With this disc, German label Neos takes on an enterprising project, Bruno Maderna: Complete Works for Orchestra, Vol. 1. Outside of Italy, Maderna is recognized as a significant figure within Italian avant-garde associated with Nono and Berio, but his music is not is well known as theirs, apart from his fanciful and hip Serenata per un satellite (1969). Within Italy, Maderna is remembered as one of her greatest conductors, although he is worshipped to such extent in that role that his compositions have been overlooked. Such a series, hopefully, would serve to redress the balance; Maderna's experience as conductor helped inform his compositions, and by having access to his orchestral pieces one might be able to determine to what extent his composing impacted his work as a conductor.
Although already conducting by the time these works were composed, the earliest ones here were not premiered under Maderna's baton. Hermann Scherchen, who was one of Maderna's conducting professors, gave the first performance of Composizione No. 2 in 1950; its predecessor, Composizione No. 1, was heard in Turin the same year as led by Nino Sanzogno. Both pieces employ roughly the same strategy; they start out gently in tonal territory and wander off into a far more complex labyrinth of ideas; whereas the last section of No. 1 is marked out with a rat-a-tat figure from a snare, a bona fide rhumba rhythm gently underpins the last section of No. 2. The opening of No. 2, with its closely scored pastorale of oboes and clarinets gently floating off into deep space, is ravishingly beautiful. Clearly Maderna did not want to assign a title more descriptive than "composition" to these works because he didn't want them judged by conventional strictures of form, and indeed, had he presented them at Darmstadt 10 years later they wouldn't have gone over very well, given the freely associative nature of the music and its easygoing references to tonality. Improvvisazione No. 1 (1952) is more tautly organized and Webernian than the two Composizione and adds a vibraphone for the sake of color, whereas Improvvisazione No. 2 (1953) is recognizably more Darmstadtian and rigorous than "No. 1," which even includes a brief, circus-like passage.
In the Studi per "Il Processo" di Franz Kafka (1950), also written for Scherchen to conduct, Maderna was really thinking out of the box. It's ostensibly a cantata based on fragments from Franz Kafka's novel The Trial scored for two voices and orchestra, but one of the voices is speaking only, portrayed here by actor Michael Quast, whereas the soprano part -- an extraordinarily difficult one -- is sung by the ever ready, willing, and able Claudine Barainsky. Maderna subtly includes an electric guitar piece, a highly unusual touch for the time. The Studi gradually builds in intensity and repays patient listening for non-speakers through fairly long stretches of German-language dialogue. Unfortunately no text is included; understandably, reprinting excerpts from anything of Kafka for a project like this would be a prohibitively expensive proposition. Even those who speak the language well might have some trouble figuring out where in Kafka's novel these passages are taken from, and they do not add up to a coherent narrative; perhaps there was a larger plan to develop this material into something further, but if so Maderna never got around to it. This piece was admired very much by Maderna's colleague Luigi Nono; given its heightened -- almost panicked -- sense of drama, it is easy to hear why.
Maderna was a special talent and these pieces are a revelation, Tamayo and the hr_sinfonieorchester have prepared these performances with considerable care and the whole volume is both scrupulously performed and recorded. Neos' Bruno Maderna: Complete Works for Orchestra, Vol. 1, ought to be a priority with those interested in the "new music" of the twentieth century; it will certainly not disappoint those already familiar with these times and trends.