Justin Taylor harpsichord & piano 78:41 Alpha Classics Alpha 721
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Justin Taylor’s La Famille Forqueray now has a sequel of the highest standard. This programme includes a number of Jean-Philippe’s more popular pieces and music by one of his sons, his younger brother and a nephew. In addition there are two tributes: a set of variations on Les sauvages by J-F Tapray and (pause for fanfare and drumroll) Debussy’s Hommage à Rameau. This is played on a lovely 1891 Erard piano, a worthy complement to the fine double-manual harpsichord attributed to Donzelague used for the bulk of the programme.
Such splendid instruments deserve splendid playing and from the multiple-award-winning Justin Taylor they certainly get it. He is not afraid to go his own way with the ‘standards’ (though I did find his tempo for J-PR’s famous gavotte a little ponderous, even if the variations did not disappoint) and unfamiliar repertoire has been well chosen and thoroughly prepared.
Taylor also wrote the contextualising essay (the booklet is in French, English and German) though I doubt that it was his decision to print his biography as a page all in upper case type! This looks quite bizarre and is actually difficult to read.
But the playing and programme are tremendous. Treat yourself!
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]his is the penultimate disc in Pieter-Jan Belder’s admirable project recording the entire contents of the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book (FVB), the most voluminous source of early English keyboard music from the Tudor and Jacobean period. The manuscript’s uncertain origins and provenance have been discussed many times, most authoritatively of late by David Smith in his article “Francis Tregian the Younger as music copyist: a legend?” in Musical Times 143 (Summer 2002): 7-16. About half of this double album is given over to music by John Bull and, besides the other composers named in the disc’s subtitle, there are works by John Blitheman, Thomas Oldfield, Robert Parsons, Martin Peerson, Jehan Oystermayre, John Marchant and “Galeazzo”, possibly Galeazzo Sabatini, plus a number of anonymous works.
The attributed works on the shorter first disc are all by Bull. The previous discs in this series have tended either to be collections of works by various composers, or to be focused on one or two individuals. Both such approaches can be relished, and with this disc, we have the best of both worlds: an initial focus on Bull – which continues onto the earlier part of the second disc – followed by a miscellany of composers known and unknown to complete the contents. Belder plays modern harpsichords by Titus Crijnen and Adlam Burnett both after Ruckers (2014/1624 and 1980/1638 respectively) and a muselar of 2016 by Gerhard Boogaard after an original of 1650 by Couchet.
And so to the music itself and Belder’s interpretations. There are many anonymous works in FVB. Some such pieces are impressive, and others are not. It would be good to know the identities of all those who composed these anonymous works, but particularly those who composed the impressive ones. This is broadly illustrated on the first disc of this double album. It runs for only 48 minutes, and with one possible exception the central dozen pieces are all by Bull. They are bookended by three anonymous works at the beginning of the disc, with ten more to conclude it, and they fall into the two categories noted above: the first three works – Galiarda, Alman and Praeludium – are impressive pieces (which is of course why they were selected to begin the album) – sufficiently to make this listener want to know who composed them, particularly the fine, technically demanding and audibly Bullish Galiarda. The concluding ten obviously have to be included on what is a complete recording, but are like the fillers on old-style rock or pop LPs, which used to consist of one or two strong items plus several other less interesting tracks for padding. A few of them are at least inoffensive, and the final track, Martin sayd to his man, inexplicably picked up an attribution to Byrd during his tercentenary in 1923, in a pamphlet compiled by Gerald Cooper, who should have known better. The works by Bull vary between dances and pieces of a more ecclesiastical bent. The former all come across as very sprightly, especially the Regina Galliard, while both the Trumpet and Spanish Pavans have some pleasantly plangent moments, besides the characteristic touches – respectively military and elegant – implied by their titles. The ecclesiastical pieces sound well on the harpsichord. In Belder’s performances there is clarity and a comprehensible narrative, whereas many performances on the organ sound relentless and constipated, more of a harangue than a narrative (not difficult with Bull, to be fair) but Bull’s figurations around the cantus firmi are better suited to the harpsichord, and although an organ can sustain the cantus firmus, in practice the sustained notes can have the effect of clotting the texture. This is also true of two venerable pieces on the second disc which Belder releases from the oppression of the organ.
