabinieri”). In 1984’s Dulce Refrigerium (Sechs Geistliche Lieder) the composer seems to be looking even further back, to Beethoven’s famous Lebewohl horn calls (Ligeti’s Horn Trio, written just a couple of years earlier, not surprisingly also explores the reference) ­ material of great significance for the composer, it would appear, since it also reappears in the distinctly late Beethovenian Sonatina written that same year. By this time the postmodernism seemed to be kicking in with a vengeance, though: where the Tre Pezzi fused diverse stylistic influences to perfection and the tiny vignettes of Come io passo approached them with simplicity and respect, it’s harder to pinpoint the composer’s real personality in the 1984 works (maybe that’s intentional ­ mid 80s Donatoni is, after all, also good at playing “Will The Real Composer Please Stand Up?”). Happily, the Beethovenian soul searching is dispensed with in the toccata-like flourishes of the disc’s closer, HE (1990), which goes back to the Darmstadt major seventh and its inversion, the noble semitone and gives them a workout both Bartókand Reich would have been proud of. There’s not enough Castiglioni out on disc,so this one comes warmly recommended.

—Dan Warburton