Duo Gazzana, consisting of the Italian sisters Natascia Gazzana on violin and Raffaella Gazzana on piano, made its debut on ECM New Series on November 1, 2011. The program for the album brought together four composers active during the period from the early 20th century to the early 21st. Their second album was released at the end of this past April. This time there is more of a sense of an overall unifying theme, best captured by the title of the essay by Wolfgang Schreiber (translated into English by J. Bradford Robinson) for the accompanying booklet, “Modern Sounds on Old Backdrops.”
While I usually do not like to quibble with translators, I feel it fair to point out that the original German noun at the end of that title is “Grund.” Left to my own devices, I probably would have translated it as “foundation.” My reasoning is as follows: The five composers whose music is performed, Alfred Schnittke, Francis Poulenc, Valentin Silvestrov, William Walton, and Luigi Dallapiccola, may have little in common; but they were all products of the sorts of pedagogical practices experienced by serious students of composition during the twentieth century. Those practices included the extensive study of what “common practice” was during different periods of music history, usually with the most attention paid to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
In other words, while these composers may have shared nothing else, they still shared a common context (Grund) within which one both thought about and practiced the craft of making music. The compositions selected by Duo Gazzana may thus be described as explicit reflections on that context. This might be called the strategy of “moving forward while looking backward.” Thus, what is most appealing about this album is the way in which it demonstrates that this common strategy can be implemented in some very diverse ways.
One reason for that diversity, of course, is that this “musical Grund” is never the only context brought to the practice of making music. There is also the broader context of Weltanschauung, which may be translated literally as “world-view” and may also be described as the mindset we acquire as a result of what Martin Heidegger called “being-in-the-world.” Thus, to give one striking example, while Poulenc and Schnittke may have experienced the same basic curriculum in their music studies, one experienced that curriculum while France was in the middle of the First World War while the other had to endure life under Soviet authority.
Indeed, Schnittke was particularly aware of the music of Dmitri Shostakovich; but he was probably just as aware of that composer’s tenuous relationship with the political hacks whose job it was to monitor his activities (and those of all other Soviet composers). As a result, we have good reason to believe that Schnittke developed his own “encryption techniques,” coming up with “politically correct” surface structures, whose “deep structures,” had they been detected, could have gotten him into big trouble. His 1972 suite of five movements, each of which is based on a seventeenth-century structural form, has been approached as such an “encrypted” composition; and it therefore makes for an admirable way to begin the new Duo Gazzana album.
Poulenc, on the other hand, could get away with being more flippant toward authority. Indeed, as a member of Les Six, six French composers brought together by Jean Cocteau out of a shared admiration for the musical absurdities of Erik Satie, provoking authority was practically an ideological imperative. His violin sonata serves up a healthy share of those provocations, all with ebullient good nature and with none of Schnittke’s suspicions about who might be looking over his shoulder.
These two compositions account for most of the new Duo Gazzana recording. There are also three short pieces on the remainder of the album. Two of them are reflections on the practices of specific composers, Johann Sebastian Bach for Silvestrov and Giuseppe Tartini for Luigi Dallapiccola, both of whom enjoyed reputations for their versatility on the violin. The remaining selection is a toccata by William Walton, which is less explicit in its retrospection and may actually be more in the manner of a through-composed improvisation that honors the toccata in spirit without drawing upon any specific instance of that form during the Baroque period.
Taken as a whole, this is a recording of impressive execution based on serious musicianship. After all, both of the performers share that same “musical Grund” with the five composers whose works they are performing. More importantly, however, their readings of these five compositions also show awareness of that “extended context” of Weltanschauung. The attentive listener may thus appreciate each of the composers not only for his own craft but also for those factors that differentiate him from the other composers on the album. Is this not what we should expect from any satisfying listening experience?