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Storace pastorale ECL2101

Bernardo Storace (c. 1637-1707)
In Modo Pastorale
Marouan Mankar-Bennis (organ and harpsichord)
rec. 2020, Domaine de la Chaux, Alligny en Morvan, Nièvre; Église Saint-Éloi de Fresnes, Val-de-Marne

The idea behind this album is an eccentric one. Inspired by Alexandra Dumas’ 1834 writings about his travels to the Mediterranean, Marouan Mankar Bennis has created a “musical sketchbook” of a trip to Sicily. Well, sort of. In the booklet we learn that the album was conceived of and recorded during the lockdowns; Mankar Bennis never in fact travelled anywhere – indeed he confesses in the booklets that he has never even been to Sicily. All the works, harpsichord and organ both, were recorded in France. His companion in this elaborate jest is the seventeenth-century composer Bernardo Storace. All we know about Storace comes from his 1664 published collection of music – which is to say, almost nothing. This makes him the perfect “partner-in-crime”, as Mankar-Bennis describes him.

Mankar-Bennis has gone all in on this grand deception and, in between pieces, included snippets of audio of conversation, street noises and so on (never any longer than a minute) to give the illusion that he has immersed himself in Sicilian life. It is certainly an enjoyable deceit, though the recorded Sicilian conversations and speech are wholly unintelligible to an incorrigible monoglot like myself (as are the literary extracts presented in the booklet, which are given only in French, and are intended to form part of Mankar-Bennis’s fake travel journal). The inclusion of these audio snippets – as well as the variety of keyboard instruments used, sometimes with accompanying percussion – changes the feel of an album to something less like a recital exploring the works of a neglected composer, and something rather more like theatre.

The music ranges from the very playful to the very serious, though either way it is nearly all virtuosic music. Most of the music consists of ground basses and variations of one sort or another. There are also two substantial ricercars, and two short improvisations (by Mankar-Bennis not Storace) that further this concept of a “musical sketchbook”. When Mankar-Bennis (and indeed Storace) is being playful, the results are often delightful: a mischievous rubato in the beginning of Balleta dell Battaglia or the delicate high-pitch recapitulation of the theme at the end of Capriccio sopra Ruggiero.

The long, show-off variation pieces, though certainly well written, sometimes overstay their welcome for me; others more tolerant of the form may think otherwise. All the music on the disc is either played on spinet, harpsichord or organ. In general, I preferred the variation pieces when played on organ. In addition to the brilliant colours he gets out of the 1768 Spanish organ (full details of the registers are included in the booklet), Mankar-Bennis also employs various percussion instruments alongside the organ. The music is therefore more exciting than it might otherwise be, and the repetitions and technical virtuosity less tiresome. Particularly fine is the Follia variations. No, this doesn’t use the famous La Folia, but its theme is a compelling one nonetheless. Mankar-Bennis begins with mellow organ and gentle percussion, then the music builds eagerly. There is a short pause followed by a duet using the organ flutes, then a brief percussion interlude. Finally it launches, full-throatedly, back into the theme. This is the kind of music that, for me, lives or dies depending on the imagination of the performer – and Manker-Bennis turns it into something glorious.

The first and second ricercars are played on harpsichord and spinet respectively. The first is an unexpected masterpiece. I say unexpected as until the end you have little idea what is going to happen – and that it will be so brilliant. It begins with a slow, minor-key point of imitation. No surprises there. After two minutes the listener is led back to the tonic chord and you think this attractive little ricercar has ended – but then Storace launches into a second theme, a chromatic melody that the harpsichord’s intonation sings with beautiful melancholy. If that wasn’t enough, a couple of minutes later he introduces a third theme – so fluidly the moment almost passes you by. The music starts to move forward at a greater pace and you wonder what might happen. There is another final-sounding cadence. Is this the end? Most certainly not – the best is about to come. After a slight pause, themes one and three come in simultaneously, then the second theme, then all three flow freely in and out of the music for one-and-a-half superb minutes. The final florid cadence is, this time, clearly final. A stunning work, and for me the best on the disc. I have now listened to it several times.

The album ends grandly, with a lively passacaglia using the lament bass. The music stops and we hear church bells and indistinct voices. The final destination on this journey to Sicily that wasn’t – this self-confessed musical “hoax”. It’s a novel concept, and while it’s possible others may find it wearisome, I thought it well done. But regardless, the music is good enough to elevate the album above mere novelty, and the colourful variety of keyboard instruments, recorded superbly, give added interest. Mankar-Bennis’s imagination as a performer shines through, and the musical journey is thus a thoroughly enjoyable one.

Steven Watson

Capriccio sopra Ruggiero
Bergamasca (Improvisation)
Toccata e Canzon
Passagagli sopra Fe
Balletto della Battaglia
Recercar di Legature
Trombetta (Improvisation)
Passagagli in modo Pastorale
Passagagli sopra La

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