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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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

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.

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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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa