Having completed his recordings of the keyboard works of Domenico
Scarlatti, Richard Lester has turned his attention to Frescobaldi.
His video which accompanies the series can be viewed at: www.frescobaldi.org.uk.
Nimbus can also supply it on DVD.
Gary Higginson welcomed Volume 2, from the first and second
books of toccatas, in July 2010 (NI5861) – here
– but we seem to have missed out on Volume 1, so I listened
to that courtesy of the Naxos Music Library and decided to request
a review copy on the strength of what I heard. I also listened
to and greatly enjoyed Volume 2 at the Naxos Music Library.
GH’s review says it all, apart for one small typo which has
crept in (‘Bonci’ for ‘Boni’.)
Volume 1 offers a varied and attractive programme, chiefly from
the First Book of Toccatas (49 minutes of the total 72:29),
played on a 1619 Boni harpsichord. The majority of the music
on Volume 3, mostly of shorter pieces than those on Volume 1,
is also performed on this remarkable instrument, though, for
greater variety, an earlier Italian harpsichord and two virginals,
dating from 1540 and 1600 are employed for the later tracks.
More about the instruments later.
Part of the attractiveness of these two discs stems from Lester’s
study of and employment of contemporary fingering techniques
and of period ornamentation. Much of the music looks like the
work of a dull dog as it stands on the printed page but not
when you hear it played. The letter killeth but the spirit which
Lester imparts giveth life.
Above all, Lester plays the music as if it has value for its
own sake and not just as an historical document. Composers such
as Praetorius and Buxtehude, who used to be thought of as mere
John the Baptists heralding the arrival of J.S. Bach, have now
been established as of value in their own rights and I’m pleased
to see that this Nimbus series is doing the same for Frescobaldi.
This is not earth-shattering music – the virtuosity of one age
can easily be taken for granted in the light of subsequent history
and Lester makes Frescobaldi sound (too?) easy. In fact, the
Boni harpsichord can’t be at all easy to play, for reasons explained
below – but it and the music are well worth hearing.
The harpsichord employed throughout Volume 1 and for most of
Volume 3 was made by Giovanni Battista Boni in around 1619.
It’s tuned not to modern temperament but to mean tone and is
designed to avoid the compromises which a conventional keyboard
creates – G-sharp, for example, is not the same note as A-flat.
Though generations of keyboard players have come to think so,
string players with absolute pitch often find that the compromise
entailed sounds sour: they would certainly think so if some
of the music on these CDs were played on a modern grand: the
notes offer some instances.
On the Boni instrument the accidentals are provided via split
keys, with the front half of the key producing the more commonly
employed note and the rear the less common. The two lowest naturals
are also split in this way, as can be seen from the photograph
included in both booklets. It sounds like a nightmare to play
but, as I say, Lester makes light work of it.
The other instruments on Volume 3 add greater variety, with
the virginals creating much smaller-scale and more intimate
music. They are described in the booklets, both of which also
contain a wealth of information from Richard Lester himself,
to supplement the video referred to above.
The recording is close but not unduly so. Harpsichord music
makes ideal listening in the car – with little variation in
volume possible, once you set the level to be above the road
noise, there’s no need for further adjustment. I played Volume
1 on a 55-minute journey and it’s a measure of my enjoyment
that I sat outside my destination and refused to get out of
the car until it had finished playing.
Where next? The quality of Volumes 1-3 makes me look forward
to the projected fourth volume – organ works from il secondo
libro di toccate, Fiori Musicali and the Chigi manuscript.
Then, too, there is another continuing series of Frescobaldi’s
music, emanating from Brilliant Classics at budget price. I
recently recommended a CD of organ music from his Fiori Musicali
from this series – see review.
I thought that disc mainly of scholarly interest, but Johan
van Veen was more impressed – see review.
In any case, Brilliant Classics are casting their net wider
than the keyboard music: JV’s review also contains two cantus
firmus Masses on Volume 3. There’s also a highly recommended
selection of his keyboard music on Naxos (8.570717: Recording
of the Month – see reviews here
If that selection leads you to these Nimbus recordings, so much
For the neglected keyboard music of Frescobaldi’s older English
contemporary William Byrd, there’s an excellent complete set
from Davitt Moroney on Hyperion (CDS44461-7, 7 CDs at a special
price) or, if that looks too daunting, there’s a single-CD distillation
(CDA66558 – last few remaining on CD, but also available as
a download in mp3 or lossless).
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