Album Title: Calace - Mandolin Concertos Nos. 1 & 2 / Rapsodia Napoletana / Polonese/Danza de nani
Performers: Alison Stephens, mandolin / Steven Devine, piano
Label and #: Naxos 8.570434
Running time: 71'51"
December 2006

Händel, Paisiello, Vivaldi, Hasse, Mozart and Beethoven all composed music for the mandolin. Verdi, Mahler, Prokofiev, Stravinsky and Schoenberg used it occasionally just for effect. Nevertheless it's still fair to say that the mandolin was hardly an instrument that caught too many composers' attention. And composers who composed solely for the mandolin were even rarer. In the case of Raffaele Calace (1863-1934), rarity bred opportunity. Being born into a Neapolitan family of mandolin and guitar makers, young Raffaele inherited the craftsmanship as well as musicianship for the mandolin. His gift for mandolin playing opened up the world for him to travel and concertize. His Japanese tour in 1924/25 won him an accolade from the Emperor. He composed well over 170 works for his own use.

To appreciate Calace's contribution to the development of the instrument, let's refresh our basic knowledge of the mandolin. As the latest descendant of the lute family, the Neapolitan-origin classical mandolin has a teardrop-shaped soundboard, a round sound hole and four double courses of gut strings tuned to g, d, a, e, just like the violin. (Hence also the bigger and deeper mandola, mandocello and mando bass.) Modern variants today take the shape of flat soundboard and are styled like guitars. Classical or modern, a mandolin has limited resonance and relies on tremolo to sustain any note or chord - hence the paired strings. Calace however did not confine his techniques to what was passed down. He invented new techniques that involved two-, three- or even four-stringed tremolo, left- and right-handed pizzicato, glissando, arpeggio and two-part playing which required ornamental plucking to accompany a tremolo theme. When he found that harmonics and false harmonics could not reach high enough, he simply reworked his instrument by extending the e-string fingerboard over the soundboard. (Take a good look of the mandolin held in the hands of Alison Stephens.)

In short, Calace was not only the Paganini of the mandolin, he was also its Stradivarius. In doing both, he was able to give the delicate-sounding folk instrument the dynamic range, tonal contrast and expressive dimensions necessary and fit for the concert halls. The two mandolin concertos featured in this recording were written for mandolin and piano. That happened to be the same combination favoured by Beethoven who composed four pieces for the mandolin, two of which were featured in an LP [Impromptu SM 193903] that has long convinced me that such a combination can be unexpectedly beautiful. Even without the orchestra, Calace's concertos are substantial three-movement works. Both begin with a profound and dramatic first movement, which is then followed by a reflective and emotional slow movement and happily wrapped up in a skittish, virtuoso final movement. In essence, this is not much different from Mendelssohn's description of typical romantic piano concertos: "(Kalkbrenner's concerto:) It starts with indefinite dreams. Later comes despair, after that a confession of love, then finally a military march" (Herz's concerto). First there's a dialogue between shepherd and shepherdess, then a thunderstorm, later a prayer with evening bells and a military march at the end." [Harold C. Schönberg: The Great Pianists from Mozart to the Present, page 191] By the way, did I mention the jaw-dropping Paganinian cadenzas? Yes, they are prominently featured in both concertos here.

The remaining three works are highly entertaining encore pieces for the mandolin also accompanied by the piano. One can easily find the violin equivalents of the romantic "Polonese" and the dazzling showpiece "Danza dei nani" (Dance of the Elves). "Rapsodia Napoletana" is an improvisational medley of catchy Neapolitan songs that we all know and love. Naxos' admirable sonic quality further heightens the excitement of this rare discovery which does absolute justice to the dynamic range and expressiveness of the mandolin - and the piano for which the two distinguished British musicians show superb partnership and musicianship. In case you don't know mandolinist Alison Stephens, she was the soloist in the soundtrack for Hollywood movie Captain Corelli's Mandolin. By that token, you could say she's in the same league as Itzhak Perlman, Joshua Bell, Jordi Savall and Yo-yo Ma.