Ambra Albek (Violin, Viola), Fiona Albek (Piano)
Giacomo Puccini
Pietro Mascagni
Ruggero Leoncavallo
Giacomo Puccini
A fascinating disc of fantasies on operatic themes by Alessandro Lucchetti (born 1958). Lucchetti, born in Brescia, where he now teaches at the Conservatoire, models his fantasies on the operatic paraphrases for piano from a previous, Romantic era (Lucchetti himself is referred to as "neo-Romantic" in the booklet notes), but uses, generally, the violin to "sing" while the piano becomes the "orchestra", although the two do swap roles from time to time. More interesting is the fact that Lucchetti tries to "treat themes like personalities", while retaining the "original tonalities" of the themes. The script, therefore, is more challenging than might be thought on initial encounter, and indeed the four fantasies here are all fine works indeed.

Puccini's Tosca is replete with soaring, searching lyrical melodies that seem to stretch on into a twilit eternity. Lucchetti's Fantasy on themes from Toscai> is given a tremendous performance, not least because of the purity of Ambra Albek's pure tone and impeccable intonation. The sisters enjoy a close link (although to my knowledge they do not claim the telepath abilities of the Pekinel piano-playing sisters). Fiona Albek is clearly a fine pianist, and her musicality shines through everything she does. She possesses a fine staccato, too (much on show in parts of the Tosca Fantasy). The piece, incidentally, also appears on the Albek's disc South of the Alps" (Eroica 3450, reviewed by myself a few years ago in Fanfare 35:3). Clearly the idea of operatic fantasies is popular and has spawned the present disc.

To move to the echt-verismo world of Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana seems the most natural thing in the world. This fantasy seems more extrovert, especially in its piano writing. There is a suggestion of shadowy dance here that is most appealing. The Leoncavallo fantasy on I Pagliacci is rather more happy-go-lucky, and delivered with a lovely sense of lightness by both performers. There are some sensational evocations of the charged yet tissue-delicate sonorities the verismo composers could conjure up, here transferred magically to the medium of violin and piano. The extended passage for solo piano towards the end really lets Fiona Albek shine, prior to Ambra's smoky rendition of "Vesti la giubba" (around 13'50).

Perhaps the Puccini opera that makes the greatest emotional journey, from the student digs japes and the antics at the Café Momus through to the impossibly touching death of Mimì, it is Bohème that allows for a quarter-hour précis of maximal contrasts. Much credit to Amra Albek's high, soaring violin lines for conveying the specifically Puccinian sense of heightened emotion here. The heavy, laden atmosphere of the final moments of the Fantasy are performed with great poignancy. One might expect a disc of Fantasies to end with a bravura flourish, but nothing could be further from the truth. The disc in fact ends with a verismo question mark, possibly as if inviting in more; or possibly reminding us of the depth of the music under consideration here.

The four works are broadly equidurational at around a quarter of an hour each. This is a fascinating release, not least for the brilliant artwork of the cover, a drawing of the two performers as clowns, one lachrymose, one traditionally happy, with outlines of their respective instruments. A first-class release.

Colin Clarke

This recital by the Albek Duo, twin sisters Ambra Albek on violin and viola and Fiona Albek on piano, is a romantic album that sweeps up the listener in some of the most delicious melodies of the 20th century. These four fantasies on well-known operas by Puccini and his fellow verismo composers Leoncavallo and Mascagni are skillfully arranged by Alessandro Lucchetti and played with breathtaking passion by the Albek sisters.

The inspiration for the arrangements of operatic themes without words harks back to the piano transcriptions of Franz Liszt, and Lucchetti, well-known for his "neo-romantic" compositions, has remained essentially true to the originals, never manipulating the melodies or distorting the harmonies, but rather letting them sing with recognizable eloquence. What he does do, however, that gives the pieces their own unique flavor is to alternate deftly between the instrumental voices, never permitting the violin merely "sing" and the piano echo the orchestra. Instead, in chamber music fashion he lets each instrument enter into a complex give-and-take, one beginning a phrase, the other assuming it, a solo voice becoming a duet as lines become entangled with each other. The thread of the original melody always emerges, but when it does it is aurally enhanced by the dialogue and synthesis.

The Albeks are the perfect soloists for such playing. They breathe as one; they anticipate and follow each other with that inborn gift of great chamber musicians. Ambra's tone on the violin and viola is pure and true, rich and warm; her phrasing is limpid, and her cantabile easily mirrors the operas' original lines. Similarly, Fiona elicits from the piano a wealth of nuance and color, as well as sculpting great arcs of sound that are awash in the emotions so deep in these compositions.

The themes from Tosca build to the heartbreaking climax of "E lucevan le stelle" ending on the trilling violin as the last notes of the aria die away. The fantasy on La Bohème allows for both joyful, sprightly playing and somber, wrenching anguish with themes like the inimitable "Musetta's Waltz" emerging with sensuous melody. The arrangements of Mascagni and Leoncavallo give the listener an opportunity - without the highly wrought libretto and dense dramatic action - to pay closer attention to the melodic gifts of both these composers, and in Leoncavallo's case to appreciate the modernity of his harmonies and the complex tapestry of textures in I Pagliacci.

The sound on the disc is present and embracing. The album is accompanied by a booklet with several short, but informative essays on the works and artists. Not only does Roaring Dramas afford the listener a chance to revel in the artistry of the Albeks, but it reminds one that Puccini, arguably one of the finest melodists of all time, and his distinguished verismo contemporaries understood how to invest music with drama and how to engage the heart.

Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold

"Roaring Dramas"
musica 272, december 2015-january 2016

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07 April 2018
Nassau - Bahamas
St. Andrews Kirk
Princess St. - Nassau

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