Friday, August 19, 2022

Josquin, Der Noten Meister

2021 was Josquin year: he died in 1521. He was considered the greatest composer of the time and is still considered the greatest composer of the Renaissance. Who doesn't know his Ave Maria? A composer like Josquin does not need a commemoration. His music, both sacred and secular, is available on many discs. Even so, the commemoration of his death was the reason that several discs have been released. The Brabant Ensemble [1], directed by Stephen Rice, recorded ten motets, which are considered authentic. Rice, in his liner-notes, discusses at length the issue of authenticity, and mentions a number of pieces that have been and still are the subject of scholarly research with regard to their authorship. Josquin experts often have completely opposite views. Some pieces in the programme have been performed with parts that have been added by other composers. This was a pretty common practice, and has to be interpreted as a way to express admiration for Josquin. In some cases the additional parts may be from Josquin's own pen; in that case we have to do with early and later versions. As one may gather, this disc is quite interesting, and even those who have many recordings of Josquin's music in their collection, may find here something that they are not familiar with. If you purchase this disc, you are well advised to read first the liner-notes carefully. There is no need to specifically mention highlights; every piece is of superior quality. As far as the performances are concerned, these are very good. There are some moments in which the text is illustrated in the music, and these have not escaped the attention of the performers. There is just one issue, which concerns the Stabat mater. It is an exemple of a piece which is performed here with an additional part. Josquin's version is for five voices, here we get a six-part version, which has been preserved in a Czech manuscript, in which the text is 'protestantized'. The second section begins with the words "Christe verbum" instead of "Eia mater". For this recording, the additional part is performed with the original text. That is questionable, as Josquin's version was probably never performed with six voices. It would have been more plausible to use the 'protestant' text in all parts instead. That way it would have represented an interesting aspect of the Josquin reception in his time. It does not compromise my appreciation of this disc, which is a substantial addition to the Josquin discography.

It was common practice in the Renaissance to intabulate vocal music so that it could be played on a plucked instrument. This practice was by no means limited to secular music; sacred works could also be treated this way. It was also not uncommon for one or more parts to be performed vocally. Sebastian Ochsenkun mentioned this possibility in his Heidelberg tablature book. In Spain it was Diego Pisador, vihuela player and composer, who mentions this practice in his Libro de música de vihuela (1552), when he writes that he wants "the reader to know that all that is in this book I have done with great diligence and labour so that it might be correct and of great clarity without diminutions, so that players may recognise the voices easily as they are on the vihuela, and so that they might be able to sing them (...)". There are no fewer than eight Josquin Masses in this book. The composer was immensely popular in Spain, and his works can be found in intabulations in various collections of music for the vihuela, including those by Luys de Narváez and Alonso Mudarra. The aforementioned practice and the popularity of Josquin's music in Spain inspired Ariel Abramovich [2] to transcribe works by Josquin for the vihuela, in addition to some intabulations by Spanish composers, and to invite María Cristina Kiehr and Jonatan Alvarado to sing the vocal parts. Some of Josquin's best-known works are included, such as Nymphes, nappés, Praeter rerum seriem, Mille regretz and the above- mentioned Stabat mater. There are also some mass sections and the programme ends with Josquin's Déploration sur la mort d'Ockeghem. What is offered here is relatively unusual - not from a historical point of view, but from the perspective of today's performance practice. That is a shame because it offers the opportunity to listen to Josquin's music from a different angle. The performances are very good. María Cristina Kiehr and Jonatan Alvarado have the perfect voices for this repertoire and they blend superbly. Ariel Abramovich is a very fine and sensitive performer, which comes especially to the fore in Mille regretz, the only piece he performs alone. There is only point of criticism: the recording. It was done in a church and that was a bad idea. Singing to the vihuela was something taking place in intimate surroundings, not in a church. Due to the church acoustic, the voices are too dominant. They sound like soloists, but they are not. Originally, it was undoubtedly the vihuela player himself who sang to his playing. Today these roles are separated, but that is no reason to put the voices into the centre. I highly appreciate the concept of this recording as well as the actual performances. It is unfortunate that the recording damages the overall positive impression of this project.

The last disc offers French chansons, which in all likelihood date from two periods of Josquin's career. The first was when he was in the service of René 'le Bon' d'Anjou (in the 1470s) and the second when he had settled back in his native region at the end of his career (after 1504). These songs are heavily inspired by simple folk songs; it is known that René d'Anjou and his second wife, Jeanne de Laval, not only had a great interest in literature and art, but also loved the simple life, and occasionally disguised themselves as shepherds. Denis Raisin Dadre, the director of the ensemble Doulce Mémoire [3], took the connection to folk culture as an opportunity to compare chansons with folk songs. This enabled him to increase the number of stanzas in some cases. By the way, there are not only pieces by Josquin here. His Ma bouche rit is preceded by Ockeghem's version, with partly different lyrics, and Scaramella va alla guerra is based on a version by Loyset Compère (Scaramella fa la galla). There are also a few instrumental works from the Lochamer Liederbuch, whose relation to Josquin is unclear. In that respect the documentation leaves something to be desired. The programme also includes some of Josquin's most popular works, the authenticity of which is very much in doubt: El grillo and In te domine speravi'. I have rarely heard the latter work performed as nicely as here: the soprano Clara Coutouly sings it extraordinarily beautifully, with imaginative embellishments. In contrast, let's forget the caricatural treatment of El grillo. All in all, I really like this disc: the performances by the singers are first class, and the instruments - recorders and shawms - are also played excellently. Independent of the level of interpretation, this production has several things to offer that makes it an interesting addition to Josquin's discography. The booklet includes an informative introduction to Josquin and his oeuvre by David Fallows.