But first, there are eight more pieces by Bull to consider, which begin this second disc. Herein is some more variety, with jigs, fantasias on plainsong and the hexachord, and galliards. It is the hexachord fantasia Ut re mi fa sol la which most challenges Belder’s capabilities. The figuration is relentless but Belder creates his narrative by responding sensitively to Bull’s implied changes of tempo, and by knowing either when to go at the figuration like a [pun alert] bull at a gate, or when to back off, like a good improviser in a blues guitar solo, with the result that he sustains interest over the near eleven minutes of what can, in the wrong hands, be a dry or exhibitionist exercise. Speaking of which, not even Belder make much of what the listing for the sleeve and booklet call the “Misere in three parts”; significantly Belder either forgot to write about this Miserere, or his thoughts were fortuitously omitted. In any event, it is difficult to make much of a positive case for it.
The final group of pieces to be considered are those that close the second disc and which are not by Bull. A few are by composers with established reputations, such as Gibbons, Robert Johnson and Peerson who flourished in the Jacobean period, and Parsons and Blitheman whose music was originally Marian and only subsequently Elizabethan. Another clutch of composers are unknown or obscure apart from their appearances in FVB: Oystermayre, Oldfield and Sabatini; Warrack and Marchant. Allowed to give a particularly good account of themselves are Tisdall and Inglott, two known but hardly familiar names. They certainly provide the two most striking pieces from this closing group. Tisdall’s Pavana Chromatica Mrs Katherin Tregians Pavan is dignified and full of fine and unexpected harmonies; it is well structured and altogether impressive. William Inglott was the organist of Norwich then Hereford then again Norwich Cathedrals, having been a chorister at Norwich under his father Edmund. A career as a practising musician does not guarantee quality as a composer, but Inglott’s Galliard Ground is another of the outstanding pieces on this album. I participated with Michael Walsh in reconstructing his Short Service for publication (by The Early Music Company, which publishes EMR) and performance (two morning canticles can be heard on Norwich Cathedral Choir’s outstanding CD Elizabethan Church Music Priory PRCD5044), and it is a fine example of its type. Of the “name” composers, Gibbons is represented by The woods so wild which is perhaps not out of his top drawer. Belder responds to the hectic, almost aggressive, figuration especially in the quite Bullish section numbered 5 (his version is all but a minute shorter than John Toll’s on the eponymous CD, Linn CKD 125, significant in a work lasting only 4-5 minutes) amongst some more reflective moments. It depicts a different landscape from the set of variations by Byrd, albeit the older composer’s deceptively bucolic opening leads to sterner stuff. While Johnson’s two almans are delightful, Peerson’s merely comes and goes, but his The Primerose is one of the classics of the virginalist genre. Of the unknowns. Marchant’s Allemanda is the most striking, appropriately for a man who taught James I’s eldest daughter “to play upon the virginalles”, though the single anonymous piece from this section, an Alman, deserves an honourable mention. Much more than an honourable mention is required by the two most venerable pieces on this album: Parsons’ In nomine, the most popular consort work of its day, arranged for keyboard by Byrd, his successor in the Chapel Royal, and who, like Tallis, seems to have quoted Parsons’ piece in an In nomine; and Blitheman’s “In nomine”, originally the third of a sequence of six settings titled Gloria tibi trinitas (the alternative designation for the In nomine) by Blitheman in the Mulliner Book. For reasons given above, these two pieces come over very well on the harpsichord thanks to Belder, with clarity and momentum, but it also helps that, in their own spheres, they are two of the finest examples of the In nomine in the entire Tudor instrumental repertory. Meanwhile one wonders whether Byrd “heard” his arrangement as being for the virginals, or for the organ, or for either, and if the last, whether he harboured a preference.
This is another fine contribution to a well-executed project. Purchasers of the preceding albums will be amply rewarded with this release, and unless one has reservations about consuming generous helpings of Bull, it is worth the attention of anyone with an interest in the English virginalists, as it contains uniformly fine performances of many interesting and intriguing pieces, beside a few masterpieces.
Z. 660-663, 666-669
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he Polish harpsichordist Ewa Rzetecka-Niewiadomska joins a growing list of players to have recorded the whole of Purcell’s posthumously-published eight suites for harpsichord. She takes a particular interest in English music and has clearly made a detailed study of these suites, showing an ability to characterise both the very short movements and the more extended ones. Her tempi are on the relaxed side, especially in the Almands which, as the most substantial movements, carry most of the musical weight. She brings considerable swing to the Corants and is playful in the Hornpipes. Her readings of the other movements, too, bring out the variety of Purcell’s forms and ideas. She plays on a Taskin copy by Bruce Kennedy which has a bright sound – perhaps too bright at times, but providing good clarity on this recording and allowing for contrast in registration. There is some very idiomatic ornamentation on repeats of sections. I particularly enjoyed her playing of the Second Suite in G minor, the most substantial of the set. Purcell’s Suites were probably intended more for teaching purposes than for public performance, and some movements can seem rather slight and undeveloped in the form in which they were published; this recording certainly makes the most of them and presents them in a most convincing light.
