I guess that this CD caught me out! I have long known a couple of short Sonatas by a chap called Stephen Storace. I thought that Naxos had just published a new recording of harpsichord music by the said gentleman. I was totally wrong! And I learnt a lesson. There are a number of musical ‘Storaces’- Nancy, Bernardo and Stephen. It turned out that the present CD is of music by Bernardo, who ‘flourished’ around 1664. As I know nothing about this composer – he is outside my normal field of operations - I have to rely heavily on the relatively short liner-notes written by Glen Wilson and the article in Grove.
The key problem is that musicologists know virtually nothing about Bernardo. In fact, the only extant ‘biography’ would appear to be written on the title page of the holograph of the present work. In this short ‘CV’ he refers to himself as ‘vice-maestro di cappella’ to the Senate of Messina, which is in Sicily. Wilson suggests that this ‘paucity’ of information is likely to be due to the series of earthquakes that have struck this region over the centuries.
Grove notes that the 1664 Collection Selva di varie compositioni was published in Venice and musically looks more to the Northern School than to that of Naples and the South of Italy. In fact, stylistically, Storace owes much to the Roman composer Frescobaldi (1583-1643), ‘whose influence is felt in every bar.’ Certainly, the ‘dashing dances,’ correnti and gagliarde are important precursors of the later Baroque suites made so popular by Bach and Handel. Amongst the selections presented on this disc are an excellent Ciaccona, a Toccata and an ‘aberrant’ Follia (madness).
The main interest of Storace’s music lies in his use of the variation form. Technically the composer has utilised a number of musical devices that enable him to create a mass of inventive music from a relatively small amount of material. However, these ‘pedantic’ techniques do not take away from this music being both satisfying and artistic. The professional musicologist can worry about the ‘whys and wherefores’: the listener must simply enjoy the final product. The story goes that in the four ‘passacaglias’ (there are two presented on this disc) from the Selva di varie compositioni there are 320 variations on the ‘descending tetrachord’. For the record, this is simply a set of four descending notes derived from a scale or tetrachord and embracing a perfect fourth: for example, ‘F’ down to ‘C’ on the piano.
Naoko Akutagawa was born in Hiroshima in 1974. She started to play the piano at three and when sixteen began to study the harpsichord. Her academic achievements included a period in the Musikhochschule in Würzburg, Germany, where she became assistant professor in 1999. She specialises in chamber music and has recently performed Mozart concertos on the fortepiano. She has recorded the complete works of Gaspard de Roux and a selection of music by Johann Christoph Graupner for Naxos.
The present recording is the first time that I have heard Naoko Akutagawa and it is a sheer pleasure. I have often felt that an hour-long concert of harpsichord music can be a challenging experience, however, the playing and the selection of works provides a superb listening experience which never fails to interest or impress. The harpsichord, which is by Detmar Hungerberg, after an example dated 1697 by Carlo Grimaldi of Messina, sounds absolutely fantastic. In fact, the composer may well have known the maker of the original instrument.
So after my initial disappointment at not being able to review the music of Stephen Storace, I am perfectly contented. I am not able to compare versions of the Selva di varie compositioni, as it is a completely new work to me. However, based on the overall impression made by this disc, it is a ‘class’ act – from the impressive music, the playing, the sound quality, and the instrument. I cannot imagine any enthusiast of Italian harpsichord music in general or Bernardo Storace in particular wishing to be without this recording.
Finally Grove suggests that it is not ‘known whether [Bernardo] was an antecedent of the Storace family active in England at the end of the 18th century’.