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Claudio MERULO (1533-1604)
Complete Organ Works - Volume 1
CD 1
Toccata I (1598) [05:23]
Ricercar del 2. tuono [08:28]
La Gratiosa [04:11]
Petit Jacquet [04:54]
La Leonora [03:04]
Toccata III (1598) [04:56]
Toccata III (1604) [04:50]
Ricercar dell'ottavo tuono [06:53]
La Cortese [04:03]
Toccata V (1598) [03:33]
La Seula [04:45]
La Pazza [02:50]
Toccata I (1604) [05:50]
CD 2

Toccata IV (1604) [06:26]
La Radivila [04:14]
Ricercar del 3. tuono [08:47]
L'Arconadia [02:53]
La Palma [02:33]
La Scarampa [03:26]
Toccata VII (1604) [07:41]
Toccata IX (1598) [05:46]
Content [06:07]
Languissans [08:03]
Ricercar del 7. tuono [07:59]
La Pargoletta [03:18]
Toccata VIII (1598) [06:31]
Stefano Molardi (organ, Vincenzo Colombi, 1533)
rec. September 2003, Duomo di Valvasone, Pordenone, Italy DDD
DIVOX CDX-70309/10-6 [63:47 + 73:41]


"He was the most gifted of a group of performer-composers who transformed European keyboard genres from simple pieces based on vocal models to idiomatic virtuoso works during the second half of the 16th century, also a prolific composer of madrigals, masses and motets in the mature Venetial style". This is how Rebecca Edwards describes Claudio Merulo in the article about the composer in New Grove. This gives an accurate reflection of Merulo's importance in music history.

Claudio Merulo was born in Correggio and it is assumed he received his main training as a musician in Venice from Adrian Willaert or Gioseffo Zarlino. In 1556 he was appointed organist at the cathedral in Brescia, and in 1557 replaced Girolamo Parabosco at the San Marco basilica in Venice. For the next 27 years he played a key role in Venetian musical life, both as organist and as composer of music in all genres. He was a much sought-after composer of music for private and official celebrations. He was also active in the field of music publishing and the construction and development of musical instruments. He had a wide circle of pupils from Italy and abroad. His teaching was described by his pupil Girolamo Diruta in his book 'Il transilvano' of 1593, one of the most important publications of the time.

In 1584 he moved to Parma, where he acted as musician at the court of the Farneses, and also in Parma Cathedral. In 1591 he was appointed organist at the Madonna della Steccata, which position he held until his death. In Parma he lived as a wealthy man, and when he died he was honoured with many tributes: he was called the greatest keyboard player of his time.

On this set the three most important genres of keyboard music of the 16th century are represented: the toccata, the canzona and the ricercar. The main feature of the toccata is its improvisatory character; originally it was used in vocal music as an intonation for the singers. Under Andrea Gabrieli the toccata had developed its virtuosic character, and Merulo expanded the genre by adding imitative passages. Here the Roman composer Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643) followed in his footsteps, and through his German pupil Johann Jakob Froberger Merulo's toccata style influenced the North-German school and its 'stylus phantasticus'.

The canzona also underwent a development. As the term indicates it was originally an instrumental arrangement of a vocal piece. Merulo developed the genre by adding virtuosic ornaments and runs, as a result of which the form became more and more independent of its vocal models.

The ricercar is the most contrapuntal of the three. It has a vocal model as well: the motet (whereas the canzona was based on secular pieces), and here again Merulo elaborates the form by increasing its virtuosity.

This first volume of the complete recording of Claudio Merulo's organ music is an exemplar of careful research. Everything has been done to make the performance of this music as historically correct as possible. The organ by Colombi used here is, according to the booklet, "the last surviving instrument from the Venetian school of organ building during the Renaissance and thus an instrument that corresponds to the musical taste and aesthetics in Venice during Merulo's time." It is tuned in meantone temperament (1/4 comma). The registration of the toccatas and canzonas is based on a historical source, a registration chart dated 1558 and ascribed to Colombi, which is preserved in the parish archives of Valvasone. For the ricercari Stefano Molardi turned to the second edition (1609) of Diruta's 'Il Transilvano'. The choice of tempi is inspired by both historical and stylistic considerations, for example the character of the tone. And even the order in which the pieces are played is well-thought through: "It was our intent to present as diverse a palette of timbres and tone colors as possible, which is why we oriented ourselves on the old transposition practice of having the pieces follow each other at the intervals of fourths and fifths. Thus, for example, the first CD has the sequence of keys D, D, G, G, C, G, etc."

This wouldn't mean anything if the actual performance wasn't up to the highest standard. But fortunately it most certainly is. Claudio Merulo's organ music is given the best possible interpretation, and the character of every single piece is done justice. The great variety, the sheer brilliance and the expressive character of Merulo's organ music is convincingly communicated. One of the many attractions of this recording is the gorgeous sound of the organ. It can sound brilliant and robust, but also intimate and sensitive. If one listens to an organ like this there is a good chance of becoming addicted to its timbre and its breathing tone production.

In short, this is a wonderful production in every respect: music, instrument and interpreter. Recording technique and presentation are of the same high standard. A must for lovers of organ music or of Italian music around 1600.

Johan van Veen


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