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"The Medici Harpsichord Book"

Aapo Häkkinen, harpsichord
rec: [no date given], East Woodhay (Berkshire, UK), St Martin's Church
Deux-Elles - DXL 1083 (© 2005) (75'40")

Francesco Lambardi (1587-1642): Toccata; Giovanni de Macque (c1545-1614): Gagliarda I; Gagliarda II; Ricercare del 6. tono con tre fughe e suoi riversi [1]; Giovanni Battista Martini (1706-1784): Sonata III [2]; Ferdinando de' Medici (1673-1713): Alemanda; 6 Arie alla francese; Passagagli; Passagagli pastorali; Preludio; 2 Preludie cantabili; Preludio di botte, acciachature, e ligature; 2 Tochate; Manuel Blasco de Nebra (1750-1784): Pastorela IV; Luigi Rossi (1597-1653): Passacaille; Antonio Soler Ramos (1729-1783): Fandango (R 146)

(Sources: [1] De Macque, Secondo libro de ricercari; [2] Martini, Sonate d’intavolatura per l’organo e ’l cembalo, 1742)

For a couple of centuries the Medici family played an important role in Italian musical life. Originally being citizens they were able to climb the social ladder and become the absolute rulers of Florence from 1532 to 1737. Their rise to political power went hand in hand with their involvement in cultural life. In 1513 a member of the Medici family even became pope, and under his papacy (1513-1521) not only the standard of the papal chapel rose considerably, but the patronage of musicians and composers by the Medici's also reached its peak. Leo himself was a trained musician, and even was active as a composer.

This disc focuses on Prince Ferdinando de Medici, who has been mainly known as patron of famous composers like Handel, Veracini and father and son Scarlatti, but who seems to have composed as well. The pieces presented here under his name have been preserved anonymously, but there are reasons to believe they were written by Ferdinando, who is known to have studied composition and harpsichord. "According to an eye-witness report Prince Ferdinando was not only able to sight read a difficult sonata without hesitation but, to the amazement of all present, could repeat his performance immediately afterward without a further glance at the score", Alexander Silbiger writes in the booklet. The fact that these keyboard pieces have been preserved without his name on them doesn't speak against Ferdinando's authorship. Composers didn't stand high on the social ladder and being active as a composer didn't fit very well with an aristocrat. (That is also the reason the Dutch aristocrat Unico van Wassenaer didn't sign the Concerti armonici, once thought to be composed by Pergolesi.)

The pieces attributed to Ferdinando are collected in a manuscript which is preserved in the library of the Florence Conservatory of Music. It consists of 15 pieces grouped into four suites, which don't follow the traditional pattern of the suite. The all begin with a prelude and contain pieces like toccata, arie alla francese and passacaglias. Some of them have an improvisational character, and one may assume they find their origin in Ferdinando's own improvisations at the keyboard. In line with what was common at the time some contain adventurous harmonies.

These compositions are presented here as chains in the development of keyboard music from the late 16th to the late 18th century. The disc starts with a piece by Luigi Rossi, one of Italy's main composers of vocal music. His Passacaille has been preserved in a French manuscript, which can be explained from the fact that Rossi was famous in France among those who admired Italian music. Giovanni de Macque was of Flemish origin, was employed at the court of the Gesualdo family in Naples and became the 'founding father' of the Neapolitan keyboard school.

Just as Ferdinando de Medici is mainly known as patron rather than as composer, Giovanni Battista Martini, better known as 'Padre Martini', is more famous as theorist than as composer. He had a huge reputation in his time: Mozart visited him during his travels through Italy and wrote favourably about the master. But as he was strongly in favour of the 'old-fashioned' polyphony in later times he was labelled as conservative and not taken very seriously as a composer. The sonata on this disc demonstrates his skills in polyphony and show that he was a more than average composer. It begins with a prelude which has a free improvisatory character, which is followed by a fugal allegro.

The polyphony which is predominant in Martini's sonata is far away in the last two items on the programme. Both pieces are influenced by Spanish folk music. De Nebra's Pastorela IV contains harmonies and rhythms one wouldn't expect from a piece with a pastoral character. Soler's Fandango is his most famous composition, but not necessarily his best. It is a kind of showpiece, and it is tempting to pull all the stops out and treat the harpsichord like a percussion instrument. Fortunately Aapo Häkkinen resists that temptation, and gives a lively performance without crossing the border of good taste. He is helped by the harpsichord, which is an Italian instrument of the 17th century, with just one manual. In Soler's time two-manual instruments were quite common in Spain, and he may have had such an instrument in mind while composing the Fandango. But as Italian instruments were still widespread there is nothing against using this instrument in this piece, even though it is pushed to the limit here.

Aapo Häkkinen is a young Finnish keyboard player, who studied with Bob van Asperen and Pierre Hantaï. He won prizes at harpsichord competitions in Belgium and Germany. His first recording was devoted to keyboard music by Byrd, and that showed his great technical and interpretational skills. This disc proves again that he prefers to focus on less common repertoire, and that is highly commendable. Hopefully he will follow this route in the future.

This production is splendid in every respect: the programme has been put together intelligently, the interpretation and recording are excellent, the programme notes informative, and the booklet also contains references to the sources, the instrument and its tuning and temperament. Strongly recommended.

Johan van Veen (© 2008)

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