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CD reviews

Keyboard music of the Italian Renaissance

[I] Sperindio BERTOLDO & Cesare BORGO: "Complete Organ Music"
Manuel Tomadin, organ
rec: August 16, 2019, Valvasone (Pordenone), Chiesa del Santissimo Corpo di Cristo
Brilliant Classics - 95874 (© 2020) (78'51")
Liner-notes: E
Cover, track-list & booklet
Scores Bertoldo

Sperindio BERTOLDO (c1530-1570): Canzon francese; Frais e gagliard; Hor vienza vien; Petit fleur; Ricercar del 1° tuono; Ricercar del 3° tuono; Ricercar del 6° tuono; Tocata I di Sperindio Bertoldo; Tocata II di Sperindio Bertoldo; Un gai berger
Cesare BORGO (c1560/65-1623): Canzon L'Albergona; Canzon L'Arnona; Canzon La Baialupa; Canzon La Breda; Canzon La Castelnovata; Canzon La Cipola; Canzon La Colombana; Canzon La Forera; Canzon La Gabutia; Canzon La Lucina; Canzon La Parolina; Canzon La Scarabella

Sources: Sperindio Bertoldo, Canzoni francese intavolate per sonar d'organo, 1591; Tocate, Ricercari et Canzoni francese intavolate per sonar d'organo, 1591; Cesare Borgo, Canzoni per sonare fate alla francese a quattro voci, 1599

[II] Aurelio BONELLI (c1569-after 1620): "Complete Keyboard Music"
Federico Del Sordo, harpsichorda, clavichordb, organc
rec: April 2018, Amelia (Umbria), Abbazia di San Magnoc; Rome, Modus Inveniendi studiosab
Brilliant Classics - 95816 (© 2019) (55'09")
Liner-notes: E/IT
Cover, track-list & booklet

Canzon I Licoric; Canzon II Aretec; Canzon III Uraniab; Canzon IV Istrinac; Canzon V Nisaa; Canzon VI Irenec; Canzon VII Artemisiab; Canzon VIII Erinac; Dialogo a 8 'Anime pellegrine'a; Dialogo a 8 'S'un dì, mosso a pietà'a; Ricercar del I tuonoc; Ricercar del II tuonoc; Ricercar del III tuonoc; Ricercar del IV tuonoa; Ricercar del V tuonoa; Ricercar del VI tuonoc; Ricercar del VII tuonoa; Ricercar del VIII tuonoc; Toccata a 8 'Athalanta'c; Toccata a 8 'Cleopatra'c

Source: Primo libro de ricercari et canzoni, 1602

Brilliant Classics has rightly gained a reputation for releasing recordings of keyboard music. These concern productions of the complete keyboard works by some of the main composers of their time, such as members of the Bach family, François Couperin, Buxtehude, Pachelbel, Domenico Scarlatti, Haydn and Mozart. However, it also regularly releases recordings of little-known keyboard music by Italian composers of the renaissance and baroque periods. From the angle of repertoire, these are far more important, as often hardly any piece is available on disc. The two discs under review here are perfecte examples. Even those with a special interest in keyboard music of the 16th and 17th centuries may never have heard of Sperindio Bertoldo, Cesare Borgo and Aurelio Bonelli.

They are largely unknown quantities, which is reflected by the entries in New Grove, which comprise just one or two paragraphs. The work-lists indicate that they have left a small oeuvre, and that may be one of the reasons it is neglected. Moreover, they lived in a time of some virtuosos of the keyboard, such as Andrea Gabrieli, father and son Cavazzoni and Claudio Merulo. In modern performance practice, they are completely overshadowed by these towering figures.

If the music of such 'minor masters', as musicology likes to call them, is actually performed and recorded, it often turns out to be of fine quality. They may not reach the level of the very best of their time, but that it no reason to ignore them. From that perspective, there is every reason to be thankful to Brilliant Classics for releasing such recordings, and to the Italian keyboard players for their efforts to bring them to our attention and for the research behind their projects.

The three composers whose music is performed on these two discs were from different regions. Sperindio Bertoldo was from Modena and worked from 1557 until his death at Padua Cathedral. Cesare Borgo was born in Milan, and worked there all his life; from 1590 until his death he acted as second, and then as first organist of Milan Cathedral. Aurelio Bonelli was from Bologna, and there he worked his entire life as an organist at the monastery of S Michele in Bosco and at in 1620 at S. Govanni in Monte; the year of his death is not known.