Another disc with music by Josquin has been released recently at the Aparté label. I was looking forward to that one, as the performers are the members of the ensemble thélème, whose disc with chansons by Claude Le Jeune and Clément Janequin I rated positively. However, reading the booklet caused disappointment. In some items instruments from an entirely different world participate: the ondes Martinot, the Fender Rhodes and the Buchla synthesizer. For me, these are completely unknown quantities: I have not heard them and I have not the slightest desire to change that. Therefore I decided not to review this disc: I have neither the time nor the appetite to listen to this kind of nonsense, which has nothing to do with historical performance practice.

[1] "Motets & Mass Movements"
The Brabant Ensemble/Stephen Rice
Hyperion CDA68321 (© 2021) details

[2] "The Josquin Songbook"
María Cristina Kiehr, soprano; Jonatan Alvarado, tenor; Ariel Abramovich, vihuela
Glossa GCD 923529 (© 2021) details

[3] "Tant vous aime"
Doulce Mémoire/Denis Raisin Dadre
Ricercar RIC 436 (© 2022) details

Saturday, August 6, 2022

Italian keyboard, 1540 - 1670

Keyboard music was an important genre in renaissance and early baroque Italy. Organists in particular enjoyed great prestige, and positions as organist in an important church or cathedral were in high demand. Only the best were considered. They were also often active as composers, writing pieces such as toccata, canzona and ricercar. Such works can usually be played both on the organ and on a stringed keyboard instrument (harpsichord, virginal, spinet). They were also often used in the liturgy. In addition, versetti suitable for the alternatim practice, such as Masses and Magnificats, were composed. These are the main part of the oeuvre of Girolamo Cavazzoni (c1525-after 1577) [1]. When and where he was born is not known exactly, and we don't know much about his career either. The libretto of the Brilliant Classics production claims that he was appointed organist at Mantua Cathedral in 1521, but this is of course impossible. There is no evidence that he was in the service of the Gonzagas; all that is certain is that he oversaw the building of the organ in this cathedral in 1565/66. Federico Del Sordo recorded all of his organ works on this same organ, built by Graziadio Antegnati. They are included in two collections; the first was printed in 1543, the second, whose title page has been lost, probably appeared before 1549. They comprise four ricercars, two canzonas on French chansons (Josquin's Fault d'argent and Passereau's Il est bel et bon), twelve hymns, four Magnificats and three Masses. The last three categories are alternatim compositions; the plainchant is sung here by the Nova Schola Gregoriana, and the chants are taken from two sources from around 1600. Del Sordo explains how the alternatim practice was subject to certain rules that were not always followed. Among these rules was that the passage in the Creed concerning the Incarnation of Christ (et incarnatus est) was not to be played, but was always to be sung. The first verse of the Magnificat should also always be performed vocally. This has consequences for the relationship between the text and the organ verses. In addition to the collections mentioned, there are two ricercares that have been included in anthologies. One is played on the harpsichord, the other is intended for an instrumental ensemble, but can - as here - also be played on the organ. Federico Del Sordo is a specialist in the alternatim repertoire, and in early Italian keyboard music in general. His interpretations are excellent. The tempi are slightly slower here than in Ivana Valotti's recording on the same organ. I appreciate both, and if you don't have Valotti's recording, you'll get your money's worth with this edition on a budget label. The booklet includes details of the instruments used. Unfortunately the lyrics are missing, but you can find them on the internet.