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]his is the second recording made by Byron Schenkman on instruments preserved in the National Music Museum in Vermilion USA. In contrast to his earlier one (‘The Art of the Harpsichord’) this CD concentrates on a single composer, Domenico Scarlatti. Schenkman has chosen four instruments to represent the variety of keyboards prevalent in the generation following Scarlatti’s death in 1757. The earliest is a fortepiano by Manuel Antunes built in Lisbon in 1767; there is also a single-manual Portuguese harpsichord in Florentine style from 1790, the only surviving instrument by José Calisto. Then there are two big double-manual harpsichords, one made by Jacques Germain in Paris in 1785 and the other by Joseph Kirckman in 1798. The twenty sonatas are well chosen to demonstrate the differences between the instruments. In the liner notes John Koster quotes Ralph Kirkpatrick’s observation that Scarlatti’s writing was too colourful to need a wide variety of registers. The Calisto harpsichord with its resonant bass certainly bears this out, but it is also good to have the Kirckman’s machine stop to do full justice to Scarlatti’s echoes and crescendos in K248. K208 shows off the fortepiano’s cantabile while K61’s variations put the same instrument through its paces. The bright C major K100 suits the brashness of the Germain harpsichord. Schenkman’s playing is exemplary: clear, without affectation and with subtle ornamentation. He has chosen a good mix of well-known and lesser-known sonatas, all in pairs apart from K61. John Koster has once again provided highly informative notes on the instruments and the music. In a very crowded field, this Scarlatti recording sticks out for the intelligence and bravura of the playing and the chance to hear four outstanding period instruments in top condition.
Luca Scandali (Graziadio Antegnati organ 1565)
Brilliant Classics 95259
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he Graziadio Antegnati 1565 organ in the Basilica of Santa Barbara, Mantua, survives largely intact in its original configuration. Designed for Duke Guglielmo Gonzaga and his organist-composer Girolamo Cavazzoni, it has nine ripieno stops, two flutes and a fiffaro, as well as two sets of split keys in each octave. It was also designed to fit the acoustics of the basilica, something captured well on this recording, from the arresting organo pieno used for the opening Padavano toccata to the lighter-registered canzonas by Pellegrini. Neither composer was associated with Mantua – Padavano worked mainly in Venice and Pellegrini in Milan – but their music was certainly written with instruments of this kind in mind. Padavano’s four surviving toccatas (one attributed) are based largely on slow-moving harmonies decorated by quick figurations, with some imitative sections. His two ricercars are complex contrapuntal constructions. Published in 1604, all are quite serious pieces demanding concentrated listening. It works well to break them up, as here, with groups of Pellegrini’s sectional canzonas published in 1599 which show a lighter idiom and some fine inspiration. Scandali uses the canzonas effectively to demonstrate the variety of registrations possible on the organ. Overall this is an excellent match of instrument and repertoire, and a convincing demonstration of this highly significant organ’s possibilities.
Giovanni Paganelli harpsichord
Brilliant Classics 95611
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]hese eight Divertimenti da Camera were originally published for a single instrument (violin or recorder) and basso continuo but were immediately republished in a transcription for solo harpsichord by an unknown hand, with the upper part given some elaborate decorative figuration. Originally published in 1722, two years after Bononcini’s arrival in London, they were republished in 1742, renamed as Suites. Most consist of four short movements arranged in the da chiesa slow-fast-slow-fast configuration; two use just three movements in slow-fast-faster order. They are familiar from various recordings with recorder but this seems to be the first recording of the harpsichord versions. Their relative neglect, in favour of the keyboard suites of Bononcini’s younger rival, Handel, is regrettable since this is attractive music and well worth listening to on the harpsichord. It shows influences of the various national styles current at the time. Paganelli plays with stylistic panache, providing good rhythmic drive and making effective use of agogic accents and contrasting registrations. The liner notes are informative about the music but provide no information about the harpsichord – clearly a big double-manual instrument. Recording quality is excellent, combining close miking with a resonant acoustic. A satisfying recording.
