musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Girolamo FRESCOBALDI (1583 - 1643): "Keyboard Music from Manuscript Sources"

Martha Folts, harpsichord

rec: August 12, 2007, Manchester, MI., Ploger Hall
Naxos - 8.570717 (© 2008) (73'03")

Canzona in d minor; Canzona in d minor; Capriccio in G; Capriccio in g minor; Capriccio fatto sopra il Cucchý; Corrente in F; Corrente in G; Corrente in g minor; Corrente in A; Fantasia in E; Partite sopra un aria Romana detta la Manista; Ricercare cromatico; Toccata in C; Toccata in e minor; Toccata in F; Toccata in F; Toccata in F; Toccata in g minor; Toccata in a minor; Toccata (and canzona) in G

Many recordings with keyboard music by Frescobaldi are available. That is understandable, as his music not only belongs to the very best of what was composed in the 17th century in Italy, but also had a lasting influence on the further development of keyboard music in the whole of Europe. Frescobaldi had many students from Italy and abroad, and they copied his music and spread it over Europe. In addition their own works shows the strong influence of Frescobaldi's style. Johann Jacob Froberger is just one - and the most famous - example. A pretty large number of collections with Frescobaldi's music was published during his lifetime. Most recordings focus on one or more of these collections. The peculiarity of this recording is that it presents pieces which were never published and are kept in museums and archives, for instance in Turin, Munich, Berlin and London.

The programme shows the different forms Frescobaldi made use of, in particular the toccata which was one of the main sources of his influence. In addition we find a dance form (corrente), canzonas and ricercares - both derived from vocal music -, 'partite' (variations on a subject) and free forms like the fantasia and the capriccio. These pieces are grouped in such a way that a maximum of variety is guaranteed.

Not that there is any danger of being bored by this programme. The music in itself is good enough to prevent this, but there are two other factors which should keep the listener's attention.
First of all, the harpsichord, which was built by Jerome de Zentis in 1658. This is a very special instrument, which dates from 1658 and has been in the property of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York which has acquired it in the 1880's. Despite - or due to - attempts to restore it the harpsichord was in rather bad condition when the museum decided to sell it. When the harpsichord maker Keith Hill got the opportunity to study the instrument more carefully he was very impressed by its quality. He concluded that it was the work of a "genius musical instrument maker". On his website he descibes the instrument and how he has restored it into playable condition. The result is nothing but spectacular. According to Keith Hill "every piece in the instrument is acoustically enhanced to optimize its sounding properties". And that makes this instrument unique, as this disc demonstrates. The sonority of this harpsichord is remarkable. In particular the low notes have a very strong sound. The range of colours this harpsichord is able to produce is something one doesn't hear very often in harpsichords.

But an instrument alone doesn't make a good recording. This instrument has been used previously in a recording by Elizabeth Farr with music by Peter Philips. But it didn't make any lasting impression on me as it does here. The reason could be that this instrument isn't the most appropriate for Philips' music. But it is probably first and foremost due to the interpretation which I found very unsatisfactory. Comparing the way the same harpsichord is used, its full qualities come much better to the fore under the hands of Martha Folds.

She tries to realise the performing principles which Frescobaldi has laid down. These are strongly influenced by the vocal style of the time, which originated from Giulio Caccini. One of the main aspects of this performance practice is the freedom of rhythm and tempo. "Describing the 'new style', Frescobaldi states that the manner of playing must not remain subject to a beat (...), letting the tempo reflect the mood or 'Affect' of the music or text", Martha Folts writes in the booklet. Frescobaldi requires the beginnings of toccatas being played slowly and arpeggiated, which can be compared to the crescendo a singer uses. Ornaments should also be added according to the Affect. Frescobaldi's indications lead to a performance "with a kind of nonchalance which projects ease, relaxation, non-intensity, and yet a focused, intentional presence to the performance."

This approach, "allowing the music to sound as vocally oriented as possible", shows to be very fruitful in this recording. Listening to Martha Folts' interpretation it is not difficult to understand why musicians all over Europe travelled to Rome to study with Frescobaldi and were deeply influenced by his style. Ms Folts' playing is brilliant and always captivating and expressive. Thanks to the mean-tone temperament the sometimes harsh dissonances have a maximum effect, for instance in the Toccata in e minor (track 10) and the Toccata in F (track 20) or in the Fantasia in E (track 17).

Music, instrument and performer are a winning combination here. It has resulted in a quite spectacular recording, which should not be missed.

Johan van Veen (© 2008)

CD Reviews