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Giovanni Maria TRABACI (c.1575-1647)
Keyboard Works, Book 1 (published Naples 1603)
Instruments: Felice Cimino organ (1702), property of Sergio Vartolo, Spinettone (18th Century), property of Sergio Vartolo, Formentelli harpsichord, copy of original in Caí Rezzonico, Venice, property of Sergio Vartolo, Giovanni Cipri organ (1556), Church of S. Martino, Bologna.
Sergio Vartolo (harpsichord, organ)
Rec: Church of San Martino, Bologna, 1st-5th May 1997, 23rd, 24th and 31st January 1998
NAXOS 8.553550-52
[3 CDs: 54í35"+50í25"+45í58"]


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Of Italian keyboard composers before Scarlatti, the general music lover will probably remember the name of Frescobaldi; he may then remember that Giovanni Gabrieliís works include a number for organ and that his uncle Andrea had cultivated that instrument assiduously. Mention the name of Giovanni Maria Trabaci even to an Italian and he will perhaps just look at you blankly.

Of course, back in the early 17th Century the term "Italian" was a misnomer anyway, for the Italian peninsula was a string of little kingdoms. Just as in the world of painting there were distinct schools in Rome, Venice, Florence, Lombardy, Naples and many other cities, kingdoms and dukedoms, each with its own particular individuality, so did each political unit have its own school of music. It often comes as a surprise to those who know modern Naples to discover that the renaissance school of painting there was the darkest, severest and most austere of all, worlds apart from the flamboyant style of Venice or the sweeter contours of Florence or Rome. But those who have found this out will not be surprised to learn that some of the severest and most erudite weavers of counterpoint were to be found in the Kingdom of Naples; and first among them was the Royal Chapel organist Giovanni Maria Trabaci.

When he published his first volume of keyboard music in 1603 he used the system of notation favoured by the Neapolitan school; the music did not appear in organ intavolature but as a score in four parts. He described it as "to be played on any instrument desired, but proportionally on organs and harpsichords". The editor of what was promised as a complete edition, Oscar Mischiati, believed firmly that this description plus the writing on four staves implied the possibility of performance by instrumental ensembles as well as on keyboard instruments or the harp (which was cultivated in Naples and is specifically mentioned in the second volume of 1615). Further evidence in favour of this view would seem to come from the fact that Trabaci wove his counterpoint in an ideal sense, that is without reference to what would actually fit under the hands, producing impossibly wide stretches on occasion that can only be resolved by readjusting the lines.

Sergio Vartoloís notes to this album are detailed, readable and informative, but do not mention the possibility that these may not be exclusively keyboard works. I get the impression he disagrees with Mischiati since he propagates the view that Trabaciís preferred instrument was the harpsichord. The evidence for this is somewhat flimsy when Trabaci advertises himself on the title page as an organist and lists the organ before the harpsichord as quoted above. But to be fair, the introduction to his 1615 volume describes the pieces as "suitable for all instruments, but especially for harpsichords and organs", so perhaps he came to prefer the harpsichord as time went on. The opposite view to Mischiatiís would be that the use of four staves (adopted on occasion by Frescobaldi but particularly characteristic of the Neapolitan school) did not imply a non-keyboard destination; the composer simply wished that his contrapuntal expertise should be seen as well as heard.

Whatever Trabaciís intentions he unwittingly made life difficult for posterity. Commenting on the example of the first volume held by the G. B. Martini music library of Bologna, their 19th Century archivist Gaetano Gaspari remarked that "this work written in four-part score is filled with contrapuntal artifice and provides strong evidence of Trabaciís abilities. Today there is probably nobody in all Europe who is able to play these and similarly made compositions, written as they are in score: this must induce in us a high esteem for the old organists if, as we do not doubt, they were able to perform such music". And so for practical reasons this music became a closed book for generations. Certain aspects of its appearance on the page are problematical only because modern usage has changed; it uses old clefs and prints quavers and semiquavers separately rather than in rhythmic groupings. But its tendency to write the contents of each bar horizontally, that is without aligning vertically those notes that are to be played together, is not something which becomes less confusing as a result of practice and certainly proves that performers as well as composers truly thought contrapuntally Ė horizontally Ė in those days.

In 1964 the first instalment of a modern complete edition appeared, dedicated to the 12 "Ricercate" (as "Ricercari" were called in Naples in Trabaciís day) from the first volume, published jointly by Paideia of Brescia and Bärenreiter and edited by the aforesaid Oscar Mischiati. Scrupulously prepared and beautifully printed, it seemed that Trabaciís problems of inaccessibility were over. A second instalment appeared in 1967, containing the Canzoni francesi, Capricci and Canti fermi of the first volume. Unfortunately we are still awaiting further instalments, of which I estimate that another six would be required to complete the work. Meanwhile a photographic reprint of the original edition (of which only two examples survive) was issued by SPES of Florence in 1984, and a few pieces have appeared in anthologies. The player wishing to perform works only available in the SPES edition can at least obtain them, but is practically obliged to make his own transcription.

