frescobaldi and the south arcana

Frescobaldi and the South
Francesco Corti (harpsichord)
rec. 2022, Chapelle Notre-Dame de Centeilles, Siran, France
Reviewed as a stereo 16/44 download from Outhere
Arcana A547 [82 (CD)/85 (digital)]

Girolamo Frescobaldi is one of the towering figures in European music history. He had a decisive influence on the development of keyboard music across Europe. Especially through his German pupil Johann Jacob Froberger his influence goes as far as Johann Sebastian Bach. The danger with such figures is that they are treated as geniuses who have fallen from heaven. Too often they are isolated from their environment, and the influences they have absorbed are ignored. The present disc sheds light on the connection between Frescobaldi and keyboard composers from a previous generation as well as contemporaries and composers of the generation following him.

It is known that Frescobaldi was influenced by Luzzasco Luzzaschi, a prolific composer of madrigals, who worked at the court in Ferrara. In Naples another madrigal composer was active: Carlo Gesualdo da Venosa, and several composers of keyboard music were part of his circle. Several are represented here, which explains the title of this disc. Francesco Corti, in his liner-notes to his recording, states that Frescobaldi’s prefaces include comments on his own works which are often hard to understand. What to make of them? “An essential first step is to contextualise Frescobaldi’s work in his period and to look for correspondences with other repertoires. While his work is indeed deeply personal and innovative, it is also a summation and systematic reworking of various traditions. In particular, thanks also to the circumstances of his career, he succeeds in effecting a fusion of both the Venetian and southern Italian keyboard traditions.”

The programme comprises specimens of the different genres in his time: the toccata, the capriccio, the ricercare and the partita. Such pieces were also written in the south of Italy, especially Naples. The toccata and the capriccio are the most ‘free’ forms, and have their roots in improvisation. Frescobaldi emphasized the importance of a free treatment of rhythm in his toccatas. The programme opens with such a piece, which is followed by a capriccio by Giovanni de Macque, which is comparable in character. The toccata was of Venetian origin, but some of Frescobaldi’s toccatas bear traces of what was written in the South.

Andrés Locatelli, in his essay in the booklet, mentions two particular features of Frescobaldi’s music that links him to the South. One is “a characteristic exploitation of the dissonances and asperities of harmony and counterpoint, as masterfully codified by Gesualdo in his vocal music and duly imitated throughout the century by his followers and by successive generations of organists and harpsichordists.” Composers at the time experimented with temperaments, and in this recording Francesco Corti uses a ‘modified meantone temperament’, which is essential to explore the harmonic experiments of composers of the time. It should be mentioned that these harmonic experiments were mostly not inspired by technical considerations: harmony was used for expressive reasons, as in particular the madrigals of Gesualdo demonstrate.

A second feature is the use of a bass line or harmonic pattern for virtuosic variations. In the course of the 17th and 18th centuries many passacaglias and ciaconas – to mention just two of the best-known – have been written by composers across Europe. However, in the decades around 1600 such pieces were especially popular in Naples.

Whereas the toccata and the capriccio are two forms whose rhythm has to be treated with much liberty, the programme also includes some dances, which are entirely different and require a very strict observance of rhythm. Several such pieces are included here, especially gagliardas.

The attraction of this recording is that on the one hand we get a survey of Frescobaldi’s oeuvre and his contributions to the different genres, and on the other hand we get to know composers whose music is less frequently performed and recorded, and shows similarity with works of Frescobaldi. Among them Michelangelo Rossi is probably one of the better-known; he was a somewhat younger contemporary of Frescobaldi, and also someone who liked to experiment with harmony. Most players turn to the Toccata VII with its bizarre dissonances; it is nice that Corti recorded one of the other toccatas instead. A famous piece is the Ciaccona by Bernardo Storace. In contrast, the pieces by Rocco Rodio, Scipione Stella, Francesco Lambardo and Giovanni Salvatore may be new to many readers, even those who have a more than average knowledge of baroque keyboard music. This disc may stimulate them to look for discs which are devoted to this repertoire.

At the same time they may enjoy this disc as a celebration of recognition, as it includes some of Frescobaldi’s most famous pieces. One of them is the Cento Partite sopra Passacagli, which receives a brilliant and differentiated performance. Another one is the Recercar con obligo di cantare la quinta parte senza tocarla, which is a curious work. Its title indicates that the fifth part needs to be sung and not to be played. However, there is no text. Performers have come up with different solutions. In some performances this part is sung on the names of the notes, in others on the text “Ave Maria, ora pro nobis”. There are also performances in which this part is performed on an instrument, as is the case here. Andrés Locatelli plays it on the recorder. I have no problems with that, but I am not convinced that this piece should be played on the harpsichord. All performances I know are with organ, which seems to me the most logical option. Anyway, this is an interesting alternative.

There are many recordings of Frescobaldi’s keyboard works in the catalogue, but this is a meaningful addition, because of the confrontation of his music with that of composers from his direct or more remote environment. This way this disc also opens a door to repertoire that many may not have heard before. Corti is a brilliant performer and in his interpretation he can compete with the best. This is a most compelling recital that lovers of keyboard music of the 17th century should not miss.

On a technical note: the last two pieces in the track-list are only available in the digital release. This is a bit disappointing, and I also don’t see the reason why they were not added on the physical disc. In recent years I have received several discs with a duration of about 85 minutes, which gave no problems at all.

Johan van Veen

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Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643)
Toccata Prima
Giovanni de Macque (c1550-1614)
Capriccio sopra re fa mi sol
Consonanze stravaganti
Rocco Rodio (c1530-c1620)
Terza Ricercata
Girolamo Frescobaldi
Toccata Decima
Scipione Stella (1558-1622)
Partita sopra la Romanesca
Francesco Lambardo (1587-1642)
Girolamo Frescobaldi
Partite sopra Ruggiero
Capriccio sopra La Battaglia
Balletto – Ciaccona
Michelangelo Rossi (c1601-1656)
Toccata Prima
Girolamo Frescobaldi
Gagliarda Seconda
Bernardo Storace (17th C)
Michelangelo Rossi
Corrente Terza
Girolamo Frescobaldi
Toccata Nona ‘non senza fatiga si giunge al fine’
Capriccio Nono, di durezze
Toccata Settima
Recercar, con obligo di cantare la quinta parte senza tocarla*
Gagliarda Quinta
Giovanni Salvatore (early 17th C – c1688)
Canzon francese Seconda, del nono tuono naturale
Girolamo Frescobaldi
Cento Partite sopra Passacagli
Luigi Rossi (c1597-1653)
Passacaille del seigr. Louigi**
Giovanni de Macque
Prima Gagliarda [4′ version]**
* with Andrés Locatelli (recorder)
** included in the digital release only