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Girolamo FRESCOBALDI (1583-1643)
Fiori Musicali Vol II Messa Della Madonna
(Missa cum jubilo and Vesper)
Canticum/Christoph Erkens
Lorenzo Ghielmi – organ (in the church of San Maurizio in Monastero Maggiore, Milan
rec 18-19 Oct 1994 in the church of San Maurizio in Monastero Maggiore, Milan, and  23-26 October 1994 in St Osdag, Mandelsloh.
DEUTSCHE HARMONIA MUNDI 74321 935472 [68.13]

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Frescobaldi continues to be one of those composers more honoured in the history books than in the concert hall. Although his output was considerable, and published in many collections even in his own lifetime, covering all the current forms of vocal and instrumental writing, it is his keyboard music for which he is now remembered. 

Working in Rome at a time just after the Council of Trent had had a significant impact on the music life of the Catholic Church, Frescobaldi was adept at combining the latest compositional techniques and devices of keyboard writing with the more traditional liturgical structures of the alternatum setting of the Mass. This had descended from alternating verses of ancient plainsong, sung by one side of the choir, then the other. By the early 17th century the idea of alternating the plainsong liturgy and music performed either on the organ or by an instrumental ensemble was commonplace.

This disc juxtaposes excerpts from Frescobaldi’s 1635 Fiori Musicali with the appropriate liturgical plainsong of the Mass for the Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary, one of three such alternatum mass settings in the collection.

This music is the mature Frescobaldi, sure in the handling of complex imitative writing and filled with piquant harmonic touches. These latter are all the more apparent on this recording as the organ - one of few surviving instruments by the famous Italian Renaissance Antegnati family of organ builders - is tuned in an unequal temperament of pure major thirds which gives some keys and chords a very robust “rural” character; what the uninitiated call “out of tune”. Indeed, the whole sound-world of such organs is unusual to modern ears, but nonetheless effective in this repertoire.

Although small by northern European standards, consisting of only thirteen stops of all metal pipes with a non-independent pedal, permanently coupled, of fourteen notes, this organ furnishes a range of colour and sweetness that is more than enough for the music. Two tracks in the Mass stand out in particular. The Toccata Sesta per l’organo sopra i pedali with which the mass ends is a substantial work, over five minutes long, and clearly showing how Bach was influenced by Italian writing in his florid writing for manuals. Bach acquired a copy of the Fiori Musicali, in Weimar in 1613, the collection having been introduced northern lands by Frescobaldi’s pupil Froberger. Similar large-scale effects are audible in the Recercar con obligo di cantare la Quinta parte senza torccarla) in which the organ and the plainsong - in this case a 17th century modernisation of the Sancta Maria, ora pro nobis chant that Monteverdi also used in similar way in the Sonata sopra Sancta Maria in his 1610 Vespers - are combined rather than alternating verse and verse about. The alternatum structure having been predominant throughout the disc up to this point the effect of this combination of timbres is considerable.

The singers are the eight-strong German plainsong group Canticum. Their performances are admirable, although one does find that the polish and perfection of intonation is rather lacking in character given that this is supposed to be liturgical music from the hot Mediterranean lands. That aspect is even more notable in comparison to the rougher edges of the organ’s unequal temperament tuning. It is also somewhat disappointing that the unaccompanied plainsong sections were recorded separately in a church in Mandelsloh, rather than in the monastery church where the organ is located. This is not necessarily audible on the disc, but the fact is still a bit disappointing. There are also times, not so much in the Mass, but more apparent in the Vespers that form the second half of the disc, where there is a distinct forcing of the sound that gets uncomfortable on the ear. An example is in the quite high-lying chant of the psalm 112 and its antiphon Jam hiems in track 16 or the peaked phrases of the Ave Maris Stella hymn. A more fluid approach, using fewer singers and less close mic placement would have been beneficial.

While one has to have some reservations about the consistency and imaginativeness of the chanting, there are few qualms about the organ playing of Lorenzo Ghielmi. As pointed out earlier, the strongly unequal temperament of the organ’s tuning is probably going to be off-putting to many listeners, especially given the frequency of chromatic passages in Frescobaldi’s music, but Ghielmi’s command of early Italian baroque rhetoric shines through in all his playing. Amongst other things, he was co-founder of the ensemble Il Giardino Armonico, which has become well known for cultivating a flamboyant style of performance of Italian music. This same effect is frequently heard in the playing here, especially in the toccatas and is undeniably enjoyable. That having been said, the combination of plainsong, pure tuning and fairly dense organ writing is probably going to make this disc more one for the Frescobaldi devotee than the punter after some big organ noise.

Peter Wells



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