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Early Music

Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger




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Giovanni Maria TRABACI (c.1575-1647)
Keyboard Music: Book 2 (1615)
CD1 Twelve Ricercata [50.01]
CD2 Cento Versi sopra li Otto finali Ecclesiastici 1st Tone to the 6th Tone [55.56]
CD3 Cento Versi sopra il Otto finali Eeclesiastici 7th Tone and 8th Tones
also Six Toccatas and Galliards 1-4 [45.43]
CD4 Galliards 5-9 and Partite artificiose [53.44]
Sergio Vartolo, Harpsichord and Organ with Andrew Lawrence King Harp, Michel van Goetham Countertenor and Mario Cecchiti Tenor
Recorded at; The churches of St.Petronio and St.Martino Bologna (Historic Organs) January 1998 and at the church of St.Maria del Dugnano Fumane in August 2000
NAXOS 8.553553-56 [4CDs: 50.01+55.56+45.43+53.44]

It seems extraordinary to me that such an obviously important figure as Giovanni Maria Trabaci has hardly featured on CD before. Before hearing this CD I had heard a note of his music. I suspect that I am in good and numerous company on that point. Such is his obscurity that to many he will not even be a name.

He was an Italian and an exact contemporary of Monteverdi. He composed exclusively for the keyboard and was very much a man of his time. His nearest and more famous contemporary for the keyboard was Frescobaldi (1583-1643). Their kinship is evident in the fugal ‘Ricercate’. He has much in common with that composer though he transcends Frescobaldi’s art and technique. Another contemporary was the slightly younger Johann Froberger (1616-1667) and the similarities are noticeable especially in the wonderful ‘Toccatas’.

But to start with disc one. This is devoted to the twelve ‘Ricercate’ or ‘Ricerars’ each based on one of the Gregorian tones. As with the modern tuning system there are twelve notes to an octave. In Trabaci’s time there were twelve tones. But to find a composer willing and able to write a work of such complex counterpoint on each of the tones was remarkable and probably unique; unique that is until the great J.S. Bach. Each work, at almost five minutes, is also quite long for the period. This duration gives the composer space to ‘spread himself’. The most startling number is the extraordinarily chromatic number six.

We must remember that the tones or modes were considered at the time to have certain humours or emotions attached to them. Sergio Vartolo writes the notes for this CD in an interesting but rather learned style. He reminds us that as long ago as the 11th Century the music theorist Guido D’Arezzo had propounded the view that the first Gregorian mode "is serious, the second sad, the third mystic, the fourth harmonious". He does not go as far as Messiaen’s in ascribing colours to the keys. In the introduction to the book Trabaci reminds his players of these antecedents. However these Gregorian tones are even more significant in the music featured on CD2 and on the ‘Cento Versi’ (CD3). Here we have one hundred verses based on the Gregorian tones. A brief fragment of plainchant, sung by the beautiful and otherworldly counter-tenor voice of Michel van Goethem, precedes each piece. Organ verses were not uncommon in the Roman Catholic England of Henry VIII. Composers like Tallis, Blitheman and Redford, were, in alternatum, to break up the chanting of psalms and canticles. The organ would play an elaboration of the chant which was used as a cantus firmus. This use of Gregorian melodies can be traced to as late as c.1700 in the organ masses of François Couperin. With Trabaci their use is to " delight the world and the professional organist". For sheer pleasure? Non liturgical?

Naxos has helped enormously by tracking the verses so that four tracks are allowed for each tone. So for example each tone: the Primo Tono, Secondo Tono etc., has twelve verses. Each is preceded by its chant. Each track represents three verses. If only more companies would aim at such informative and pleasurable aids to listening, although I must add that some of the track timings are inaccurate. This music nevertheless requires considerable patience and possibly a different way of listening. Trabaci’s material can be dishearteningly short-winded and ideas, not always particularly memorable, flash by. Beware, keep alert; there are some amazing exceptions. If the idea of 100 of these verses sends you into sleep mode, then perhaps it might help to think of listening to them as a spiritual experience!

Although this collection (the second to be recorded by Naxos) was published in 1615, Trabaci must have working on it for perhaps a decade before. It is contemporaneous with a famous English collection ‘The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book’. This collection contains archaic-sounding works based on the Gregorian tones, some by John Bull but also many dances including Galliards by Byrd (1543-1623) and Peter Phillips (1561-1628). Trabaci appears to be much more modern. Even the Galliards, devoid as they are of much counterpoint, seem more dance-like and lighter than the pieces by the English composers. Trabaci gives them names like "Galluccio" and "Talianella" - the exact meaning of which is not given in the booklet.

CD3 also contains five ‘Toccatas’ and two ‘Ricercars’ which use cantus firmus technique one with a secular model, the other sacred. This CD also has the ‘Toccata seconda & ligatura per l’arpa’ played on, first, the harpsichord and then beautifully, by Andrew Lawrence King on the harp. I think that I should at this point make a comment about the instruments chosen. There is a fine and interesting variety; seven instruments in all. The Galliards are played on a copy of a Venetian Fermentelli harpsichord. The ‘Versi’ are divided between an organ of 1556 in the church of St. Martin in Bologna, a beautiful instrument in every way that by chance I heard only quite recently. There are others at St.Petronio’s Basilica in Bologna with a wondrously sepulchral bass, and a Felice Cimmino organ of 1702 with a bird-sounds attachment used on CD3 track 20. The ‘Ricercate’ also uses these instruments but alternates them with an 18th century Spinet and a Regal. These, like several other instruments used here, are the property of Sergio Vartolo.

CD4 has five more Galliards and, to end the set, a group of pieces marked ‘Partite artificiose’. These are really no more than short, little exercises. Some of these are heard first on the harpsichord and later on the harp. Trabaci was not too particular about the instrument his music was played on. This disc also presents a song by Arcadelt (sung by Mario Cecchetti). There are two versions of an extended elaboration upon the song.

I have the utmost admiration for Sergio Vartolo. He not only plays all these instruments but has also masterminded the entire project and written the notes. I haven’t heard the first Trabaci volume (Naxos 8.553550-52). His musicianship is outstanding and his belief in the music unreserved.

Gary Higginson


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