The pieces included here represent the three main genres of the time: toccata, ricercare and canzona. Whereas the toccata was specifically written for keyboard and had its origins in improvisation, ricercares and canzonas could also be written for instrumental ensemble. The pieces by Aurelio Bonelli are especially interesting in this regard. The only collection of his music that has survived complete, is his Primo libro de ricercari et canzoni a quattro voci, which was printed by Angelo Gardano in Venice in 1602. Federico Del Sordo, in his liner-notes, states that "[the] surviving works by Bonelli (...) we can reasonably assume to have been intended for a keyboard instrument (...)". He may be right, but it is notable that these pieces were published in the form of partbooks, which suggests a performance by an instrumental ensemble. That may well be confirmed by the fact that, in addition to eight ricercari and eight canzoni, the collection includes four pieces in eight parts: two toccatas and two dialoghi. The latter even have a text (printed in the booklet) and are clearly intended for a performance by a vocal ensemble. The eight ricercari appear in a German organ tablature, which indicates that they are suitable for keyboard performance, but in that case they have been intabulated, as the title of the source indicates.

That is also the case with the two collections of Sperindio Bertoldo's keyboard works, which were both printed in 1591 in Venice. Their respective titles include the phrase intavolate per sonar d'organo, which indicates that the pieces are specifically intended for the keyboard. In 1599, Cesare Borgo published a collection of twelve Canzoni alla francese a quattro voci, also in Venice. These pieces are per sonare and include no indication that they are specifically intended for the keyboard. From that angle, the titles of these discs, calling the recorded pieces "keyboard works", have to be taken with a grain of salt. That does not mean that a performance at the keyboard is incorrect. The fact that the ricercares by Bonelli were also included in an organ tablature, indicates that the procedure of performing instrumental music on a single keyboard, was common practice. That said, I certainly see room for a recording of some of these works by an instrumental ensemble.

Bertoldo's output is very small: the two collections of keyboard works comprise just ten pieces. Manuel Tomadin, in his liner-notes, mentions that his toccatas are rather modest in comparison to those of some of his contemporaries. The ricercares have only one subject, except the Ricercar del 3° tuono, which has three. Interestingly, the opening figure of the Ricercar del 6° tuono consists of the same notes as the subject of Bach's Fugue in E flat (BWV 552) (in England known as St Anne). Four canzonas are based on chansons by contemporary composers. Un gai berger is based on Thomas Crecquillon's Ung gay bergier, Hor vienza vien on a chanson by Clément Janequin (Or vien ça, vien), just as Petit fleur. Frais et gagliard refers to the chanson Frisque et gaillard by Jacobus Clemens non Papa. Borgo's canzonas all have titles; Tomadin does not attempt to explain them, which may be impossible anyway. All of them have an ABA form; the B section is rather short.

The ricercari by Bonelli document the development of the genre. Dal Sordo writes: "[It] ceased being a vehicle for compositional experimentation and became the keyboard equivalent (...) of the liturgical vocal motet (although with considerably fewer elaborated themes). Bonelli's ricercari were written at a time when there was still a certain degree of formal irregularity (...)". Bonelli's canzonas also bear titles, "inspired by Classical sources (epics, history and mythology) or proper names which probably refer, overtly or otherwise, to the families or individuals at whom Bonelli was aiming his works, as a mark of respect (...)". These canzoni are in ABA form as well; one piece has an ABC structure. The two toccatas have little in common with the traditional toccata genre, and are more like canzonas. These pieces are performed by the one and the same player, but that is probably impossible to realise without the help of recording technique, and that also goes for the two dialogues. Del Sordo writes: "I recorded the different parts of the two toccate and the two dialoghi in two separate sessions, and they were then edited together in the studio". This is something I feel unhappy about, as I think that a recording should remain as closely as possible to a live performance. A part of 'authenticity' is also that one does not make use of means that the composers or the performers of their music at the time did not have at their disposal. The two toccatas, if intended for a keyboard performance, may well rank among the genre of music for two organs, which was quite common at the time, as many large churches had two organs at opposing sides of the choir.

It is interesting that Del Sordo plays the pieces by Bonelli on three different instruments. The organ is a historical instrument, whose oldest parts date from between the late 1500s and early 1600s. The harpsichord is a copy of an anonymous instrument from the 17th century, strung with iron wire rather than brass. In comparison to the virginal, the clavichord is seldom used in music of the Renaissance, although it was a common instrument at the time. Two items here are played on a fretted clavichord, based on an illustration in Michael Praetorius's Syntagma Musicum (1620). Federico Del Sordo is an excellent performer who uses the possibilities of the instruments to the full to bring the pieces by Bonelli to life.

Manuel Tomadin confines himself to the organ, but that is a very fine instrument from the 16th century, tuned at high pitch (a=492.5 Hz) and in 1/4-comma meantone temperament. He is very much focused on realising the intentions of the composer and the performing conventions of his time, as he avoids baroque rubato and uses historical fingering technique. It results in a compelling interpretation of the music by two unjustly forgotten composers (*).

These two discs are valuable additions to the growing Brilliant Classics keyboard catalogue. Lovers of historical keyboards should not miss them. I eagerly look forward to upcoming recordings of unknown keyboard music.

(*) According to the booklet, full organ registrations for each track are available from the Brilliant Classics site. I have not found them.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

Relevant links:

Federico Del Sordo

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