Double bass virtuoso and composer Giovanni Bottesini was quite well known in his own time, but his popularity has proven difficult to translate for the present day. A few players, such as bluegrass-classical bassist Edgar Meyer, have performed his music, but until now a full-scale effort at historical reconstruction has been lacking. That's what you get from Italian bassist Alberto Lo Gatto (he's one cool cat), with pianist Luca Antoniotti and soprano Emanuela Galli. The historical-performance aspect encompasses two major features, both of them important. The period instruments make more of a difference than usual in music of the Romantic era. Lo Gatto plays a 19th century Italian bass with three gut strings, the historical accuracy of which is attested to by a delightful cartoon reproduced in the booklet. Antoniotti plays an 1871 piano, and the two instruments cut the music down to the small-hall dimensions for which it was intended. They are ably supported by Galli and the Pan Classics engineering team, working in the Sala Pasquini in Bottesini's hometown of Crema (the birthplace of espresso, maybe). Even better is the titular focus on bel canto singing, which for Bottesini and any other Italian of his time would have been music's beginning and end. Bottesini doesn't really come alive when paired with arrangements of a few Baroque cello concertos, and he wasn't really a virtuoso in the Paganini manner. Instead, he focuses exclusively on Bottesini's compositions for his own instrument. Several are original little instrumental salon pieces, but the real highlights are the duets with soprano Galli. Two of them are arrangements of operatic arias of the day, while the Romanza (track 3) is an original piece showing Bottesini's considerable lyric gift. The combination of soprano and double bass dancing nimbly around beneath is slightly otherworldly, and it gets across why Italian audiences of the day paid big money to hear Bottesini play even if there are places where it's still clear that the double bass does not reside happily at the top of its range. An essential purchase for double bassists, and an intriguing find for anybody interested in the use of historical instruments in Romantic music.
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AllMusic Review by James Manheim