March 19, 2009


Allegro Danzante: One Century of Italian Music. Rocco Parisi, clarinet; Gabrielle Rota, piano. Concerto. $16.99.

Jewish Baroque Music. Ensemble Salomone Rossi. Concerto. $16.99.

Carlo Broschi detto Farinelli: Il Quaderno dell’Imperatrice. Angelo Manzotti, sopranista; Ensemble Isabella Leonarda conducted by Maurizio Schiavo. Concerto. $16.99.

Bach: Works for Lute, Volume 1. Jason Vieaux, guitar. Azica. $16.99.

Bohemian Maestro: Django Reinhardt and the Impressionists. The Hot Club of San Francisco with Jeffrey Kahane, piano, and the Aeros Quintet. Azica. $16.99.

     Although the recording industry today is dominated by a handful of huge companies, there remain ambitious entrepreneurs in the field who are convinced that there is an audience for niche productions of unusual, frequently little-known music in high-quality performances. Concerto, an Italian label launched in 2000, is a particularly good example of this type of company, being devoted mostly to Italian music performed by members of Italy’s famously deep classical-music talent pool. You might think this means lots of Baroque music, but Concerto spans the ages – in fact, Allegro Danzante: One Century of Italian Music is devoted to the 20th and 21st centuries, including works from as early as 1920 and as recently as last year. Rocco Parisi and Gabriele Rota give poised, elegant performances of Ferruccio Busoni’s Elegie, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Sonata, op. 128, and a sonata and Allegro Danzante by Nino Rota – plus brief works by four living composers: Vittorio Fellagara’s Wiegenlied (1981), Michele Dall’Ongaro’s Errata corrige (1998), Ennio Morricone’s Ipotesi (2000), and Raffaele Cacciola’s Storie (2008). The Busoni, Castelnuovo-Tedesco and Rota works anchor the CD in what is largely a post-Romantic tradition, while the more recent compositions show Italian composers, in harmony with others worldwide, seeking new forms of musical language that will continue to connect with audiences.

     Two other Concerto CDs focus on the Baroque and Classical eras, peeking into corners of the repertoire with which listeners are likely to be unfamiliar. Jewish Baroque Music features works by some Jewish composers and on some Jewish themes by non-Jews – in the latter category, for example, two excerpts from Handel’s Esther. Several short pieces by Salomone Rossi, the namesake of the group performing on this disc, are especially interesting, being based on Hebrew texts such as En Kelohenu and Shir hammaalot. Other composers heard on this CD are Avraham Caceres, Cristiano Giuseppe Lidarti and Carlo Grossi – minor masters all, whose works do not depart in any significant way from standard Baroque practices, but whose music is of interest because of a focus that was decidedly non-mainstream in Italy in the 16th through 18th centuries. What was mainstream at the time was the singing of castrati, and one of the most famous of them was Carlo Broschi, known as Farinelli. He sang contralto and soprano roles – and was also a fine composer, on the evidence of Il Quaderno dell’Imperatrice, a set of five soprano arias dedicated to Empress Maria Theresa of Austria. Written late in Farinelli’s life (he lived from 1705 to 1782), the arias show a fine sense of balance and scale and fit neatly into the time of Mozart (who knew Farinelli and visited him). Angelo Manzotti’s specialized countertenor voice, the sopranista, fits these arias as well as any male voice is likely to today, revealing great beauty in the music and considerable flexibility in Manzotti as a vocal performer.

     Another small company offering top-notch performances of a carefully focused repertoire is Azica, founded in 1992 as a classical-and-jazz label (the “az” comes from “jazz” and the “ica” from “classical”). The Azica idea is to bring some jazz-like spontaneity to classical recordings and some classical-like acoustical precision to jazz CDs. This aim does not appear especially evident in practice in two recent Azica CDs, but both are interesting and well played on their own terms. Guitarist Jason Vieaux offers transcriptions of four Bach lute works in what is intended as the first volume of a series, adeptly and sensitively playing the Suite in G Minor, BWV 995 (transcribed into A Minor); the Suite in E Minor, BWV 996; the Suite in C Minor, BWV 997 (transcribed into A Minor); and the Prelude, Fugue and Allegro in E-flat Major, BWV 998 (transcribed into D Major). The key transcriptions do no harm to the music – Bach can be played in almost any key, on almost any instrument – but the guitar arrangements, although well done, will not be to purists’ tastes. The intricacy of Bach’s lute music is well known; Bach took full advantage of the lute’s structure and tuning (for instance, the fact that in lower courses, one of the two strings is generally tuned an octave higher than the other), as is particularly clear when the composer himself arranged a work originally written for a different instrument (BWV 995 is a transcription of the fifth Cello Suite, BWV 1011). The warmer, more blended tones of the guitar produce a different sonic experience from that afforded by the lute itself – neither better nor worse, but sufficiently different to make Bach’s music an aural experience rather far from what the composer intended. Still, Vieaux plays the works with skill and considerable virtuosity, and this CD provides an interesting way to look at some aspects of Bach’s music.

     The virtuosity is of a different kind in Azica’s tribute to master jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt (1910-1953). Reinhardt was one of the first top European jazz musicians and was cofounder (with violinist St├ęphane Grappelli) of the Quintette du Hot Club de France – after which the Hot Club of San Francisco is named. The California group, with 10 CDs to its credit in the past 20 years, performs a mixture of classical works (in jazz arrangements) and original compositions on Bohemian Maestro. This creates an interesting sonic world in which Debussy, Poulenc and Villa-Lobos rub shoulders (so to speak) with Jelly Roll Morton and works by Hot Club’s own guitarist, Paul Mehling, and violinist, Evan Price. Also included is a nearly lost work by Reinhardt himself, part of a Catholic Mass whose score is long gone – Price transcribed the music from an organ recording. Bohemian Maestro is an exhilarating mixture of music that does not, on the face of it, blend particularly well – but whose sound and emotional impact fit together surprisingly effectively on this very well-played, well-recorded CD.

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