CD REVIEW: VALENTINA CIARDELLI MUSIC FROM THE SPHINX (DA VINCI CLASSICS, 2019)
Preamble: Sometimes, something arrives on your doorstep so fresh and perfectly-formed, you must drop the persona you've adopted, and revert to a prior state. Starting in 1979, I fulfilled a longheld ambition and became a music writer ("widely published" according to Wiki, though commissions never seemed enough at the time). In 2005, I gave up print and switched to radio. Since the release of Music from the Sphinx at the end of last year, I've broadcast (Resonance 104.4FM, Soho Radio) tracks from Ciardelli's CD many times, but it's slowly dawned on me that in these mediated times the mere sonic fact isn't enough to propel music into public consciousness, sometimes you need words. So ... here it is, my first CD review in fifteen years ... Ben Watson
Valentina Scheldhofen Ciardelli, born in Lucca, Italy to a German mother and Italian father, is a teaching assistant fo double bass at Trinity Laban, the music academy in the old naval complex at Greenwich. Such employment may appear unremarkable, even humdrum, but her debut release Music from the Sphinx - on the Japanese Da Vinci Classics label, and funded by the Carne Trust which helps young actors and musicians - speaks otherwise. Ciardelli proposes a total music-history rewrite. Not the much-trumpeted "boundary breaking" of tired South Bank publicists, nor the "rebellion" promised by every over-promoted rock and rap act, but a worked-out, detailed and heartfelt response to the mess made of tradition and training by the musical innovators of the twentieth century. Music from the Sphinx works. I know this, because of the responses from radio listeners (and house guests), and also from those privileged few who've seen Ciardelli play recitals at Wigmore Hall or St. Martin's-in-the-Field. Her album works for rockers and ravers, for folkies and jazzers, for noiseniks and melodists, for anyone who likes a great record, in fact - sound, mix and mastering by Spencer Cozens at Steinway Recording is outstanding - and if it doesn't float the boat for "classical" listeners, it's because they're deaf.
The CD opens with "Morgen!", a song written by Richard Strauss in 1894. Ciardelli on bass is joined by soprano Veronica Granatiero and pianist Alessandro Viale. This is a wondrous piece of schmaltzy late-century decadence, heart-turningly nostalgic and sad, subjectivity flooding out the securities of enlightenment and progress. It strikes home for me - and will, I suspect, for other members of my generation - because its harmonies are reminiscent of the slow movement of Mahler's Fifth, used so memorably by Visconti for the opening scenes of Death in Venice. Then, a bold move for a young musician establishing herself as a classical player, there's a three-movement, fourteen-minute Sonata No. 1 by Ciardelli herself. At first I deemed it a mere student exercise, a bright pastiche, fun but trivial, but the more times I've played the CD, the more it impresses me. It's followed by "Orientale" from Enrique Granados Campina's Danzas Espanolas (1890), an important piece of resuscitation, showing that Ciardelli has pondered the relationship of folk energies to the written score. She's played electric bass in rock bands, and has experience of jazz and improvisation. She's untouched by the death spell of British academic tuition, for which personal tone and individual expression is anathema. Sonata No 1 is humoresque - outbreaks of a descending minor thump would doubtless be marked down as "naive" in an exam - but manages to harness playing passion - the gesture of the bow - with unusual force and clarity. In fact, I haven't heard strings played with such unabashed soul since the death of jazz violinist Billy Bang. The surprise is that this isn't jazz, fado, rai or qawwali, but a classically-trained musician interpreting a score, albeit one she wrote herself.
A 15m episode consists of Ciardelli's arrangement of melodies from Puccini's Madame Butterfly. Adherents of the New Complexity, Spectral Music or Noise will doubtless sneer at this inclusion of a Pop Classic, but the reworking is fabulous, with the famous "Un bel di vedremo", Madame Butterfly's exultant song of desperate longing, especially poignant. Another reworking is Schubert's "Erlkoenig" (1815), his most famous Lied, with Ciardelli's bass taking the singer's part. Suddenly, "classical music" is not some chore distracting you from contemporary sounds, but something alive in your blood. Ciardelli is a populist, but not by aiming at the already known, the tedious, the boring. Schubert, aged 18, composes something that bites your head off.
And programmed towards the end of the disc is the key to Ciardelli's haruspex-like ability to plunge her arms into tradition and extract a heart still beating: Frank Zappa's "Echidna's Arf" (a transcription endorsed, uniquely, by the Zappa Family Trust). It proves what Zappa fans already know, that he's a major composer ignored by the musical establishment, where apostolic stupidity (or, "who you studied wit ") reigns, rather than intrinsic merit. The transcription also proves that Ciardelli is gifted with a non-pareil analytic ear; there are scores of bands playing their impressions of Zappa's music, this takes comprehension of his intent to another level. Originally a pianist, she's been transcribing Zappa's tunes since the age of twelve, when - following a clue on a Deep Purple record ("Smoke on the Water", natch) - she bought The Grand Wazoo and began navigating Zappa's vast, turbulent, interconnected and immaculately-produced oeuvre. Zappa wrecks genre chauvinism and predictability with precise moments of sabotage, and Ciardelli has been the ideal student. The disc also includes Eric Serra's "The Diva Dance", an absurdist assult on decorum which receives a spirited performance from Granatiero, and Alessandro Viale's "Notturno a Lerici", a chance for restful colourations.
Finally, there's "Motivy" (1968) by Emil Tabakov, Bulgaria's top composer, born in 1947. This takes us into the soundworld of Giacinto Scelsi and Iancu Dumitrescu, where - like Bartok before them - score-writers engage in dialogue with the folk expression of their locale. It's a sign-off, saying: "I may have been reconnecting to pre-twentieth century music on this album, but I know where post-tonality went, I too can enter the sound spectrum". The date of composition has significance, too: 1968 was the year in which strikes, riots and occupations - not to mention new musics - rocked global capitalism/communism, after which nothing was the same.
Music from the Sphinx is named for conductor Arturo Toscanini, who declared "I shall go to my grave before I understand women and the intonation of the double bass", tying the male chauvinism of the classical establishment to its formalist deafness to actual instrumental sound in just the knot which Adorno's Freudian critique severed. But, confident of the appeal and force of the music she plays, Ciardelli's response is humorous and light: "As a woman and a double bassist that must make me doubly difficult to understand!". Complaints about the sexism of the arts establishment are today the lingua franca of funding applications and claims on our attention, usually self-serving and fraudulent, political correctness as a cover for hackneyed music and craven careerism. Not here. The music is a stirring manifesto, answering the siren calls of Postmodern Publicity and Celebrity Avant with a recalcitrant rock of substantial, timeless music. It proposes an intense and detailed dialogue between tradition and today, score and interpreter, contemplation and dance, thought and action. What will Ciardelli do next? Whatever it is, it'll be special. Compromise is not on her agenda!