Shira Legmann Credit: Tal Gluck

The music that Italian composer Giacinto Scelsi wrote during the middle of the 20th century predicted minimalism and spectralism, but its forms and sounds remain distinct from those later developments—and from most other European classical music. Born in 1905, he started composing music in the late 1920s and arrived at his mature style after experiencing a catastrophic emotional breakdown in the Iate 1940s. Unable to benefit from available psychiatric treatment, he recovered following lengthy episodes of playing single notes on the piano, which led him to shed 12-tone composition and other complex forms in order to engage directly with pure sound. Each movement of his best-known work, Quattro Pezzi su una Nota Sola (1959), uses just one note, though it’s scored for a 26-member chamber orchestra—he creates variety with groupings of players in unisons and octaves, shifts in dynamics and timbre, microtonal fluctuations, and other techniques.

Scelsi composed the two suites for solo piano that make up the bulk of this new CD during his “second period” of writing (from 1952 till 1959), and each expresses his interest in Eastern spiritual practices without resorting to direct quotes from Chinese or Indian musical styles. On Suite No. 9 “Ttai” (1953), which lasts more than half an hour, resonance and repetition extract om-like approximations of continuous sound from small handfuls of notes. The more compact Quattro Illustrazioni (1953), which depicts the metamorphoses of Vishnu, is similarly economic but more dynamic, building to bold crescendos during the second section, “Varanda Avatara,” and letting harsh tone clusters decay during the fourth part, “Krishna Avatara.” Israeli pianist Shira Legmann sustains complementary focuses upon the micro and macro dimensions of these pieces, using continuous, minute differentiation of attack to enrich discrete passages while maintaining firm control over each composition’s narrative arc. The album closes with Un Adieu (1978-1988), one of Scelsi’s final works. First performed at his funeral in 1988, it distills the materials of its predecessors into a mournful but unbowed articulation of loss.   v