TYXart TXA 15065
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]ilman Skowroneck has recorded this programme on a single-manual German-style harpsichord made by his father Martin in 1981. The latter was a pioneer in basing instruments on (usually generic) period instruments, rather than the factory harpsichords used in Germany up to that time. This instrument is rich and full-bodied in sound, with a good compromise between clarity and resonance, which means that it works very well for all three composers here. Recording quality is excellent, closely-miked but retaining plenty of resonance. The carefully-chosen programme compares a Toccata and Suite by Froberger from 1656 with a Prélude and Suite by Louis Couperin, the latter arranged from his surviving music by Alan Curtis. Similarities point to a common Zeitgeist with Italian influences on both. This common ground is further exemplified by the inclusion of both Froberger’s Lamentation on the death of Emperor Ferdinand III and Couperin’s Tombeau de Mr. de Blancrocher. The recording is completed by a Suite in A minor from the Premier Livre by Rameau which demonstrates the more traditional side of that composer’s music and his debt to his predecessors. Skowroneck’s playing is stylistic in all three composers, with a particularly strong sense of line driving the music forward. At the same time, the differences between the three are clearly presented. This recording is a pleasure to listen to and I enjoyed it very much.
Martha Cook: L’art de la fugue: une méditation en musique
Paris: Fayard, 2015
Bach: Die Kunst der Fuge
Martha Cook harpsichord
73:62 (2 CDs)
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he Art of Fugue has long intrigued performers and musicologists alike and much time has been spent seeking to explain its genesis and organization. The question is complicated by differences in layout in the two main sources: Bach’s autograph, which originally had twelve fugues and two canons, and a published version, hastily put together by C. P. E. Bach in 1751, which changed the order and added two further fugues and two canons, plus other pieces. Martha Cook has recently written a book, published in French, in which she proposes that Bach built the cycle around eight verses from Luke’s Gospel, beginning at Chapter 14, Verse 27. These numbers correspond to the gematrial equivalent of J. S. Bach’s name (27+14=41). Cook also noticed that the opening words of Luke 14:27 in German ‘Und wer nicht sein Kreuz trägt und mir nach folgt’ can be made to fit the Art of Fugue’s main theme. Her book expands on all of this and finds rhetorical correspondences between the verses from Luke and successive movements of the Art of Fugue (in its original order) which has led her to accept the plausibility of this theory of origin. While Bach’s deep knowledge of the bible and his interest in numerology are well substantiated, the evidence for a biblical genesis of the Art of Fugue is largely circumstantial and, to my mind at least, not ultimately convincing. Another recent theory, propounded by Loïc Sylvestre and Marco Costa (in Il Saggiatore Musicale 17 (2010), 175-195) and based on bar numbers, suggests that the whole structure is based on the Fibonacci sequence, an intriguing but again circumstantial explanation.
[dropcap]U[/dropcap]ltimately it is the music that counts and, while Cook’s theory must have informed her preparation for this recording, there is nothing about her playing or her interpretation which follows directly on from it. Indeed, while the theory would have suggested recording just the autograph version, Cook (while using its order) incorporates the two extra fugues and canons from the print but omits the two mirror fugues; this presents us with an odd hybrid. It is, of course, very unlikely that the Art of Fugue was intended for public performance in one sitting, and listening to it straight through on a single instrument like this can lessen the experience. That said, Cook presents a straightforward interpretation of what she calls the ‘ideal solo harpsichord version’. All the contrapuntal and canonic procedures are very clear in her playing but I find it a bit lacking in expression: the cerebral is emphasised at the expense of the rhetorical or the emotional. She plays a harpsichord by Willem Kroesbergen based on a Johannes Couchet original and uses a temperament reconstituted from an Andreas Silbermann organ of 1719 which works very well. This was clearly a labour of love from Cook and both her book and recording show a deep commitment to the Art of Fugue and its many facets. Both are certainly worth having for their insights into this endlessly fascinating work.
Gesualdo Consort Amsterdam, Harry van der Kamp
442:00 (6 CDs in a cardboard box)
Glossa GCD 922410
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]hese six CDs of keyboard music form the fourth part of a monumental undertaking to record all of Sweelinck’s surviving works – 23 CDs in all. The whole project, entitled ‘The Sweelinck Monument’, is organised by Harry van der Kamp whose Gesualdo Consort Amsterdam has already recorded all the vocal music. Four members of that Consort appear on these keyboard music CDs to sing the secular songs and Lutheran chorale melodies before the sets of variations based on them; oddly the same is not done with the Calvinist psalms in Dutch. Apart from one fugal track which goes a bit awry, the singing is good and it is useful to be reminded of the tune before each of the many variation sets.