Is it worth the bother? I would say yes. We know that the Italian ricercare is one of the ancestors of the fugue but, unlike most, Trabaciís subjects have a melodic profile that stays in the memory, and when a ricercare has more than one fugue subject, he contrasts them well. He allows a higher level of dissonance in his counterpoint than the other Italian schools were wont to, and this makes the music more interesting to our ears. In the Canzoni francesi, which lend themselves to more extrovert treatment, he often explodes into passages of dashing virtuosity. His occasional harmonic experiments, in Consonanti stravaganti for example, can sound weird even today. In short, he is a master and those who enjoy music of this period should get to know him.

Vartolo included five of these pieces on a disc which I reviewed with severe misgivings (K617039) that were not limited to the truly appalling translation of the booklet essay. He is certainly an enthusiast and writes with authority and accessibility. Of the four instruments used, three are his own property. The odd thing is that his notes also state that he uses a copy of a sixteenth century regal and, besides the Giovanni Cipri organ, two other organs of Bologna, by Lorenzo da Prato and Baldassare Malamini, but these are in fact not used. I am also puzzled as to why, having carted the whole works to the Church of San Martino in Bologna, the fine-sounding Cipri organ there is only actually used for one piece. Still, the Felice Cimino organ is a treat to hear and the harpsichord and the spinettone are clearly excellent instruments. We get all this music played with love and dedication and, in the absence of alternatives, I suppose I could leave it at that.

However, I feel I must say more. I took issue strongly with Vartoloís interpretative methods when I reviewed the previous disc and Iím afraid he hasnít changed his ways very much. I donít want to labour this unduly and there will be time enough for closer analysis if and when somebody else records all this music in a different way. My points of disagreement are:

  • Rubato. The student who attempts to apply rubato to a fugue by Bach gets sternly warned off by any teacher worth his salt on the grounds that what may sound plausible for the upper line will disrupt and distort all the other lines going on at the same time. Vartolo either doesnít agree or doesnít think it applies to Trabaciís counterpoint. Now as before there is not a phrase which is not manhandled rhythmically, or which is allowed to speak for itself. Whatever he may intend, some of his distortions simply sound like a sight-reader fumbling for the next note. I am quite sure this is not the case but I wish he would try to listen to his own performances with the ears of an outsider. Perhaps he thinks that ideas like rhythmic continuity and flow are romantic accretions and that any sensation of onward movement has to be prevented. I can only say that the ricercari sound so extremely beautiful if played simply and flowingly that I cannot understand why Vartolo feels it essential to interpose his own personality at every bar. However, I did feel this time that, unlike the performances on the previous disc, there is the feeling of the tactus slowly ticking over at least in the more sustained pieces such as the ricercari and the canzoni. The brief Partite which practically constitute two series of variations are not allowed to build up into a whole, an effect exacerbated by the insertion of pauses between each one that are almost as long as the pieces themselves. Is there not something patronising about the implicit theory behind these performances, that this music is so dull or meaningless that only the genius of the performer can make it worth hearing? We sneer at earlier generations who dressed up old music in elaborate orchestrations to make it palatable. Will people one day sneer at the age of rubato-fiends who sought to "improve" the old masters through the fire of their interpretative genius?

  • Instruments. I have already stated my belief that Vartolo overestimates the role of the harpsichord in these works, but I cannot deny that it was one of Trabaciís approved solutions. Four of the five pieces which Vartolo recorded previously on the organ, are here played on the harpsichord, so readers can check out their preferences. Every logical consideration points to the ricercate, with their sustained harmonies, and the toccatas, which begin with long held notes that die away on the harpsichord, not to speak of the canti fermi, of which we will simply not hear the cantus firmus if it is not played by an instrument capable of sustaining it, being essentially organ music. In any case the choice to play pieces of a similar nature on different instruments is misleading since it will induce some listeners to suppose that there are, for example, two different types of ricercate whereas they are entirely homogeneous in manner. The desired variety might have been obtained by abandoning anthological order and arranging the works in twelve listener-friendly groupings, each with a ricercata at its head. This would not, however solve the problem that each instrument sounds at a different pitch and I for one found it irksome to have to adjust my mental conceptions every time Vartolo passes from one instrument to another.

In conclusion, though the records are at Naxosís very low price, they are not particularly well filled; the entire contents would have fitted neatly onto only two CDs. But until a rival set hits the shelves the point is a trivial one, and I do most sincerely hope that a rival set will be made for the music deserve currency wherever music of this particular period is appreciated. My comments on the performances have been severe. I hope they are sufficiently well-explained to allow the reader to understand whether he is likely to enjoy these discs or not.

Christopher Howell

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