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Italian pianist Umberto Laureti interviewed by Barry Mitchell

April 29, 2020

Umberto Laureti’s latest album Piano Renaissance combines Italian keyboard music from the Renaissance and early Baroque era with new music from the early 20th century.

How did your latest CD Piano Renaissance come to be recorded?

Piano Renaissance came out naturally as a coronation of my interests towards Italian instrumental music. I was lucky enough to meet in London Stefania Passamonte, pianist and owner of the label Master Chord Records; she understood my interest for Italian piano music and introduced me to Stefano Faggioli, curator of the concerts at the Italian Cultural Institute in London, who invited me to play some of my Italian repertoire. Hence the idea of making a CD, which is also an essential part of my PhD at the Royal Academy of Music.

What is the thinking behind the choice of pieces on the CD?

The idea is to trace the evolution of the Italian piano music written between the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century.

The journey starts with Busoni’s Macchiette Medioevali, an early piece still influenced by German models (like Schumann’s character pieces); it continues with Respighi’s transcriptions of the recently re-discovered ancient Italian repertoire (listen to the Antiche Arie e Danze or the Frescobaldi Transcriptions) and finally ends with the Toccatas by Casella and the late Busoni: here the composers finally achieve a unique Italian instrumental style that integrates features from ancient music as well as from the innovations of the European avant-gardes.

The pieces on the CD are by the baroque composer Frescobaldi and Busoni, Respighi and Casella, who are composers from the first half of the 20th century. What are the links between Frescobaldi and the later composers?

The early Italian repertoire has been completely rediscovered by composers like Busoni, Respighi, Casella and Malipiero, who curated new editions and made transcriptions of this music.

There was a particular emphasis on Frescobaldi: while Monteverdi was considered the father of the opera, Frescobaldi was the first composer who wrote virtuoso pieces for the keyboard. In this sense, you may say that Frescobaldi had a symbolic meaning for people like Busoni, Respighi and Casella: rediscovering his music was like reconnecting to the very beginning of the instrumental tradition that they were trying to renovate in the 20th century.

An example of this is Busoni quoting the epigraph of Frescobaldi’s Toccata Nona on the first page of his own Toccata. This epigraph is an open (and ironical) declaration of virtuosity, it says: “Non senza fatiga si giunge al fine” (“One does not reach the end without making an effort”). I think Busoni quoted this epigraph also because he felt part of an unbroken line that he sensed through the history of music, and this is the reason why those two pieces are one after the other on my CD (finally reunited for the first time after a century!).

Was there a general aim by Italian composers, or at least the ones represented on the CD, to return to a time before opera?

There was of course a boredom for a century of opera and particularly for the current verismo style: this is indeed one of the main factors that led to the rediscovery of ancient music.

More than a feeling of nostalgia, I think they actively wanted to change the common perception that the golden era of the opera was the greatest Italian contribution to music. They suggested to look at the early Baroque and Renaissance repertoire of course, where all genres coexisted. In this sense, yes, they wanted to go back to that time.

Do you think the dominance of opera in nineteenth-century Italy had a detrimental effect on the development of Italian instrumental music?

Yes, opera captured the complete attention of almost all Italian composers, from Rossini to the very late Verdi basically (nothing against opera of course, I am a big fan of it!). There was of course a huge instrumental tradition before and also some exceptions during the 19th century: think of Paganini, whose inspiration and language although is very much connected to the opera.

You are currently studying for a Ph.D. at the Royal Academy of Music in London. The subject is Busoni: what is your thesis about?

My research is about the influence of Busoni on both Italian and Scandinavian composers (Sibelius was an unofficial pupil of Busoni). It is a performance practice doctorate, which means that there is a portfolio of recordings accompanied by a thesis. This CD stands for the first part of the project of course.

Italian pianist and composer Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) as a young man.

You are ideally placed to assess the research on Busoni in English and Italian: have you found any significant differences?

Using Italian and English resources gives me the chance to explore the widest and possibly the best literature on this topic. For example, the first biographer of Busoni was Edward Dent, whose book remains one of the most exhaustive and detailed. More than significant differences, I found out that Busoni is a multi-faceted composer: I would love to see all these aspects integrated in future researches.

The pieces in Busoni’s early Macchiette medioevali op. 33 will probably be new to most listeners. Are the pieces typical of Busoni’s early music?

Yes, they are quite typical of the early Busoni and they are an absolute rarity indeed! He wrote them when he was 18: they are similar to pieces written by Sgambati and Martucci, other pioneers of instrumental music in Italy, both influenced by German models. But they stand out for two reasons: they are the first pieces that evoke an enchanted past and they are connected to the theatre: Macchietta used to be a popular form of song-like cabaret. Those two features anticipate Busoni’s later interests. I would also recommend listening to other youth pieces like the 24 Preludes, written more or less during the same time.

Astrologo from Busoni’s Macchiette medioevali op. 33 is quite interesting harmonically: does it anticipate Busoni’s later style?

Astrologo is certainly the most interesting! First of all because an astrologist of the Middle Ages is a sort of alchemist: Faust is an alchemist too and it is the title role of Busoni’s unfinished masterpiece.

Technically speaking, Busoni uses on one hand a lot of archaic effects (for instance parallel fifths) and on the other hand strict counterpoint: I think he wants to describe in music this magical and ancient world using archaisms and a scientific knowledge with the exactness of counterpoint. An astrologist (or an alchemist) is in-between the two worlds of magic and science and Busoni was highly fascinated by this sort of mysterious figures.

Casella’s Toccata op. 6 is a particularly brilliant work. Do you have any plans to perform or record more music by Casella?

I really hope so! There are many interesting songs and much chamber music by Casella that I would love to perform or record. I have already played his Pagine di Guerra for piano four hands: they are called “musical films” as they were inspired by some terrifying reportages of WWI.

There are some delightful little pieces for piano four-hands that I played as a kid, Pupazzetti, completely different from Pagine di Guerra but absolutely worth listening to!

Do you think Frescobaldi works well on the piano?

I think it does! It is probably a matter of getting used to the sound of the piano on this music originally conceived for harpsichord or organ, and this is a bit of a challenge because this is really one of the very first piano recordings of Frescobaldi.

Some years ago, Grigory Sokolov was one of the very few to play French Baroque music on the piano. Now you can find many pianists who play Rameau and Couperin on the piano and we are used to it, so (not to compare with Sokolov!) I really hope it will happen the same to Frescobaldi.

For my recording, I found very helpful playing the transparent and light Yamaha CFX from Roberto Valli’s collection and I am particularly thankful to Andrea Lambertucci, my sound engineer, who did an incredible job and helped me very much to define the specific sound quality that I was looking for.

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Umberto Jacopo Laureti has widely performed both as a soloist and chamber musician in the most important European venues, combining with enthusiasm the established piano repertoire with contemporary music and unjustly neglected Italian piano works.

He has recenty toured Italy, France, Spain, Switzerland, Germany, Norway and United Kingdom, performing in venues such as Auditorium Parco della Musica in Rome, Teatro Malibran and Teatro La Fenice in Venice, Palacio Festivales in Santander, St. James Piccadilly, Steinway Hall, Duke’s Hall and Royal Albert Hall in London. His performances have been live broadcasted by Rai Radio Tre.

Visit Umberto’s Facebook page and website

2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 29, 2020 9:10 pm

    Fantastic interview, I’m listening to the album now. :)

    • April 30, 2020 8:54 am

      Thanks for your comment. It is a great album, really interesting combination of pieces. I have never heard music by Casella before I must admit and was very impressed.

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