A total of ten keyboard players are involved – eleven if one counts a couple of tracks recorded by the late Gustav Leonhardt in 1971, added at the end to make up for the fact that his death in 2012 deprived the project of his intended contribution. All of the music, apart from Leonhardt’s two tracks, has been recorded on original instruments from Sweelinck’s time, a total of seven organs and five string keyboard instruments. These include some of The Netherlands’ finest old organs (Amsterdam’s Oude Kerk, Alkmaar, Kantens and Leiden) as well as three in Germany (Lemgo, Osteel and Uttum). Harpsichords and Virginals are all by members of the Ruckers family, apart from an Artus Gheerdinck virginal of 1605 and the modern Ruckers copy on which Leonhart plays. All instruments are matched effectively to the repertoire performed on them. The opening Fantasia SWWV 273 (coincidentally on the B.A.C.H. theme) played by Bernard Winsemius on the brash swallow-nest organ at Lemgo, is one highlight, as are the challenging Fantasia Crommatica SWWV 258 played by Pieter-Jan Belder on a Iohannes Ruckers harpsichord of 1639, and Bob van Asperen’s Toccata SWWV 282 on the same instrument.
Too much to detail here, all of the playing is of a high standard and is impeccably recorded. There is an inevitable sense of setting down definitive versions of these works, rather than indulging too much in flights of fancy, though these do at times emerge. The whole project is as much a tribute to the Netherlands modern early music movement which has spawned so many fine keyboard players and sponsored the restoration of old instruments, as it is to Sweelinck. The players include Pieter Dirksen, whose editions of Sweelinck are used, and van Asperen who contributes seven tracks delivered with his customary panache. It is interesting to compare the latter’s performance of Sweelinck’s version of Dowland’s Pavana Lachrymae with that recorded over forty years ago by Leonhardt: the latter is much slower (6½ minutes as opposed to van Asperen’s 5) and, while typically magisterial, tends to lose connectedness over long-drawn-out phrases. Leonhardt’s other contribution, the Esce Mars variations, are also recorded here by Marieke Spaans: there is less difference, with Spaans’ version slightly faster and a bit less reserved than Leonhardt’s. It is certainly good to have two versions of these well-known pieces.
What comes through very clearly is how inventive Sweelinck was. There is a marvellous diversity of imitations and figurations in the many variations on psalm melodies and secular tunes played here. He never continues the same figuration for too long so that player and listener do not get bored. The influence of English virginal music is clear, with the sort of figuration used by John Bull always in the background. A set of variations on De lustelijcke mey by Bull is played here by Pieter Dirksen as a substitute for Sweelinck’s improvised set which has not survived. There is also a fantasia by Bull on a theme by Sweelinck and various other tributes and re-workings which emphasise the closeness of the circle which included Bull, Dowland and Philips. As well as variation sets there are toccatas in Italian, mainly Venetian, style and a number of very substantial Fantasias which show Sweelinck’s, and these organists’, ability to spin out material over time-spans up to 12 minutes. There is a very informative booklet, though a double numbering system used for the individual CDs is confusing. Altogether this is a fitting monument to a great composer.
[dropcap]G[/dropcap]allon makes a convincing case for playing early Haydn keyboard music on the harpsichord, in this recording on an instrument by Jonte Knif, generically based on German 18th-century originals. He has chosen eight works composed over a sixteen-year period from c. 1765 to 1781. Two sonatas (Hob XVI:24 and 27), a partita (Hob XVI:6) and a divertimento (Hob XVI:12) – both essentially also sonatas – are contrasted with a Capriccio (Hob XVII:1) and transcriptions of three Lieder.
Gallon produces exciting but controlled playing, whose pacing is always well-judged and comfortable to listen to. He makes effective use of agogic accents and rubato to compensate for the lack of weight on the harpsichord, but also uses the registration possibilities of his double-manual instrument very effectively. It has a particularly mellow sound and is closely recorded to provide an intimate atmosphere appropriate to music composed, as pointed out in the accompanying booklet, for amateurs rather than as a showcase for a performing composer. The comprehensive booklet includes an informative discussion by C. Himelfarb about Haydn’s place in keyboard music history and the instruments he would have known. I enjoyed this recording very much and am happy to give it the highest recommendation.