Marco Baldini: Vesperi & Maniera

Monday 20 May 2024

It took me ages to hear these two albums. I mean, I’d listened to them, repeatedly, but I’d never latched on to a true idea about what was going on. It all seemed too simple: each piece seemed alike, an homogeneous chorale for strings, each presented as a monadic block of sound with fairly uncluttered tonality. What’s the big deal? I couldn’t get past this initial impression. Marco Baldini’s background is in improvisation; he’s recently turned to composition. Everything here was written between 2021 and 2023. Inspiration was found in 16th Century Italian music, which tracks with the approach to polyphony, although Baldini slows it all down and smooths it out as though taking a small excerpt and time-stretching it for close examination. He has thus produced a series of tableaux, or panels, each self-contained yet interchangeable, which may be presented singly or in groups to varying effect. It’s not a fair or accurate comparison, but hearing them is a little like seeing Morandi’s still lifes at first: the apparent undifferentiated simplicity of surfaces invites an initially dismissive response, yet each piece begins to compel closer attention merely by its presence. As with other small things blown up large, they may be perceived as little more than background and largely ignored, or draw one into a labyrinth of subtle details. Heard in different situations, these same pieces have sounded emotive at one time and cold another, at times obvious, at others inscrutable. The two albums here each feature seven pieces and from this basis it seems Baldini prefers darker-hued sounds. Vesperi, recorded in Florence, combines cellos and double basses, sometimes with added low marimba for an added bass hum. The ensemble (Niccolò Curradi, Michele Lanzini, Maurizio Constantini, Amedeo Verniani, Francesco Toninelli, conducted by Luisa Santacesaria) produce tidal sounds, surging with calm but implacable movement. Maniera, recorded in England with members of Apartment House, is lighter, shifting register to violins and viola with cello, but even here a few pieces also feature bass. Apartment House’s approach is a little different, making the sustained chords a little more friable, presumably as the higher pitches would come across as too strident. It’s all starting to fascinate me, even though I still can’t identify one piece from another. Just checking, Corteccia – a quartet for cellos and basses – does indeed break into short phrases over its brief duration. Malkosh is an outlier, with pizzicato double bass over low cello and marimba tremolo. Others reveal their characters over time, hinting at stoicism, turbulence, muted confessional.