ROBERTO PIANA AND ANTONIO POMPA-BALDI Napoli: Improvisations on Neapolitan Songs (Steinway & Sons)
The greatest of the classic Neapolitan songs are as mother’s milk to high-octane tenors. You surely know some of them — Marechiare, Il cardillo, Funiculì funiculà — and if you don’t, you can be sure your Italian-American friends do. The composer and pianist Roberto Piana has created 20 pieces he calls “Improvisations” based on these melodies — perhaps better described as elaborate, notated compositions in the tradition of what were called “concert paraphrases” in the pianistic golden age of the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Although he hails from the island of Sardinia, about 250 miles due west of Naples, and Antonio Pompa-Baldi, who performs them here, comes from Foggia, 70 miles to the northeast, both of them approach this material with deep affection. Piana knows how to craft virtuoso writing that draws maximum effect from the piano, and Pompa-Baldi has the chops and musical sensitivity to make every track irresistible. Quite a few pieces exude the gracious charm of the palm court, but some go in unanticipated directions: what sounds like plucked-string harmonics at the end of Era di maggio, for example, or the somber ruminations of a passacaglia in Lo marenaro. It’s hard to play favorites, but Best in Show may go to a clever take on Torna a Surriento in the style of a sonata by Domenico Scarlatti, a Neapolitan of an earlier age.