Giacinto Scelsi - "Hispania III" (The Piano Works 4)
Mode’s commitment to the Giacinto Scelsi Edition continues with this compendium of three previously unrecorded early piano pieces from the 1930s. Performed sensitively and thoughtfully by Canadian Stephen Clarke, whose work also graced an earlier volume, the pieces make for a fascinating, sometimes perplexing study. While Scelsi’s later language is by far the more familiar to his followers, and while its investigations of rhythm can be heard as continuous with the far more chatty pieces of his early period, the distinctiveness of the composer’s post-WWII pieces hadn’t coalesced by this point.
It’s tempting to hear in “Hispania” or the two suites here a pre-echo of Scelsi’s later focus on the throb and tintinnabulation of single notes. Perhaps that’s the case, but to my ears what makes the pieces fascinating is the way they draw together specific audible influences in a way that seems to anticipate later music that’s not necessarily Scelsi’s (a curious effect given that these are the debut recordings). Specifically, after the opening buzzing, trilling clusters of “Hispania,” Scelsi weaves in a number of folkish motifs — he composed this first suite with Spanish guitar idioms in mind — in a way that could be a Frederic Rzewski variation from “The People United Will Never Be Defeated.” This first suite is very interesting in its use of repetition, mild harmonic extensions and dense layering of basic, coiling materials: it opens up, slows its pace, develops multi-directionally (and at times anthemically) with expert touch and pacing from Clarke.
It’s with “Suite No. 5 (Il Circo)” that I hear Scelsi’s early language as shaped by his antecedents. Dense and crashing, graceful and flowing all at once, the piece’s sheer multitudes give it an almost Bartokian feel at the outset. Elsewhere, some of its more exuberant moments – usually emerging from repose – are so startling, nearly humorous, that they recall Ives’ playful interpolations of multiple styles. “Suite No. 6 (I Capricci di Ty)” seems more preoccupied with massaging fragmentary material until it either breaks down or blooms unexpectedly into fulsome harmonic shapes. There are lots of fractures and pauses in this one, along with large registral shifts that create the effect of pulling ideas apart. It’s here where one might, despite the echoes of Debussy and Ravel in certain passages, find Scelsi’s nascent fascination with silence, resolution and decay.
So while these pieces can’t be said to be entirely singular, often coming across like a survey of interwar piano idioms, the make for compelling listening in their ranging across apparent opposites of style and emotion. They are expressive in an entirely different way than Scelsi’s later work, more playful and less evocative, more linear and less atmospheric, and certainly containing more lightness and humor. As such, they’ll be fascinating for Scelsi adepts — to hear his continuity with earlier periods of piano music, for example, and to trace his early debt to specific composers — but perhaps aren’t an ideal entry point for those just coming to his work.