It is difficult to appreciate just how popular Girolamo
Frescobaldi, the Italian early baroque composer was in his day. A pop
star performer of his time, in fact. According to my Grove Dictionary
of Music and Musicians his first performance as organist at St. Peter's,
Rome attracted an audience of 30,000 people. I'm tempted to say, 'what
all at once!' and 'how did they all fit in?' As a performer he was arguably
the most distinguished organist of the 17th Century.
Born in Ferrara in 1583, Frescobaldi studied under
the City's Cathedral organist Luzzasco Luzzaschi and gained a noble
reputation as a beautiful singer as well as a virtuoso organist. After
securing a post as organist in the Santa Maria Church, in Rome he settled
in Antwerp, in Flanders in 1607 and then went on to secure the prestigious
appointment in 1608 as organist at St. Peter's, Rome.
Owing to the poor remuneration at St. Peters, Frescobaldi
took leave of absence, in 1628, in response to an invitation from the
grand Duke of Tuscany to become his organist, in Florence. In 1633 Frescobaldi
returned to Rome and was re-appointed as organist at St. Peter's and
successfully held this position until a year before his death in 1643.
Renowned music writer David Ewen explains that Frescobaldi's
contemporaries Gabrieli, Buxtehude and Sweelinck tended to write their
keyboard music in the contrapuntal style of their choral works. In opposition
Frescobaldi moved away from this style releasing himself to write music
that truly belonged to the organ and the harpsichord and not the human
voice. Notes in the CD booklet aptly describe Frescobaldi as, 'a master
of counterpoint, stating his opening themes and then progressively making
them quicker both rhythmically and melodically'. Frescobaldi's brilliantly
innovative and progressive style of writing for the keyboard became
a major development of the baroque period and his music has undoubtedly
stood the test of time. Clearly Frescobaldi's long standing reputation
as one of the most important composers of the keyboard is being realised
as the large number of recent CD's released bear testament.
As explained in his booklet notes soloist Sergio Vartolo
has personally chosen these works to be played principally on the harpsichord.
He feels that contrary to common belief the organ was not the principal
instrument intended by Frescobaldi and that the use of the harpsichord
can be inferred from the manuscript scores. In addition Vartolo reinforces
his preference for using the harpsichord with his view of the composers
intention as secular works for entertainment rather than for the organ
which generally favours a more liturgical context. However for what
seems like sentimental rather than historical reasons Vartolo chooses
to perform 3 of the Fantasie, 3 of the Ricercari and 2 of the Canzoni
Francesi on the organ. This decision to use the richer palette of colour
provided by the organ on 8 of the works does make an interesting contrast.
The excellent Italian soloist Sergio Vartolo studied
at Bologna Conservatorio and University and teaches the harpsichord
at the Conservatorio di Venezia. Vartolo has become known as a Frescobaldi
specialist and this double CD set, from the ever enterprising Naxos
label, achieves his completion of the complete keyboard works that Frescobaldi
published in his lifetime.
The harpsichord used by Vartolo is a modern copy of
a 1664 Italian original from Venice and provides a most agreeable sound,
in the not too dry acoustic. For the 8 works that Vartolo has selected
to use the organ, the choice of the recently restored 1664 Hermans organ
of the Chiesa dello Spirito Santo, in Pistoia is strongly vindicated.
The organ sound is warm and the acoustic is not too resonant. On the
negative side it is not surprising that the mechanism of the instrument
can be heard at times but I did not find this too annoying or intrusive.
Furthermore there are a few untidy passages; particularly on CD 1, track
5, at 4:35 where there seems to be a poor edit or incorrect note.
I feel that these keyboard works, as fine as they are,
are works to dip into rather than to listen to the whole of the generous
2hrs 12 minutes of playing time at one sitting. This early baroque music
however does deserve to be heard by a wider audience than the mainly
traditional specialist collector. Vartolo is a powerful advocate of
these works for keyboard and his assured playing displays the necessary
expressive poetry and drama contained in the music. The quality of both
the performance and the sound are excellent and the excellence of the
music rewards repeated hearings.