Well, I seem to have missed out on Richard Lester’s complete Scarlatti recordings and now he is embarking on a four disc set of the complete Frescobaldi using both harpsichord and organ. This CD proudly states that the instrument in use here is a 1619 example by Giovanni Bonci who worked for the Barberini family. Very fine it sounds too. It is a split-keyed instrument with fifteen notes per octave. More of that later.
What do you think of when you think of Frescobaldi? One student of mine wrote that he “was potentially a boring old fart”. That’s a bit harsh to say the least but sometimes whilst wading through long Partites
or organ masses you might feel like agreeing. But I have found nothing dull about these performances which give the music every opportunity to speak.
There are two collections from which Lester makes his selections they are ‘Il Primo libro di Toccate e Partite d’intavolatura di cembalo’ of 1615-16. It is dedicated to the Duke Gonzaga of Mantua where the composer almost worked. There’s also a later version of 1637 in a reprint. The other collection is from a remarkably experimental collection of 1627-8 ‘Il second libro di Toccate, Canzone’. It is experimental both harmonically and rhythmically; more of that later.
The CD consist of five brief ‘Gagliardes’ to start with then we have ‘Toccatas’, the ‘Partites’ I spoke of, a ‘Balleto’, which is a dance-form, and a ‘Corrente and Ciaccona’. The bulk of the music is accounted for by the Toccata; a word really meaning ‘Touch piece’ - a showpiece for Frescobaldi himself and for the modern showman.
One piece which especially struck my fancy was the longest on the disc: the Partite sopra l’Aria di Monicha
, using a tune recognisable from other sources including those from England. Effectively Frescobaldi writes a set of variations (like the later Partite sopra l’Aria di Ruggiero
) on a theme which Lester plays first, from a version found in a keyboard collection charmingly entitled ‘Canzonetta e madrigal-ette spiritual’.
Some of the Toccatas display what Lester’s booklet notes describe as “a passionate outpouring of emotion” often resulting in some extraordinary harmony as in the Toccata Settima
and in the brief but action-packed Partite sopra Passacaglia
which begins innocently enough in a dance-like compound time but is taken into various curious areas. These passages are related to madrigal writing. Frescobaldi did himself produce a book of madrigals as a young man (recording by Concerto Italiano on Opus 111 30-133) with ‘affeti’ which are related to the expression of the text. Even if the harmony is relatively normal there might be complex cross-rhythms, tempo changes and syncopations as in the very expressive Toccata Nona
’s final section. Often these Toccatas start with a freely rhythmic section with imitation between the hands and then move into faster sometimes dance-like sections, as often in Froberger. Frescobaldi follows a similar path. Often some fascinating harmonic by-ways are explored and the entire instrument covered as in the Toccata Seconda
which also has some rather vocal ornamentation. The Toccata Sesta
has some dissonant moments as well as being quite virtuoso especially in its left-hand figuration.
There are some short dance-like movements, for example the Balleto e Ciaccona
. These were not really danced to and anyway, in this case, some quite remote keys are moved into. I wonder what it sounded like on the original mean-tuned instruments.
The essay already alluded to is of thirteen pages all in English and has a biographical section in which we are reminded that Frescobaldi was a pupil for a time of that most expressionist of madrigalists Luzzasco Luzzaschi. We are also told that he worked at St. Peters in the Vatican from 1608 until his death, where on several occasions people would flock in their thousands to hear this “miraculous organist”. Then a section specifically on (most of) the music is followed by an intriguing section on Performance Practice which, amongst other things discusses fingering and ornamentation and how it affects the expression of the music, partially as informed by Frescobaldi in his prefaces. There follows a section on Tuning and Temperament and its various complications and there is a photograph of this 1619 instrument which it seems, Frescobaldi himself played. It is worth reading this essay in advance of listening to the disc.
Richard Lester has created a supporting video to accompany the series in which, amongst other things he demonstrates the so-called ‘split’ key harpsichord (black notes, one on top of the other) used for this recording. Go to www.frescobaldi.org.uk
. His talk on ‘Frescobaldi Unmasked’ is especially interesting. In it he emphasises Frescobaldi’s genius and the aspects in which he differs from his older contemporaries of the late renaissance.