Violinist Irvine Arditti stars in the Philharmonia Orchestra's first Music of Today performance of 2018. Watch the free performance on Thursday 8 February at Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall. In this post, Tim Rutherford-Johnson introduces the music of Salvatore Sciarrino and Aureliano Cattaneo.
Niccolò Paganini’s 24 Caprices, probably composed in 1817, are among the pinnacles of the virtuoso violin repertory, each one a study in an element of fantastical technique – rapid string changes, double trills, three- and four-note chords, and more. The last of the set, which brings many of these techniques together, has been described as one of the most difficult pieces ever composed for solo violin.
For his own set of caprices, written in 1976, Salvatore Sciarrino turned to six of Paganini’s 24, writing new works that don’t exactly quote their 19th-century models, but instead eerily shadow them. It is as though the Paganini caprices are photographic negatives that Sciarrino has exposed to too much light, or the wrong combination of developing chemicals, to produce related but very different images.
The Sei Capricci are all quiet, without any of the grandstanding bombast of Paganini’s opus 1. The music is almost entirely written in harmonics – notes produced by only lightly touching the strings and sounding much higher and quieter as a result – and employs a number of techniques, such as brushing the strings lengthwise with the bow, or tapping them with the left hand only, designed to produce exceptionally delicate sounds. Yet an irony of the music is that for all its sonic reticence it is no less difficult than the Paganini, and calls for a contemporary virtuoso of the stature of Irvine Arditti (who recently recorded the set). Indeed, that reticence is often a result of the underlying virtuosity: in Sciarrino’s first caprice, rapid ‘ricochet’ arpeggios across all four strings occur at such a speed that the strings themselves have hardly any time to sound; Paganini’s original outline (to which Sciarrino sticks closely on this occasion) seems to dissolve behind a haze of frictionful noise.
Until 2006, Aureliano Cattaneo had composed almost exclusively for chamber ensemble, developing a sensually intricate style that was nevertheless grounded in a dramatic, even Romantic, sensibility. In works such as his Trio for violin, cello and accordion (2002) moments of extreme fragility contrast with explosive emotions that are only heightened by their intimate setting.
Cattaneo was close to the late Italian poet Eduardo Sanguineti (1930–2010) and they collaborated on a chamber opera, La philosophie dans la labyrinthe, in 2006; Cattaneo also set his poetry in the vocal cycle Parole di settembre (2013). Sanguineti, a leading voice of Italy’s postwar avant-garde, has been described (by his translator Will Schutt) as ‘a poet of the jump-cut, of the mind-in-motion’, and something of his style – a lyricism of fragments, of fleet shifts of weight and perspective – can be heard in Cattaneo’s music.
Cattaneo’s exclusive focus on chamber music ended with the composition of his Violin Concerto between 2006 and 2008. He has written of the daunting challenge of managing the relationship between soloist and such a large accompanying group, and found an answer in treating the orchestra as a ‘super chamber group’. The ensemble version performed this evening, and composed a few years later, was an attempt to resolve that tension differently, through inversion – this time, treating the chamber ensemble as though it were an orchestra. The violin part remained the same, but its surroundings took on new, sharper colours, with unusual instruments such as accordion playing a role. The concerto’s four movements follow a relatively traditional introduction-slow-fast-conclusion structure, but Cattaneo’s soundworld, in which noise of all kinds stands on an equal footing with exquisite melody, is unmistakably contemporary.
© Tim Rutherford-Johnson, 2017
Tim Rutherford-Johnson is author of Music after the Fall: Modern Composition and Culture since 1989 (University of California Press).