Not since the halcyon days of the Supraphon
LP have I seen such lovely translations. Of Marcantonio Cavazzoni’s
work we read, for example, that "It is without any doubt
question of the composition for keyboard to the most ancient
which came down to us endowed with a function purely instrumental
and abstract". With reference to the original French I
can now reveal that this means "It is without any doubt
the earliest keyboard composition, with a purely instrumental
and abstract function, to have come down to us". A rather
tendentious statement since one would have to check out the
dates of a number of early English dance movements, in so far
as they are known, but it may be true that Cavazzoni’s book
of Ricercare contains the oldest purely keyboard compositions
we have from a known composer.
Then, of Giovanni Gabrieli, there is still
better to come: "The posterity will therefore render homage
to one who will make the history of the European music become
baroque language instead of recognition. Isn’t it with Giovanni
Gabrieli, that Heinrich Schütz will learn profession".
The curious thing is that, while the notes
remain anonymous (by Vartolo himself?), the translations emanate
from a genuinely English-sounding name, one Guy Strudwick. However,
I venture to suggest that he pronounces his name "Ghee
Stroodveek" and that his family have been resident in France
for at least three generations. And, in case you’re wondering
about that word "recognition", it is the translation
offered by the hapless Monsieur Stroodveek’s dictionary as,
somewhat bleary-eyed from his heavy workload (for I do not doubt
that his services are sought far and wide), he endeavoured to
find out how his distant cousins over the Manche say "Renaissance".
Ah well, "reconnaissance" was nearly the same.
Come back, pink emu, all is forgiven!
With or without Monsieur Stroodveek, the notes
have some harsh admonitions for all of us. There’s Claudio Merulo,
for example, "that we will not mistake for Tarquinio Merula".
Perish the thought! If I caught any of my young nephews or nieces
doing a thing like that they’d be for the high jump! And then
there’s Andrea Gabrieli, "that nobody would mingle with
his nephew Giovanni". Well, in these times when clonation
is a real possibility, I wouldn’t be so sure of that. A brother’s
leg, a cousin’s eye, an aunt’s nipple and Bob’s your cloned
uncle before you can say Jack Robinson.
All this takes space that might have been dedicated
to telling us more about what we’re actually hearing. To call
the Merulo piece "Toccata" when Ricordi have published
three volumes of them is not very helpful. It turns out to be
the second of the 1598 collection (Ricordi Volume I), and I
can see why Vartolo might not be so enthusiastic at the idea
of someone looking it up and following it through because Merulo’s
own mother wouldn’t have recognised it (or, worse still, have
mistaken it for Tarquinio Merula). These early organ toccatas
call for a certain amount of improvisatory freedom, but not
to the extent that Merulo is made to seem a complete nit-wit
to have written sometimes quavers, sometimes semi-quavers, sometimes
demi-semi-quavers, if nobody was expected to take any notice.
They didn’t write bar-lines in those days, but they had a "tactus"
or basic beat, which rolled on inexorably, and all the tempi
of the piece were related to it. Just listen to the start of
this Merulo . If this has any sense for you, then stop reading
and buy the record, obviously I’m the one that’s out of step.
And then, although the Dallam organ is not so very much later
than Merulo’s time, I question whether the unrelieved loudness
with which this toccata is registered corresponds to anything
Merulo’s Venice would have recognised, the more so since it
is recorded close up and the Lanvellec Church is obviously small
with a short reverberation period, rather different from St.
Mark’s in Venice. Merulo’s toccatas are the aural equivalent
of his Venetian contemporary the painter Tintoretto, where the
basic dark and mysterious colours (Merulo’s long-held chords)
are flecked with flashes of light (the semi-quavers). In the
right place and in the right hands they can have an awesome
power, but you would not think so from this horrible noise.
Not everything is that bad, but Vartolo must
think this is terrible music that can’t speak for itself without
the intervention of his genius. Hear him start Trabaci’s Ricercare
on "Ruggiero", with each phrase rhythmically man-handled
. And as for the way he mauls the start of the 4th
Canzona francesa…. Is there any reason why this music should
not be allowed to build up its own natural rhythmic pulsation?
Well, in the case of Trabaci I can think of one very good reason
the other way. In his introduction to the printed edition, Trabaci
described the pieces as to be played on "qualsivoglia strumento"
(whatever instrument you wish), and in fact they are not written
on a two-stave organ score, they are written as a four-stave
score; you can score-read them on a single keyboard instrument
or you can call in your friends and play them on a quartet of
stringed (or other) instruments as you wish. And in the latter
case, the sort of rhythmic manipulation Vartolo goes in for
was unthinkable and remained so for instrumental groups until
the 20th Century dawned and they had a Stokowsky
or a Mengelberg to conduct them through it. So a straightforward
rhythmic pulse must have been on the menu, even in early
17th Century Naples. And to return to the "Ruggiero"
piece, has it not crossed Vartolo’s mind that such liberal use
of the 4’ stop on its own is monotonous, and can he produce
evidence that organists of the day did use 4’ and 2’ stops without
the 8’ base, if not as a very exceptional effect?
Now, to be fair, as the music moves forward
in time Vartolo treats it less eccentrically, so I will give
as my last example the Pasquini piece that closes the CD and
which shows both him and the organ in its most attractive light
. But, apart from the good, clean sound, I can only report that
this disc does a thorough disservice to some beautiful music
and should be avoided at all costs. If you are among "those
who seek in the Brittany for more than reducer regionalistic
cliches", as Monsieur Stroodveek puts it, then make sure
Vartolo isn’t playing the organ when you go there.