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Giovanni PAISIELLO (1741-1816)
Sinfonia d'Opera: Allegro vivace [4.59]
Piano Concerto No. 2 in F major* [19.04]
Proserpine: Overture in D (1803) [5.51]
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G minor* [24.41]
*Francesco Nicolosi (piano)
Collegium Philharmonicum Chamber Orchestra/Gennaro Cappabianca
rec. Court of the Royal Palace Theatre, Caserta, Italy, 25-28 Feb 2003
NAXOS 8.557031 [54.35]

The Grove entry for Paisiello designates these concerti as written for harpsichord. It's hard to argue with Grove. But Paolo Isotta, in his annotations for this recording, makes a strong aesthetic, rather than historical, case for the piano as best capable of realizing the full expressive range of these scores.

Certainly it's hard to imagine the harpsichord or fortepiano rising to the demands of the G minor concerto, which stretches the expressive vocabulary of the Classical form - Paisiello as the precursor to Beethoven. The composer immediately breaks ground in dispensing with the customary extended ritornello: after the strings' brief, dramatic introduction, the soloist cuts in with the turbulent theme, pacing a movement that, even in its more lyrical episodes, suggests a volcano barely held in check. The Largo opens with a prayerful string chorale, its chords widely spaced and in weak, unstable inversions, after which the piano enters in deep sorrow. A later major-key transformation of the piano's theme sounds less despondent, but no more optimistic. The closing rondo, with its obsessive short slurs and anxious repetitive motifs, similarly points toward Beethoven.

The appealing F major concerto is more conventional. The zippy outer movements reminded me of Haydn; I hear the Italian's themes as having a more immediate, "Mediterranean" melodic appeal, but perhaps I'm stereotyping. The central Largo is blandly pretty in a sonatina-ish way, though a passage of pizzicato accompaniment at 2:23 briefly rouses interest. In this piece, Paisiello supports the string orchestra with pairs of flutes and horns, filling in the textures effectively while maintaining a clear, airy sonority.

In both concerti, Francesco Nicolosi proves an adept and stylish soloist, especially in his layering of musical textures: the lyric melodies sing with a pingy legato, the tick-tock Alberti basses beneath shaped and balanced so as to project the overall harmonic progress. In the booklet, Isotta's attempt to describe Nicolosi's playing without getting mired in technical detail succeeds only in clouding the issue. But you can hear that the clean, articulate manner of the F major concerto has been amplified with a bolder, more heavily weighted attack for the more ambitious G minor.

The overtures are more or less what you'd expect. The one-movement Sinfonia d'Opera (which opera? Naxos tells us nothing) is cheerful and formulaic. The Proserpine overture follows the three-movement format - think Mozart's K.318 - offering a vigorous, excited opening, a graceful if square minuet, and a sprightly gigue.

The chamber orchestra, playing on modern instruments, offers rich-toned, clear-textured support. The low strings don't damp the sound quickly enough on phrase endings, so there's rather a lot of buzzy bass resonance. The warmly ambient recording is pleasing, though a few seconds' more pause between works would not have been amiss.

Stephen Francis Vasta

see also reviews by Ian Lace and Kevin Sutton

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