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Johann Jacob FROBERGER (1616 - 1667)
Harpsichord Toccatas and Partitas

CD 1: Partita FbWV 620; Three Toccatas from book 2 [1649]; Partita auf die mayerlin FbWV 606; Tombeau fait a Paris sur la mort de monsieur Blancheroche, FbWV 632;
CD 2: Partita FbWV 630; Three Toccatas from book 4 [1656] ; Partita FbWV 612 ‘Lamento sopra la dolorosa perdita della Real Maesta di Ferdinando IV Re de Romani’; lamentation faite sur la mort très douloureuse de Sa Majesté Impériale, Ferdinand III.
Sergio Vartolo (harpsichord)
Recorded in Fumane, Italy, June 2000
NAXOS 8.557472-73 [55.58 + 56.05]

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Naxos’s Early Keyboard series is one of their most exciting ventures, and one of their most scholarly. Some of the composers have been little known and the music sometimes rather slight. Here, however, the series continues with a real master of the genre who should be much better known, but who may not make many converts with this double CD. Not that there is anything wrong with the performances, the recordings or the booklet notes. It is more a case that these pieces need a very sympathetic and understanding listener.

The first important factor is the commitment and sensitivity of the performer; the second, the instruments; the third, the editions being used.

Even if you are sceptical about biographical notes, the fact is that Sergio Vartolo has quite a discography and a long pedigree in early keyboard music. His passion and determination allow this music an airing and he proves a formidable player. If you want to hear him in other, earlier, repertoire, then do find a particularly intriguing Naxos four disc CD collection of music by Giovanni Trabaci (Naxos 8.553553-56). The Trabaci set was recorded in 1997 and there he employs at least five instruments, choosing according to the style of the music.

Turning to the instruments used here, the booklet contains a slightly naff picture of the keyboards used. The best view is of the double manual original 17th Century harpsichord used for the Partitas, Lament and the Tombeau de M. Blancheroche. The other instrument, an 18th Century Spinet, is shown the other way round with Vartolo playing it. They sound fine instruments but if you think that they are ‘out of tune’ in the many chromatic passages favoured by Froberger then you would be ‘right’ as they are tuned to the ‘mean tone’. Without being too technical this is a method of tuning in fifths which gives a purer tone but where the chromatic notes are an unequal distance apart. With modern day equal temperament the octave is divided into 12 equal semitones, so that a chromatic passage sounds even but the fifths are not equal. We are told here that the French two-manual harpsichord is tuned to A=390 and the Italian one to A=415, a slightly brighter sound.

Dealing next with the editions, the excellent CD booklet notes by Vartolo himself, imply that that he makes his own editions. In a brief essay entitled ‘Acknowledgements and Observations’ he points out the many difficulties of obtaining copies of old publications and of manuscript micro-film. He also notes how unhelpful some organizations have been. Earlier in the booklet he observes: "I have drawn on the main Viennese sources of Froberger’s work" and later that the "Most significant corpus of Froberger’s keyboard works is that of three autograph manuscripts preserved in Vienna ... and copied in the composer’s own hand." One assumes therefore that he has edited these pieces himself. My own Schirmer edition of Froberger (Early keyboard Music Volume 1) is so weak on ornamentation that there were occasions, as I followed the performances from my score, that I was not at all sure if it was same piece, especially in the free-wheeling passages at the start of each Toccata. Schirmers, of course, put in dynamics and I remember playing the D minor Toccata in a recital as a student on the piano(!) and being severely marked down for having the gall to play it in too romantic a manner. Anyway, emotion is important in this music but it should be expressed through a flexibility of tempo and delectable ornamentation. It would be good to know where to obtain Vartolo’s editions.

The CDs are planned in a clever and ordered manner. Both begin with a Partita. These are really four movement dance suites. The opening section is an Allemande performed in a very free tempo. The second disc’s Allemande is a lament suiting the mood "pour passer la mélancolie". There follow three Toccatas from book 2 and on disc 2 from Book 4. These pieces fall into three sections: a free opening with characteristic rising scales and quick finger-work, then a fugal section generally in three parts and finally a lively compound time section in the style of a gigue.

Next there follows another suite-like section: an disc 1 a Partita which is a set of eight variations on a popular German song, and on disc 2 a Partita which acts as a kind of purge for melancholy for ‘Maesta di Ferdinando IV Re de Romani’. Both discs end with an extended ‘Tombeau’; a piece in memory of someone often famous. Monsieur Blancheroche also had a tombeau written for him by Louis Couperin who died in 1661 (recorded by Laurence Cummings on Naxos 8.550922) a tighter work not performed with such freedom as this Froberger version.

The music is presented in a rather cerebral manner, but in keeping with this serious-minded composer.

To understand Froberger further one should take into account his background. He seems to have had close ties with Frescobaldi (1583-1643) who was a famed organist as well as a composer. His music is often austerely contrapuntal and its introduction across the Alps into Germany must have been well received. It was the Venetians, probably Andrea Gabrieli (c.1580) who invented the Toccata and much later J.S. Bach who brought it to its apogee. Alongside this Italianate form also found in some of the dances there is a strict Germanic seriousness of purpose.

So, how to sum up. If you are already collecting this series then no further persuasion is necessary. As I have said, this is fine music but it is rather specialist. For example, although I have played some of these pieces I can’t imagine that I will play this CD all that often. It might however be useful for teaching purposes.

The recordings are exemplary and the whole presentation is up to the usual Naxos standard.

Gary Higginson

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