Giovanni Piacentini: Chiaroscuro
Navona Records

Two sides of Giovanni Piacentini are effectively presented on Chiaroscuro, the first his prowess as a classical guitarist and the second his talent as a composer. The Mexico City-born Piacentini began playing the guitar at the age of nine and in the years since has developed not only an incredible command of the instrument but, as is reflected in his debut album's three works, a distinctive sensibility as a composer. In that regard, it's fitting that the opening setting features him playing solo guitar whereas the second, one of two pieces scored for chamber ensemble, excludes Piacentini as a player. Regardless of whether he's physically present, his compositional voice comes through loud and clear in the material.

Aspects of his background had a profound impact on his artistic development. His father, an Italian doctor, was an opera lover, his mother a Mexican figurative painter, and consequently the budding musician grew up in a household where many types of music, from opera and Mexican folk music to Italian songs and Brazilian bossa nova, filled the air. His hunger for new sounds and ideas eventually led him to study composers such as Takemitsu, Britten, Berio, Ligeti, and Xenakis as well as graduate from the Berklee College of Music and later earn a Master's at the Manhattan School of Music. With such a diverse range of experiences to draw upon, it's natural that Piacentini's music would end up sounding like a blend of early classical and contemporary music. In keeping with the title of the third setting, Miniatures, Piacentini would seem to be a miniaturist of sorts, given the preponderance of one- to three-minute movements in two of the settings; by comparison, the central piece, Chasing Shadows, is a single-movement work for violin and chamber ensemble of ten-minute duration.

Though it's the starkest of the three in terms of instrumentation, the titular suite leaves the strongest impression. In this five-movement work, Piacentini convincingly replicates with classical guitar the chiaroscuro technique used by painters to portray light and shadow. To that end, he explores contrasts between phrases, harmonics, dynamics, pulse, and rubato, and in addition applies electronic treatments to subtly tint the instrument's sound. Resisting the urge to dazzle the listener with virtuosity, he instead emphasizes the inherent beauty of the guitar's sound and the natural vibration and resonance of its plucked strings. He also applies flamenco guitar techniques, and certainly their presence is audible in the fingerpicking patterns that flow through the work's various parts. Space is also exploited, such that pauses allow the reverberations to emanate from the instrument like an ambient glow. Though, as mentioned, there's no attempt to showcase virtuosity for its own sake, Piacentini's playing is marked by degrees of sophistication and control that can't help but mark him as a virtuoso.

Scored for violin, bass clarinet, vibraphone, and harp and featuring violinist Tim Fain as the primary soloist, Chasing Shadows accentuates contrasts of timbre, with the low tones of the bass clarinet distancing it from the brightness of the vibraphone and pluck of the harp. Fain's the primary beneficiary of Piacentini's writing in this case, the composer having fashioned a mood-shifting travelogue whose elegiac and spirited episodes afford the violinist ample opportunity for emotional expression.

Contrast is even more pronounced in Miniatures, given that the instrumentation now expands to include guitar, bass clarinet, vibraphone, percussion, viola, and violin (the latter two played by Populist Records associates Andrew Tholl and Andrew McIntosh). For this seven-movement work, Piacentini drew for inspiration from paintings by Odilon Redon that were selected to render the wide range of the painter's style into musical form. Regardless of differences in mood, the soundworld generated by the six players is striking, especially when once again the differentiation between each instrument is so clear. Bell tones and vibraphone flourishes ring out alongside the throb of the bass clarinet and the delicate textures of the guitar and strings in snapshots that rang from the playful (“The Smiling Spider”) to the macabre (“The Cyclops”).

As previously noted and as exemplified most clearly by the closing work, Piacentini definitely has an appetite for concision, a predilection that extends to the album as a whole, which at thirty-six minutes is short by CD standards. Yet though that might be so, the recording never feels incomplete or in any way wanting.

May 2017