Having the honour of curating the complete re-edition of Carlo Alfredo Piatti’s compositions (1822—1901) is, for a cellist, the dream of a lifetime. During the ordinary course of Italian academic studies, his Capriccios (op. 25) for solo cello occupy several years of study, while the benefits they bring to one’s virtuoso technique and expression never fade. As it often happens with the drafting of academic study programs, all compositions excluded from them inevitably get forgotten. After graduation, you will have to focus on finding a job (in a school, in an orchestra, in a chamber ensemble, or as a soloist), and the study of new repertoire will take a back seat, even if only for sheer lack of time. The result is a host of students who will always perform the same pieces, without ever developing a desire for researching new ones. Luckily, my nonconformist instinct has allowed me to develop a real hunger for the unknown, for the unjustly buried, for the forgotten, from the early years of the conservatory.
The piece I present you today comes immediately after the Elegy on the death of Anton Rubinstein for two cellos (recently published), and was written in March 1895 to celebrate his recent recovery. It is a piece of crazy difficulty, which has nothing to envy to the absolute protagonist of the stages, David Popper‘s Dance of the Elves, neither in beauty nor complexity, in which the cello literally “runs” along the path drawn to him by the piano. I would like to dwell for a moment on how this piece was written, and performed, by a cellist at the age of 73. This should give you an idea of Piatti’s level of technical mastery of the cello, a real whole with the instrument.
The Race begins with a tremolo in the right hand of the piano, combined with a chromatic ascent of the left hand, before two chords (Dominant-Tonic) signal to the cellist that it is time to start. From now, and for the remaining 135 bars of the piece, the cello will only perform 16th notes, emphasising how the “tarmac grip” of the bow gets prioritised over the difficulties presented by the left hand. The first period seems almost like a test lap in which the piano marks the beginning of each bar, followed by two echoes reminiscent of fey creatures dancing on tiptoe on the surface of a pond, while the cello takes off toward the high register, ready to unleash its virtuosity. In the following modulating bridge, the piano tries to change tactics, playing three upbeat notes every two bars, but this does not prevent the cello from disorienting it to the point that, almost as a surprise, on b. 29, the initial theme returns. However, it is immediately varied, mixing elements of episode B, and proposing a roller coaster progression in which arpeggios in the octave position give way to elements of extreme agility. A few bars without the piano prelude to the most difficult passage of the piece, all in double strings and in the thumb position. The piano has finally understood how it cannot only accompany, rather it must dare, proposing a bold melody itself. The next episode is a harmonisation of a chromatic scale, one that leads us to climb the most extreme peaks of the cello keyboard, ending up in a passage full of natural harmonics. Then two periods full of scales, arpeggios and descending progressions alternate, in which one can really perceive the cellist as the driver of a racing car: he accelerates, steers, brakes, plans, improvises, all without ever losing sight of the path. Obviously, slowing down is just an acoustic illusion created by the rhythmic distribution of notes, an artifice of which Piatti was a true master. The initial theme comes back once again, but only for two bars, almost a bell announcing the last lap. Diminished seventh arpeggios in dyads rise to the top of the keyboard several times until a syncopated rhythm at the piano and a melodic progression to the cello announce to us that we are reaching the end. The last straight, marked “Più presto” is a continuous up-and-down of F major scales, surrounded by two sets of chords that, like a checkered flag, seal our short but exciting race.
I would like now to quote Piatti’s biographer, Vittorio Camplani, where he resumes the story interrupted in the previous edition on the Elegy and explains the birth of this wonderful piece (I have personally translated it from the beginning of XX century Italian version):
« That year marking the glorious career of half a century was not favourable to his health. His usual holidays a matter of the past, in October 1894 he was getting ready to “pack his things”—as he wrote his doctor—towards England. A disorder that had slightly disturbed his for some time, though, turned into a true illness which forced him, under the doctors’ advice, to delay his leaving to another time, as the trip could have only severely worsened his condition.
Annoyed by that and with his plans disrupted, he didn’t know how to adapt to this new scenario; then, forced by the events, he had to give in and stay at the Crocette with his son-in-law. To amplify the effect of the illness upon him came the unexpected death of the colleague and friend A. Rubinstein, in November, an event that depressed him immensely, causing him great pain. But even as crippled as he was, he managed to find a way to honour such loss by composing a very sad elegy for two cellos, on his friend’s death, and dedicating it to the doctor who was then assisting him, a passionate amateur and a fervent supporter of his.
Soon after the illness worsened, becoming serious to the point of making him fear for his life. So much had this man had to suffer, orphaned of his art and far from his field of glory! The doctor who was pleased and honoured to offer his medical skills in aid to his friend, understood very well what was the true nature of his struggle. At times, deprived of all that was his warmest aspiration, one could see him dissipate in a thick darkness; at others, to keep himself up, he recalled his concerts, and the anecdotes of his artistic life. He chatted about this or that musical achievement with those who came to visit him, and everyone’s heart was full of hope: some other days, instead, were sadder, and he withdrew into total silence, or, at most, pronounced a few bleak words or expressions that left everyone in pain. — During such illness I have been able to experience how British’s friendship, which appears so cold and muted to the warm and expansive Italian soul, was, instead, strong and tenacious. Many came from there expressly to visit and assist him; uncountable letters asked updates on his health with impatience, showing how highly esteemed he was in England.
Finally, thanks to his strong constitution, after passing through good and bad moments, and mildly supported by the doggedness of the medical interventions, by some considered vain, he was declared out of danger. On March 2, 1895, following the positive outcome of a surgical operation, he was able to recover completely. As soon as he was able to grab a pencil, he entrusted his discouragement and the affliction of the sad days spent at a mournful and penetrating melody, the Entreaty, which was followed by the Race, still unpublished, a page full of panache, and of very difficult execution, suitable for loosening up his fingers and to express a happy event, as it could be that of his regained health. »
A heartfelt thanks goes once again to my dear friend and musicologist Annalisa Barzanò, without whose help and support none of this could ever have been achieved. Thank you also to Janey Bennett for the continuous care she takes of my English language.
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Thank you, and happy music!