It is not surprising that many Italian composers of music for a keyboard instrument are hardly known today: they are overshadowed by a few great masters whose music is frequently played and recorded. Strictly speaking, this does not apply to Giovanni Picchi (1572-1643) [2], whose name is well known, if only because one of the most famous collections of harpsichord works, the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, contains a toccata from his pen. However, his music is not played very often. If I'm not mistaken, it was Ton Koopman who first produced a recording of his complete works, at the very beginning of his career, still in the vinyl age. As far as I know it was never re-released on CD - unfortunately. But now there is a new complete recording: the Italian harpsichordist and organist Simone Stella, of whom Brilliant Classics has already released several recordings, is responsible for a production in which - in addition to the oeuvre of Picchi - music by Venetian composers of earlier generations can be heard. These are Annibale Padovano (1527-1575), Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli (c1533-1585 and 1557-1612 respectively), Vincenzo Bellavere (c1540-1587) and Claudio Merulo (1533-1604). They were all respected masters of their craft, and so were the least known: Padovano was first organist at St. Mark's from 1552 to 1566, and Bellavere also served as organist in that church, but only nine months, as soon after his appointment he passed away. By including these organists, Picchi is put into his historical context. And the comparison shows that his music is by no means inferior to that of the others. Nevertheless, it was not easy for him to find suitable positions. Only one collection of his keyboard music was printed: the Intavolatura di Balli d'Arpicordo appeared in 1621 and contains nine pieces. There are also five works that have veen preserved in manuscript, and the Toccata from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. Where other composers mostly wrote pieces that can be performed both on the organ and on a stringed keyboard instrument, nearly all of Picchi's works can only be played on the harpsichord, since they are entirely dominated by dance rhythms, as their titles - Ballo, Padoana, Saltarello - indicate. Perhaps only a few passemezzi may be playable on the organ. Simone Stella has chosen the harpsichord; he plays a copy of an instrument by Carlo Grimaldi. Stylistically, his interpretation is comparable to that of Koopman: rhythmically succinct, sharply articulated and at a relatively fast tempo, in accordance with the character of the work in question. The music included here is pretty exciting, and that comes off perfectly in Simone Stella's interpretations.

In comparison, the keyboard music of Michelangelo Rossi (c1601/02-1656) [3] is played much more frequently. There are several recordings of his equally modest oeuvre for harpsichord or organ. Although he was primarily known as a violinist, not a single work for violin has come down to us. He also composed vocal music, but little attention is paid to this part of his oeuvre. He is best known for his Toccate e correnti d'intavolatura d'organo e cembalo: these twenty pieces were published in Rome in 1657. The Toccata VII has become particularly famous, because towards the end the dissonances accumulate: these are the extreme consequences of the mean-tone temperament. The toccata is a free form that emerges from the practice of improvisation, and this requires a free treatment of tempo. It's no wonder that strong fluctuations in tempo are one of the features of Lorenzo Feder's interpretation, released by fra bernardo. He plays the correntes much more strictly, which is justified by the dance rhythm. In addition to the toccatas and correntes, he plays three other works that have survived in manuscript: two ciacconas and the Partita sopra La Romanesca. Feder has chosen to perform all the pieces on the harpsichord; most other performers alternate between harpsichord and organ. This also has consequences for the choice of tempo: a performance on an organ usually requires a somewhat slower tempo, especially because of the acoustics in a church. Nevertheless: compared to some other recordings - for example by Sergio Vartolo and Riccardo Castagnetti - Feder's tempi are generally very fast. Perhaps the dissonances in Toccata VII may have come out more clearly in a more modest tempo. Even so, I appreciate this recording very much, and I find these performances quite captivating. Feder plays a harpsichord by Willem Kroesbergen after Bartolomeo Stefanini (1694), which proves to be the ideal instrument for this music.

Whereas Rossi has achieved fame mainly because of his Toccata VII, Bernardo Storace (c1637-after 1664) [4] achieved something comparable with his Ciaccona, which is played and recorded frequently. It is a brilliant work which undoubtedly testifies to the composer's ability as a harpsichord and organ virtuoso. However, there is more to his oeuvre and it is nice that all the works of this man, of whom we know next to nothing, are now available on CD. I don't know whether another complete recording is on the market; if so, I have not heard it. Enrico Viccardi plays four different instruments: two organs from the 18th century, a copy of a Grimaldi harpsichord and a spinet, which is based on models from the second half of the 17th century. In Storace's oeuvre we find the common genres of his time: capriccios, passemezzi, ricercares, correntes, passacagli, toccatas (interestingly followed here by a fugal canzon), some dances (ballo, ballet) as well as various pieces on bassi ostinati that were popular at the time, such as Follia, Monica, Spagnoletta and Ruggiero. The second disc closes with a pastoral. According to the title page, these works can be played on both the harpsichord and the organ. It is left to the performer to make a choice. All in all, I can agree with Viccardi's decisions, with one exception: the above-mentioned Ciaccona is played here on the organ. I only know of recordings on the harpsichord, and I think that's the most suitable instrument. The performance on organ offered here did not convince me. The piece contains some abrupt transitions, and these are underplayed on the organ, due to the spatial acoustics. Incidentally, the performances on the organ are the best. Viccardi plays the pieces on harpsichord and spinet well, but here I missed that little bit of inspiration that makes an interpretation really compelling. It wasn't always easy for me to keep my concentration, especially in some of the longer pieces. Nevertheless, anyone who is interested in Italian keyboard music of the 17th century should get hold of this production.

G Cavazzoni: "Complete Organ Music"
Federico Del Sordo, organ; Nova Schola Gregoriana/Alberto Turco
Brilliant Classics 96192 (© 2021) details

Picchi: "Complete Harpsichord Music and other Venetian Gems"
Simone Stella, harpsichord
Brilliant Classics 95998 (© 2021) details

M Rossi: "Toccate e Corrente"
Lorenzo Feder, harpsichord
fra bernardo fb 1907498 (© 2019) details

Storace: "Complete Harpsichord and Organ Music"
Enrico Viccardi, harpsichord, spinet, organ
Brilliant Classics 95455 (© 2021) details