By Ralph Hartsock
Italian composer Elisabetta Brusa studied at the conservatory in Milan and later in England with Peter Maxwell Davies. Since 1980 she has taught composition at the Conservatorios of Vicenza, Mantova and Brescia, and since 1985 at the Conservatorio of Milan.
Orchestral color is one of the main elements of Firelights (1992-93), with its piercing piccolo passages, pitched percussive accents, brass fanfares in contrapuntal dissonance to the woodwinds and strings and other varied orchestral timbres. Adagio (1996) for string orchestra exudes serenity but is more intense than the familiar Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber. According to the composer, “neo-tonal techniques are amalgamated with contrapuntal techniques.” Among the most striking aspects of Wedding Song (1997) are the wind sonorities, especially the bass clarinet and English horn in the opening, and the solo violin melody, which expands to include the entire string section at the end. Requiescat (1994) makes effective use of heavy brass and interweaving harp, bassoon and oboe lines. The vocal part adds a plaintive mood to the ending.
One of the highlights of Suite Grotesque (1986) is the scherzo movement, which features playful counterpoint among the bassoons, flutes and oboes as they contrast with quick glissandos for strings and horns to create a mischievous and satirical mood. The Adagio movement evokes a sense of mystery with its timbral mixtures; the trilling clarinet introduces that instrument‚s interchange with other woodwinds. Majesty and grandeur characterize the finale. Unfortunately, the lower strings are slightly out of tune here and detract from the recording.
Favole (1982-83), inspired by the tales of Aesop, Hans Christian Andersen, Jean de La Fontaine and Charles Perrault, is a delightful collection of pieces, accessible to children and adults alike. The Donkey in the Lion‚s Skin revisits Ferde Grofe’s On the Trail from his Grand Canyon Suite but with a new twist: the fun of a sleigh ride with a whip. In The Real Nightingale and the Mechanical One, Brusa employs plaintive flute solos reminiscent of Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe and imaginative orchestral effects. The Ant and the Grasshopper captures the imagery of the insects: the saxophone, with its cabaret-like attitude, portrays the grasshopper (supported by a chirping guiro), while the ant is depicted by the exacting rhythms of the flute and triangle. In the Wolf and the Lamb low woodwinds and brass create images of the hunt. The Philosophical Fly relies on the extensive use of percussion, from a rolling suspended cymbal to a flexatone. Other movements are similarly programmatic. This work would be very effective at youth concerts as a diversion from the standard repertoire (e.g., Peter and the Wolf and Carnival of the Animals). Here as elsewhere on the disc Brusa’s music makes skillful use of the full timbral qualities of the orchestra.
The recording quality is excellent, and the performance of the woodwind, brass and percussion sections of the orchestra are first rate. The liner notes are in English, Italian, German and French.
Ralph Hartsock, a music librarian at the University of North Texas, has written extensively on the composers of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center (Otto Luening, Vladimir Ussachevsky, Milton Babbitt) and their associates (Edgard Varèse). He is currently researching the life and music of Gloria Coates, a former student of Luening.
National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine, Fabio Mastrangelo, conductor. Naxos, 21st Century Classics, 8.555266
By Nora Engebretsen
Elisabetta Brusa is unusual insofar as she is a contemporary composer of Romantic music˜ romantic without the „neo‰ prefix and without any sense of irony. Hers is a genuinely late-19th-century aesthetic˜including her programmatic content. The five orchestral works on this CD all connect to a fin-de-siècle post-Wagnerian style of German composers such as Zemlinsky and Schreker, perhaps with a pinch of Korngold‚s movie music and American minimalism. Brusa is an adamant proponent of „well-defined themes,‰ of tonal centers or music that is „pan-diatonic with pan-chromatic moments,‰ and of clearly distinguishable rhythms. Further, she does not believe in „composition based on formulas, designs and doctrines of pre-established techniques that do not allow wide flexibility, that can not be modified or even radically changed according to the interior necessities, both conscious and subconscious, of the composer‰ (liner notes). Indeed, her comments are clear jabs at the formalized modes of composition used by many of her colleagues. Brusa‚s own comments on Florestan (1997) give a clear indication of her artistic affinity with the romantic era. The piece is a fantasy over Robert Schumann‚s alter ego, a reflection of Schumann himself, and a portrait of Brusa.
Brusa is a prominent pedagogue of orchestration at the Milan Conservatory, and the majority of her works are for orchestra or large ensembles. The orchestral works on this CD were, with one exception, written during the 1990s. They are elegant and demonstrate her extraordinary technical skills. Most of her movements are quite long, lasting between ten and 20 minutes. The only short piece is Fanfare (1996), a most attractive work. (Its energetic, overture-like character would be better suited as the first piece on the album instead of the last).
Brusa has supplied programmatic remarks for the other works on this CD, remarks that are really poetic impulses.Messidor (1998) is a joyful piece in which Brusa shows her elegant orchestration in full bloom. It was inspired by different interpretations of A Midsummer Night‚s Dream, and the title was borrowed from the tenth month of the French Republican calendar, the summer month of the corn-harvest gift. The Nittemero Symphony (1985ˆ88) also borrowed its title from a temporal entity: the 24-hour cycle. The work is conceived as taking place from noon to noon, through three movements that illustrate afternoon, night and morning. As Brusa has remarked, she favors cyclical formal structures.
La Triade (1992) was inspired by Aesop‚s fable „The Snake and the Thorn Bush.‰ Brusa seems to have been fascinated primarily by the atmosphere evoked in the short fable, which itself is included in the liner notes. The description suggests the gloomy and frightening atmosphere of a forest in which a snake on a thorn bush falls into a river. The moral that „a wicked person deservedly comes to a bad end by keeping company with other wicked people‰ is of lesser concern than the overall imagery of the scene. Unfortunately, the liner notes are scant, providing only the most rudimentary information and only brief comments about some of the sources of inspiration. That is a pity, since the composer missed a wonderful chance here to introduce the works to a wider audience.
The publisher, Naxos, has grown from a mass producer of cheap, often low-quality recordings of mainstream music into a respected organization offering a wide range of unknown repertoire with high artistic value. The company‚s commitment to American repertoire, for example, is simply amazing. However, there are still occasional quality issues, as on this album. There are coordination problems in the orchestra, particularly in the violin section, and intonation problems, sometimes grave, in the woodwinds, brass and strings, as well as balance problems that would not have been acceptable to the producers of a major non-budget company. What we hear are the best takes, not mishaps during a live performance. It is unfair that Brusa‚s elegant orchestration and imaginative artistry are not offered on a technically decent product, due the producer‚s shortcomings or lack of resources. But here you have it: what can you expect for $6.98?
Nora A. Engebretsen is an assistant professor of music theory at Bowling Green State University. Her research interests include 20th-century analytical techniques and the history of music theory.