Kapsberger: Intavolatura di Chitarone

Jonas Nordberg theorbo
BIS Records BIS 2147 SACD
Kapsberger’s music for the chitarrone, the instrument otherwise known as the theorbo, is quintessentially baroque, extravagant, unpredictable, and highly expressive. For the present CD Jonas Nordberg has selected music from the Libro Primo (1604) and the Libro Quarto (1640). He begins with Toccata prima from the Libro Quarto, an extraordinary piece of music, with exciting 6- and 7-note chords interspersed with resonant campanellas, exceptionally fast slurred roulades, chordal passages with sudden, surprising shifts of harmony, supported by the satisfying, rich tone of the long diapason strings. I like Nordberg’s interpretation, playing the fast notes very fast indeed, yet holding back for tender moments in chordal passages.
Next from the Libro Quarto comes the first Passacaglia. Apart from some running passages towards the end, the notes of the ground are very much in evidence, clear, solid, and irrepressible. Meanwhile the higher notes move on apace, enhanced with many ornaments. Gagliarda Prima consists of two sections, each of which have repeats in style brisé. Nordberg plays the first time through each section twice, and saves the brisé repeats until the end. Gagliarda octava has three sections; the first and third are conventional by Kapsberger’s standards, but the second section has a different mood, where the melody creeps up and down chromatically. The second group of pieces ends with a jolly Canario based on a simple Bergamasca-like chord sequence. I think Nordberg takes it a bit too quickly, if only because the campanellas of bars 11-12 are so quick they lack clarity.
From the Libro Primo comes the well-known ground, Aria di Fiorenze, with ten variations. Nordberg creates an overall mood which is satisfyingly gentle with subtle nuances. The carefully placed chords of C major involving a high e’ on the third course are particularly pleasing. Each variation has its own character, for example the fifth consists of running passages, the sixth has rolled four-note chords, the seventh has super-quick roulades between chords, and the eighth has triplas. Nordberg loyally observes Kapsberger’s signs for rolled chords and ornaments. Kapsberger marks four-note chords to be rolled or arpeggiated, because he only used the thumb and two fingers of his right hand. When four-note chords occur only here and there in a piece, Nordberg rolls them, but in the sixth variation they occur throughout, so Nordberg arpeggiates these to good effect. The roulades in the seventh variation require considerable dexterity, but Nordberg is equal to the task, playing them quickly, evenly, and without losing sight of the overall architecture. I am impressed with his virtuosity. With such excellent playing, it is unfortunate that Nordberg comes unstuck towards the end of the eighth variation. There is, in my opinion, a crotchet rhythm sign missing from the original source at the very end of the penultimate stave, causing Nordberg to charge on at double speed with quavers for the next few notes. In fact I think all the rhythm signs from there to the end could do with some pretty drastic editing to make musical sense of what I believe should be a straightforward passage with regard to rhythm. Another problem arising from reading the facsimile occurs in Toccata 9 from the Libro Quarto: the chord at the start of bar 6 has a low E notated as a number 9 above the stave. Nordberg does not play it, and I wonder if he misread it as a minim rhythm sign, even though the actual minim sign is notated immediately above it. Not to worry. The absence of one insignificant bass note does not stop me enjoying all the other notes of this well-played piece.
There follows Ballo Primo from the Libro Quarto, a suite of four dances, three of which have style brisé repeats. Kapsberger’s well-known, oft-played Toccata Arpeggiata consists of a series of chords, each one marked with his sign for arpeggiation. Nordberg arpeggiates the notes of each chord quickly and not necessarily in strict time to create a flurry of notes, but he is careful moving from one chord to the next, giving the piece shape with well-arched phrases. Kapsberger’s Battaglia from the Libro Quarto is a long piece lasting over eight minutes. Nordberg’s playing of it is characteristically clean and expressive, although I wonder if a little more aggression might be in keeping with the title of the piece. The CD ends with the eponymous Kapsberger, variations on an eight-bar ground, with pleasing campanellas.
Stewart McCoy
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