Rolla: Music for Viola and Orchestra (CD review)

Also, Divertimento for viola and strings; Concerto in E flat; Concertino in E flat; two Sinfonias. Simonide Braconi, viola; Massimo Belli, Orchestra da camera 'Ferruccio Busoni.' Brilliant Classics 94971.

If you're familiar with Italian composer and viola and violin virtuoso Alessandro Rolla (1757-1841), you're more knowledgeable with eighteenth and nineteenth-century musicians than I am. This was my introduction to Rolla's music, and I'm sure few other albums are better than this one of Rolla's viola and orchestra music as performed by Simonide Braconi, viola, Maestro Massimo Belli, and the chamber ensemble Orchestra da camera 'Ferruccio Busoni.'

For those you who want to know a little more about Rolla and why he was (and remains) important, Wikipedia tells us that "his fame now rests mainly as 'teacher of the great Paganini,' yet his role was very important in the development of violin and viola technique. Some of the technical innovations that Paganini later used largely, such as left-hand pizzicato, chromatic ascending and descending scales, the use of very high positions on violin and viola, octave passages, were first introduced by Rolla.

"He was a musician of European vision, an innovator in his own field who was also able to learn from the best of his contemporaries. Also being so deeply immersed in opera environment undoubtedly had an influence on his style as a composer. Because of the technical innovations introduced, his work might be considered helpful for the development of viola technique. His style varies from the very melodic phrases, typically operatic in character, rich in fiorituras, to the extremely virtuoso writing, the style we are used to identify with Paganini. This intense virtuosity was a new innovation for viola technique, practically unheard of in previous times. Bertini, a historian of his time, in a dictionary of musicians reported that Rolla was prohibited to play in public because women could not hear him without fainting or being struck by attacks of nerves."

At the risk, then, of fainting dead away, let us move on. The first item we find on the program is Rolla's Divertimento for viola and strings, BI330, a brief, two-movement piece that is quite charming. The first movement of the piece is slightly melancholy and fully haunting, beautifully played by the soloists and ensemble. The second (and final) movement is a more lively Allegro that includes some well-executed solo passages.

Massimo Belli
Next, there are the Concerto in E flat for viola and orchestra, BI545 and the Concertino in E flat for viola and strings, BI328. The Concerto is more elaborate than the preceding Divertimento, of course, and more grand in scope, yet it is very Mozartian in nature and style. Its format follows the traditional format of fast, slow, fast, ending in a bouncy tune that Belli and company handle with a touch of merriment. The Concertino is even more flamboyant, and it allows the violist to show off a bit, which Mr. Braconi seems delighted to do. It's fun, the subject matter running the gamut from formal and dignified to happy and cheerful, from sedate, even gloomy, to rhythmically melodic.

Finally, we get two sinfonias, the Sinfonia in D, BI530 and the Sinfonia in D, BI531, the former in a revision by Maestro Belli. They are in the nature of twin symphonies, the biggest difference being the presence of a solo violin in BI531 (Lucio Degani, violin). Both sinfonias are brief, under nine minutes apiece, and contain contrasting elements of gaiety and solemnity. Again, Maestro Belli and his players perform with a crisp execution, exacting but with commitment and apt passion.

Having never heard this music before, I couldn't tell you if the present interpretations are the ultimate realizations possible. Certainly, they sound well crafted, well played, and expertly presented. If they lack a little something in intangibles like a joyous demeanor, they make up for it in the precision of their attack. The performances are enjoyable, which is really all that matters.

Artistic directors Massimo Belli and Simonide Braconi and engineer Raffaele Cacciola recorded the music at the Church of St. Francis, Muggia, Trieste, Italy in September 2013. As we might expect from so small a group of players (about eighteen or so), the sound is sweetly transparent, without being at all bright or edgy. In fact, it appears warm, smooth, a tad soft, and still detailed. The soloists are realistically integrated into the ensemble accompaniment, and a mildly pleasant hall resonance sets everything apart in a most-natural manner. There are, I might add, some extraneous low notes that occur from time to time that seem to be coming either from the instruments or from one or more of the performers or the conductor. I'm not sure what that's about, but, fortunately, it's hardly noticeable.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa