ClarOscuro presents an extremely compelling argument on behalf of Bruno Sanfilippo as both a performer and modern classical composer. Issued on his own ad21 label, the nine-track collection features the classically trained pianist solo and in the company of violoncellist Manuel del Fresno and violinist Pere Bardagi. It’s hardly his first recording: Sanfilippo’s first release dates from 2000, and since then he’s issued three collections in his Piano Textures series. He’s also delved into soundtrack production and explored electro-acoustic music on a number of releases, and listeners whose taste runs to Michael Nyman, Gavin Bryars, Harold Budd, and Brian Eno will assuredly find much to appreciate about Sanfilippo’s music. In fact, the new album’s “A Constant Passion” is not only Nyman-esque, it sounds as if it were composed with a soundtrack in mind, given the emotional intensity of its strings-only arrangement.
The Barcelona-based Sanfilippo is as much if not more of a minimalist than Glass but that’s not meant so much in the sense of compositional approach as playing style. For one of the most appealing things about Sanfilippo’s playing is the exquisite restraint he brings to his performances; if anything, one gets the impression that he’s always looking to find ways to strip his playing down to its essence rather than embellish it. An equally distinguishing aspect of his playing is his use of ritardando; a major part of the pleasure in listening to the solo piano setting “Absenta,” for example, derives from witnessing the expert control with which he slows the tempo during his performance.
A couple of pieces are so close in compositional style to others, they could pass for homages: the lovely “Luciana” conceivably might have been penned by Bryars himself, while “The Movement of the Grass” possesses a gentle, dream-like quality that calls to mind Budd’s music. ClarOscuro also works well as a portrait of Sanfilippo in the way it gathers a number of different approaches onto a single release. His interest in ambient design and the marriage of piano and electronic treatments is effectively accounted for by “The Movement of the Grass,” for instance, where the minimal piano playing allows ample room for ambient textures to breathe.
As a composer, he largely eschews the strict, pattern-based approach symbolized by Glass for a more open-ended and organic style. Sanfilippo infuses his romantic pieces with a melodic quality characterized by grace and elegance, with no better example the ravishing title track, a lilting waltz that sees his melancholy lines complemented by the strings of his guests. The heartbreaking effect generated by the music is something special indeed, though it’s hardly the only special moment on this excellent fifty-minute collection.