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Dominick Argento

Casa Guidi; Capriccio for Clarinet and Orchestra; In Praise of Music: Seven Songs for Orchestra 

Frederica von Stade, mezzo-soprano; Burt Hara, clarinet; Eiji Oue conducting the Minnesota Orchestra

Review by Wayne Donnelly
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Casa Guidi

CD Number: Reference Recordings RR-100 


  Casa Guidi was the name of the house in Florence where poets Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning took up residence after their mid-19th-Century elopement. The texts for this composition are from letters that Elizabeth wrote to her sister during the couple's early time together. Given the intimate and domestic nature of the subject matter, one might expect a smaller-scaled compositional approach -- perhaps a setting for piano and voice. But the composer has instead followed his penchant for ripe and colorful orchestration, giving us a tuneful and frequently dramatic full-orchestra accompaniment that occasionally challenges but does not obliterate the contribution of the soloist. For that we should be especially grateful, for I would not want to miss a syllable of the sublime Frederica von Stade's vocally flawless and deeply insightful rendition of Mrs. Browning's words.

Argento has said that he refrained from calling his clarinet Capriccio a concerto out of deference to Mozart's K.622. This writer would certainly agree that Mozart's is the most sublime of clarinet concertos and a daunting comparison for any work in the genre. But essentially the Capriccio walks like a concerto and talks like a concerto.... The piece is subtitled "Rossini in Paris," and the music  expresses a wit and vivacity appropriate to that tribute. The solo part is a showcase for the instrument, and Minnesota first clarinetist Burt Hara makes the most of the varied virtuosic and expressive opportunities in which the score abounds.

In Praise of Music comprises seven short movements that allude to music of different cultures. Each is named for a historical or mythological figure: David, Apollo, Pan, Orpheus, Israfel, St.Cecilia, Mozart. Here and there I hear echoes of other popular composers and works -- a bit of Bartok, Holst's The Planets, etc. Taken as a whole, it makes an attractive concert piece that I imagine would be well received as a curtain raiser or as part of a Pops concert program.

Argento is Composer Emeritus of the Minnesota Orchestra, and that ensemble has previously recorded another CD of his music for Reference Recordings, Valentino Dances. The composer has also written a number of operas, none of which this writer has heard. Based on the two Reference CDs, he has a gift for accessibly romantic melodies and extravagantly lush orchestration. I find no fault with the comfortably idiomatic and brilliantly played performances of conductor Oue and his Minnesotans.

Following their label's acquisition by Dorian, Reference Recordings producer J. Tamblyn Henderson and engineer extraordinaire "Professor" Keith O. Johnson have not skipped a beat. This HDCD recording sounds magnificent even if one's digital playback system (like mine) does not feature HDCD decoding. The sonics of this Redbook 16-bit/44kHz CD are to these ears as good as digital sound gets, including SACD and DVD-Audio. To cite only one example, listen to the astonishing clarity and bite of the brass fanfares in "For the god, APOLLO. "Hearing the purity and penetration captured here, one cannot help realizing how compromised are most recordings of brass instruments. I now have yet another great reviewer's tool to add to previous RR releases from Minnesota, including their great Bernstein and Respighi offerings.

Casa Guidi received a Grammy for "Best Contemporary Classical Composition, " and could easily have received special recognition for its superior recorded sound.  Needless to say, highly recommended!



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