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

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