, December 2007
Think of the mandolin and - leaving aside Captain Corelli’s Mandolin for the moment - one may think of a bluegrass musician such as Bill Monroe or a Brazilian performer such as Jacobo do Bandolim. Perhaps it triggers associations with the mandolin orchestras of the early decades of the twentieth century; or maybe with English folk music. For most, the mandolin role as a classical instrument would probably come fairly well down the list – despite the existence of Vivaldi’s concertos for the instrument. In the classical world this particular member of the lute family has largely been the preserve of specialists – lovers of the instrument interested in all its musical uses, rather than lovers of classical music. If ever a single CD could do something to break down widespread prejudices against the instrument, based on assumptions that it is capable only of a very limited tonal range and that it is essentially trivial, then this surely is it. Alison Stephens is not only a virtuoso of the instrument, she is also, and more importantly, a real musician. And in the works of Raffaele Calace she is playing compositions written by someone who had an intimate knowledge of the instrument’s real possibilities. While there is no need to make any exaggerated claims for Calace’s music, it has its merits – it is tuneful, vivacious, sometimes quite poignant; at times flashy and playful, there are also times when it explores a particularly Italian - perhaps even a particularly Neapolitan - kind of sentiment. The best of it has wit and grace; there is a fair degree of musical sophistication in the way it is put together and the ways in which its materials are developed.
Calace was born and brought up in Naples, a city particularly important to the history of the instrument. The beginning of the eighteenth century saw the development there of a ten-fretted instrument and a century or so later there emerged what is often referred to as the Neapolitan mandolin, with its pear-shaped body, oval sound hole, and four pairs of metal strings.
Amongst Neapolitan makers of mandolins, one of the most significant was the workshop of the Calace family. The workshop was established in 1825 by Nicola Calace, who was eventually succeeded by his sons Raffaele and Nicola, the first of these being the composer whose work is heard here. Raffaele Calace established an international reputation as a virtuoso performer on the instrument; touring took him to most parts of Europe and as far afield as Japan. The Calace workshop continues to this day.
Calace studied at the Regio Conservatorio di Musica in Naples and as a composer he wrote almost two hundred pieces for the instrument. Amongst the most substantial of his pieces are the two concertos recorded on this disc. Each is in the conventional three movements, but scored for mandolin and piano - presumably for use in touring, without the need for a pick-up orchestra. Both contain music of real charm and breathe the air of nineteenth century Italy. So too do the three shorter pieces which close the programme. The ‘Rhapsodia napoletana’ has delightful fun with some of the popular Neapolitan songs of the day; by no means all of them yet forgotten - any listener will recognise quite a few old friends. In the process this shows off something of the mandolin’s emotional range. The ‘Polonese’ is full of brilliant passages, technically very demanding but dazzling when carried off as well as it is here. In the ‘Danza dei nani’, the nani (elves) disport themselves in appropriately quicksilver fashion and the music exploits the mandolin’s particular sound-world very strikingly.
Throughout Alison Stephens plays with complete technical command and musical intelligence. The music could scarcely have a better advocate. Steven Devine’s work as an accompanist is exemplary. Though describing him as an accompanist it is fair to say that in much of this music the two instruments come close to being equal partners and the sense of dialogue is real and exhilarating. It is not Devine’s fault if the listener sometimes wonders whether the modern concert grand isn’t too large an instrument for this particular purpose. For all the evident sensitivity of Devine’s playing, there are moments when the mandolin comes close to being submerged; the recording engineer seems to have resisted any temptation to boost Stephens’ sound unnaturally by way of compensation.
I cannot say that I picked up the CD with any expectation that I would enjoy it as much as I did on first hearing – and as I have continued to enjoy it on subsequent listenings. I suspect that many other listeners who risk the relatively small investment required for the purchase of a Naxos CD will also be pleasantly surprised.
Oh yes, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. Alison Stephens played in the theatrical version of the novel, and is also to be heard on the soundtrack of the film.