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Ian Lace
Fanfare, March 2008

Alison Stephens is generally considered to be the leading exponent of the classical mandolin in Britain. She has performed across the world. Her enthusiasm shines through her committed, technically accomplished, and poetic playing and her illuminating notes for this album.

A delight for admirers of the mandolin. © 2008 Fanfare Read complete review

American Record Guide, January 2008

Raffaele Calace (1863-1934) was a Neapolitan mandolinist and composer. He was born to a family of instrument makers and was himself an innovative luthier, building a mandolin with an extended range.

Imagine a Wieniawski or Vieuxtemps writing for mandolin, and you'll get something of the effect of Calace's music. There's lots of virtuosity, lots of romantic devices, heart-on-sleeve emotion. In the end, you'll have to decide how curious you are about a new discovery of this sort. I didn't find the music particularly satisfying.

Ms Stephens is courageous to tackle these works, but the sound of her instrument is so thin that it doesn't compel the listener's attention for long. Calace relies on a plectrum tremolando to a degree I haven't heard in other mandolin recitals and I find it annoying (compare Dorina Frati & Piera Dadomo's Bach, N/D 2006 and Duo Trekel-Tröster in M/J 2007).

The two concertos were written for piano accompaniment and were never intended to be orchestrated. Balance between piano and soloist is quite good. The shorter pieces are mostly potpourri of popular tunes. For mandolin lovers only.

Glyn Pursglove
MusicWeb International, 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.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, September 2007

Raffael Calace was born in Naples 1863, his family established mandolin and guitar makers who looked to their two sons to continue the business. Raffael had other ideas, and after study at the Conservatoire in Naples set about establishing the mandolin as a concert instrument, taking the performing technique to a totally new level. Travelling around Europe to establish its presence he wrote over 170 pieces for the instrument in order to show its vast range of colours. In so doing he had to create a whole new spectrum of effects incorporated into music that including the two concertos featured on this brilliant disc. It appears that he never intended them to be orchestrated, the accompaniment seen in pianistic terms, with the instruments given equal importance often in dialogue mode. They were, nevertheless, composed as conventional three movement concertos the fast pulse of the outer movements surrounding a slow and attractive central Largo. For the mandolin they present every challenge known to the instrument which does restrict them to the most brilliant virtuosos. The disc is completed by three works in lighter mood, often drawing on known Italian melodies. They are played by one of the world’s leading mandolin exponents, Alison Stephens, better known for her playing in the soundtrack of the top-selling Hollywood film, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. Her pure dexterity will sweep away any notion of those strummed instruments we might have come across on the popular stage. The left hand dexterity is matched by the clarity of her right as she picks out myriads of notes. She is admirably partnered by Steven Devine who divides his life between the keyboard and conducting. I much admire the engineer’s desire not to go in close to Stephens, but maybe a mite more would have prevented her from becoming swamped in thickly scored piano passages.

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