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Michelangelo ROSSI (1602 - 1656): "Toccatas and Correnti"

Sergio Vartolo, harpsichord

rec: June 19 - 20, 2003, Fumane
Naxos - 8.557321 ( 2005) (79'31")

Corrente I; Corrente II; Corrente III; Corrente IV; Corrente V; Corrente VI; Corrente VII; Corrente VIII; Corrente IX; Corrente X; Toccata I; Toccata II; Toccata III; Toccata IV; Toccata V; Toccata VI; Toccata VII; Toccata VIII; Toccata IX; Toccata X

(Sources: Toccata e Correnti d'Intavolatura d'organo e cembalo, 1657)

Michelangelo is mainly known for the keyboard toccatas which are recorded here, but in his own time he was first and foremost famous as violinist. He was nicknamed 'Michel Angelo del violino'. Strangely enough no music for the violin by Rossi has been found. His only extant works are operas, madrigals and a collection of toccatas and correntes for harpsichord.

Rossi was born in Genoa, but the largest part of his life he worked in Rome; he probably settled there in 1622, but there is a gap in his biography about the years 1638 to 1649. The Toccate e Correnti d'Intavolatura d'organo e cimbalo was first printed in Rome in 1657, but research has proven that the copper engraving of these pieces took place in the 1630s. That was at the same time Frescobaldi published his collections of toccatas, and it is up to some debate as to which extent Rossi was influenced by Frescobaldi's toccatas or just followed his own way in the development of the genre. It is interesting to note that Rossi's toccatas never disappeared into oblivion. As late as 1739 the German theorist Johann Mattheson mentioned them in Der vollkommene Kapellmeister, calling Rossi a "diligent visionary". Some pieces from the collection were published in the late 19th century.

In Frescobaldi's collections of toccatas the composer laid down the main principles of this genre for its performers. One of these is that toccatas consist of contrasting sections which should be marked off from each other by variation in tempo and through articulation. Michelangelo Rossi's toccatas are not different from Frescobaldi's in structure, and therefore Frescobaldi's notes are relevant for their interpretation as well. From this perspective I have to say that this recording by Sergio Vartolo is disappointing. In general the tempi are rather slow: most toccatas take twice as much time as in other recordings. As a result there is often a lack of contrast between the various sections of the toccatas. The slow tempi also mean that many runs sound unnatural, that there is hardly a difference between arpeggios and common scales, and there is a lack of differentiation between notes. Often chordal scales sound stiff and lack fluency. The virtuosic and capricious character of the toccata is too often too little noticeable here. And thanks to the slowish tempi the general pauses - for instance in the Toccata VII, the most famous piece of this set - are too predictable.

The collection also contains a number of Correnti - another form Frescobaldi used and published. These are pretty short, but here again they last longer than elsewhere, due to the slow tempi. As a result they are hardly recognisable as dances.

Vartolo uses two instruments: the toccatas and some of the correnti are played on an Italian harpsichord with one manual and two unison stops. It is a copy of a late-16th century instruments. Some correnti are performed on a spinet. "The tuning of the instruments is strictly meantone, with the black notes made into sharps or flats according to necessity", Sergio Vartolo writes in the booklet.

This booklet also contains detailed comment by Vartolo on "performing details" even with reference to places in facsimile editions. This is rather surprising in a Naxos recording whose booklets usually only give information which is absolutely necessary. It seems to me comments like Vartolo's are mainly of interest for colleagues and musicologists, but not for the common listeners. They had been better served with some general information about the pieces recorded here.

Not only I am disappointed by the interpretation, the recording quality also gives reason for criticism. There are some ugly noises, like a cracking floor and Vartolo taking his hands off the keyboard. There is hardly any break between the toccatas and between the correnti, which I find irritating. The microphones have been a little too close to the instruments as well, which further contributes to the general impression that the pieces on this disc are often falling apart and lack unity.

Johan van Veen ( 2007)

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