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Louis COUPERIN (1626-1661)
Prélude non mesuré in C [3:59]
Jean-Philippe RAMEAU (1683-1764)
Nouvelles suites de pieces de clavecin [21:53]
François COUPERIN (1668-1733)
La Misterieuse [2:37]
Joseph-Nicolas-Pancrace ROYER (1705-1755)
Le Vertigo [6:22]
Bernardo STORACE (c.1637-c.1707)
Ciaccona [6:13]
Girolamo FRESCOBALDI (1583-1643)
Toccata Sesta (Libro primo) [4:54]
Leopold KOŽELUH (1747-1818)
Sonata in D major [13:51]
Martin Hroch (harpsichord)
rec. 2016, Church of Saint Barbara, Zábřeh, Czech Republic
ARCODIVA UP0207-2131 [60:23]

The harpsichord is one of those ‘marmite’ instruments which people either love or hate. I’m a self-confessed lover and have fallen head over heels again with this disc. This Czech-made instrument from 1995 is a copy of one made by Pascal-Joseph Taskin (27 July 1723 – 9 February 1793) in 1769. Taskin, was a Belgian maker who inherited the title of facteur des clavessins du Roi after Blanchet, the man he worked for, died. Taskin was noted for several innovations he introduced into harpsichord manufacture. This instrument has a particularly clear and bright sound with some remarkably rounded elements that avoid the ‘tinny’ sound that is apparent on some harpsichord discs and which doubtless accounts for the dislike many have for the instrument. Martin Hroch, a well-renowned Czech harpsichordist who has studied with the great proponents of the instrument plays with a commanding presence and his selection of works shows the instrument off to its best advantage.

First up is a lovely piece one could characterise as the hors d’oeuvre before the main course. Louis Couperin’s Prélude non mesuré in C is a piece is as delicate as a lace fan. Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Nouvelles suites de pieces de clavecin is known as one of the crowning glories of the French harpsichord school and is based around the dances that were most popular in that period, renowned for its elaborate dress on the part of both men and women; bouffant hair styles, eccentric wigs and outlandish make-up. There is an attractive elegance about the music that adds to its charm. ‘Les trois mains’ is a particular favourite, with its intricate components and a speed that must tax the best player, with its impression that there are indeed three hands at work – not that Martin Hroch gives any sense that he cannot dash it off with ease. The ‘Gavotte’ is a piece which I’m sure will be familiar to listeners, even if they don’t readily recognise the rest of the suite as its basic tune is well used away from the suite, popping up in so many representations of the period in film and television. All its components are then taken apart and examined separately in the final ‘Doubles de la Gavotte’ with some wonderfully ornamented improvisation.

Louis Couperin’s nephew François was another important representative of French baroque music and his La Misterieuse reveals a fragility that is especially enchanting. In complete contrast is a piece by the surprisingly named Joseph-Nicolas-Pancrace Royer, Le Vertigo, which involves a storming performance which pushes at the boundaries of what a harpsichord can do and revealing it as a powerhouse rather than a timid instrument, most often associated with refinement rather than bombast. This piece thunders its way through and excites as well as entertains. Taking inspiration from old Spanish dances Bernardo Storace’s Ciaccona uses variations on its principal theme to great advantage adding colour to what at first seems a simple tune. Girolamo Frescobaldi is the earliest composer represented on this disc, since he was born in the sixteenth century but his Toccata Sesta with his innovative approach to the Italian style of composition places his toccatas at the very pinnacle of music for keyboard instruments in the first half of the seventeenth century and both its decorative nature and its daring show why its reputation is well deserved.

For the final work on the disc Martin Hroch has chosen a sonata written by one of the best- known composers of the Czech baroque, Leopold Koželuh. This area of music is still less well known that it ought to be. Mozart was a frequent visitor to Prague and chose the Czech capital for the premières of both The Marriage of Figaro and La Clemenza di Tito and, indeed there was a greater sense of grief at Mozart’s death in Prague than anywhere else. “Leopold Koželuh is without question with young and old the generally most loved among our living composers and this with justification” said one of the leading critics of the time. Indeed, Koželuh was so highly regarded that he was offered two posts formerly held by Mozart. The one he accepted, following Mozart’s death, was offered by Emperor Franz II and was as Music Director and Composer to the court – and at double Mozart’s salary! While it’s true that tastes change it should be noted that no less a figure than Christopher Hogwood argued that Koželuh’s keyboard sonatas, especially those which open in minor keys, “substantially anticipated ... the tragic-pathetic manner” of Beethoven and Schubert, in which he “created the internationally praised cantabile idiom”, adding that they are “models for imitation and study”. While the music is less flamboyant than that from France or Italy, the Viennese classicism that he was most associated with gives it an air of sophistication somewhat lacking in the other works. Koželuh was among those composers and teachers whose music formed a bridge between that for the harpsichord and clavichord and the fortepiano; some musicians choose to play the sonatas on the piano and they sound equally effective on either instrument.

Discs of music for harpsichord come along with less regularity than at one time, so this one is to be welcomed on that score alone; but the fact that it contains some important milestones in the development of music for the keyboard makes it a significant disc and Martin Hroch’s playing is illuminating, bringing with it refinement as well as jollity and I enjoyed it immensely. I look forward to him perhaps giving us more Czech baroque which teems with composers who I discovered when I lived in Prague.

Steve Arloff

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