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A conductor and teacher of note, Vincenzo Petrali (1830-89) also enjoyed the dubious distinction of being one of the most dominant organists in the second half of 19th-century Italy and one of the least admired composers.

His compositions fell into two distinct periods, the first clearly informed by the band-and-orchestra style that reached its peak just as instruments built by the Serassi family reached theirs; and the second embodying the transition to referencing earlier polyphonic composers and employment of more intense counterpoint and independent pedal parts during the so-called Cecilian reform.

On appropriately chosen historical italian organs, this six-disc set offers almost the full extent of Petrali’s organ music (only three of the 71 Studi per l’Organo Moderno and a similar number of the 28 Esempi Musicali are included), allowing, for the first time, convenient interrogation of both periods.

The early-period works fit neatly on to the first two discs and include the solidly constructed but lightly textured Messa Solenne in C and eclectically loose-limbed Grande suonata per Organo Istromentato e con Eco (realised with a sprightly lightness of touch by Giulio Piovani). The later works stretch across the remaining four discs and offer ample evidence of compositional intelligence and occasional flashes of brilliance, as in the harmonically advanced Sonata per l’Offertorio and the combustible Sonata in F. The expansive, 40-minute-long Sonata per organo pieno – Petrali’s magnum opus certainly, but somewhat shy of being a masterpiece – boasts symphonic ambition in detail as well as scale, both qualities adroitly despatched by Piovani, who proves an articulate advocate throughout and also provides excellent detailed booklet notes.

A bonus DVD features a 13-minute disposition by Piovani on ‘The Theatrical organ in 19th-century Italy’. Somewhat drily delivered, it nonetheless provides useful context for both Petrali and the era. recorded sound is excellent, all five organs sharing an inimitably fleet, bright-voiced and poetic Italian tongue.

MICHAEL QUINN Read the full review on Agora Classica

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