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Michelangelo ROSSI (c1601/02 - 1656): "Music for Organ and Harpsichord"

Riccardo Castagnetti, harpsichorda, organb

rec: May 23, 2014, Mantua, Basilica di Santa Barbarab & May 25, 2014, Parmaa
Brilliant Classics - 94966 ( 2015) (78'27")
Liner-notes: E/I
Cover & track-list

Corrente Ib; Corrente IIa; Corrente IIIb; Corrente IVa; Corrente Vb; Corrente VIa, b; Corrente VIIa; Corrente VIIIa; Corrente IXb; Corrente Xa; Toccata Ia; Toccata IIb; Toccata IIIb; Toccata IVa, b; Toccata Va; Toccata VIa; Toccata VIIb; Toccata VIIIa; Toccata IXa; Toccata Xb

Source: Toccate e correnti, [n.d.], 16572

Michelangelo Rossi is one of those composers who have become known largely through one composition. In this case it is the Toccata VII, part of the collection of toccatas and correntes which is the subject of this disc. The reason for its popularity is the remarkable harmonic progressions which are only fully conveyed if played on an instrument in meantone temperament. The Dutch organist and harpsichordist Ton Koopman, who has always been very interested in the connection between repertoire and temperament, included this piece in his debut recording of 1973. It has been recorded often since then as the use of other tunings than the modern equal temperament has become quite common.

Rossi was born in Genoa and was educated in playing the violin and the keyboard. As he was known as Michelangelo del Violino we may assume that playing the violin was his main profession. It is likely that he received his musical education in his birthplace but we don't know for sure who his teachers were. Information about his life and career is scarce anyway, and there are several gaps in his biography. It is known that he spent three different periods of his life in Rome.

During the first period he probably composed his madrigals. He was a member of the court of Cardinal Maurizio of Savoy; one of his colleagues was the madrigal composer Sigismondo d'India who had a notable influence on Rossi's style of composing. That also comes to the fore in his keyboard works. These may have been written during Rossi's second period in Rome, from 1630 to 1633. It is this part of his oeuvre which has become best-known.

The collection includes ten toccatas and ten correnti. The toccatas are the most remarkable part. They comprise several sections of contrasting character. Sections in which the various voices quietly move forward are alternated by sections with chromaticism and strong dissonances. The most striking example is the above-mentioned Toccata VII. It is not quite clear what drove Rossi to compose such a piece. Dissonances were part of musical discourse at the time, and used to express affetti. This toccata is different from all the others in that it ends with a section which is an extended sequence of chromatic figures and strongly dissonant chords. It seems possible that it was a token of the harmonic experimentation which was very much part of the seconda prattica.

Another feature of these toccatas is their capriciousness: one idea follows the other without any clear connection. This shows the influence of the madrigal, not only Rossi's own but also d'India's. In his liner-notes Riccardo Castagnetti also refers to the madrigals of Carlo Gesualdo da Venosa. "Rossi's frequent use of unexpected harmonic turns, expressive chromaticism, dissonances with unusual resolutions, and abrupt changes of texture, is an evident sign of Gesualdo's influence on his musical language". The influence of the madrigal is also reflected by the declamatory nature of various passages.

The correnti are much more conventional, as it were. That is largely due to the fact that this is a clearly-structured dance with a fixed form which allows the composer far less freedom than the improvisational toccata.

These toccatas and correnti have no pedal part and can be played on any keyboard instrument. Castagnetti decided to play some on a copy of a harpsichord built in 1697 by Carlo Grimaldi and others on the organ by Graziadio Antegnati of 1565 in the Basilica di Santa Barbara in Mantua. Two pieces are played on both instruments to demonstrate the difference in interpretation on different instruments. The programme follows strictly the printed edition which means that we move constantly between different acoustics: the spacious acoustic of the basilica and the rather dry acoustic of the venue in Parma - not specified - where the harpsichord pieces have been recorded. That is a little unfortunate; I would have preferred the first half of the disc to have been devoted to the organ items and the second to the harpsichord pieces or vice versa. That way the ears could have become accustomed to the acoustical circumstances. It is certainly right to create a kind of intimacy in the harpsichord pieces, but the miking was probably a bit too close.

This set has been recorded complete by Sergio Vartolo (Naxos, 2005). Even so, Castagnetti has done lovers of 17th-century keyboard music a great favour with this recording, especially as he has divided these pieces over two different instruments of superior quality. I like his interpretations, especially on the organ. In the harpsichord pieces I found his playing sometimes a little awkward, for instance in the opening of the Toccata I. It is especially his articulation which is now and then a bit too rigid, although that is partly due to the close miking. However, this is a minor issue. In the end this is an impressive disc which fully reveals the brilliance of Michelangelo Rossi.

Johan van Veen ( 2015)

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