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Dennis James

Sony Classical

The price of violin virtuosity may be a deal with the devil, but the armonica is the only instrument said to drive its masters insane. Scientific speculation has attributed the mental collapse of early players to the lead content of the glass bells they ran their fingers over (not to mention that of the paint used to mark the bells’ edges), but some 18th-century scribes warned of danger even to those who merely took in the instrument’s brittle, ethereal sounds. It’s enough to make you wonder whether advocates of prenatal Mozart shouldn’t drop Kochel 356 and 617 from the fetal hit parade. Both of those selections, the “Adagio in C Major” and the “Adagio and Rondo in C Major,” respectively, were written for the instrument, and Dennis James performs them, in rather free tempos, on Cristal: Glass Music Through the Ages, a collection (for adults) of pieces written since the armonica’s peak vogue, roughly 250 years ago. The late baroque and classical periods are well-represented, from Alessandro Scarlatti’s “O Cessate di Piagarmi” to David Apell’s “Non Temere Alma Immortale,” both of which feature Linda Ronstadt’s soprano. Clearly, it was her pop crossover cred that got the record made, but she meshes well with James, who draws rich, nuanced colors from an instrument that can often sound mechanical and calliopelike. The delicate armonica was unsuitable for heavy romantic textures, but the sound of glass came back into favor with modern composers. Frederich Schnaubelt’s “Caprice” and “Petite Impression” bloom with the shimmering dissonances of the Cristal Baschet, which uses metal plates and plastic horns to amplify rubbed glass rods. James throws in an arrangement of a traditional “Irish Lullaby,” but don’t mistake him for the Zamfir of the armonica, Colonial Williamsburg regular Dean Shostak, who mixes Celtic airs with such crowd-pleasers as “Yankee Doodle” and “Danny Boy.” Rather than milk glass for its novelty, James’ surer, subtler touch exposes the genuine expressive potential of transparent tone. —Glenn Dixon