Claudio Merulo lived from 1533 to 1604. His life and work were somewhat typical of the Renaissance ideal of an all-round, inspired, thinker-practitioner – and even diplomat (Merulo, actually born Claudio Merlotti, was appointed as ambassador of Venetian Republic at the marriage of Francesco de' Medici and Bianca Cappello in 1579). As well as publishing, Merulo wrote other instrumental and choral music, actually built his own small positive organ, and – during his years in Venice – he was not only an organist, but also oversaw the building, maintenance and alteration of organs, including those of San Marco. Although playing on the smaller, "second" organ there at first, his reputation as a fine organist grew quickly and he was promoted to the "first" organ, Andrea Gabrieli taking his place. By the time Merulo moved back to Parma in 1586, the highpoint of Renaissance organ music was coming to a close. Yet Merulo did as much as anyone to create and illuminate it. Indeed, his styles, constructions and the energy of his inventions influenced subsequent composers from Sweelinck through Frescobaldi to the North German School ultimately Bach.
For that – and the beauty, variety and originality of his music – it's astonishing that there are only a couple of dozen CDs in the current catalog with his music at all; a smaller handful (on Naxos with the Grupo Vocal Gregor and Dante Andreo) featuring the choral music; and none to speak of bringing us the glorious organ music on which Merulo's reputation as a leading keyboard composer largely rests. Here, though, is a splendid four-CD set from Divox with inspired, expert, idiomatic and arresting playing by Stefano Molardi on the Vincenzo Colombi organ from 1533 in Valvasone, Pordenone (Northeastern Italy) (CDs 1, 2 and 3) and the Antegnati of 1588 in Almenno San Salvatore in Lombardy (CD 4). Their characteristics (and the fact that they operate with mean tone temperament) are set out in the liner notes (whose proofing was not to the highest standard) which accompany this set. There is much greater body to the first instrument; the Antegnati has an almost ethereal air, of which Molardi makes the very best.
The music itself is of uniformly high quality. There are grandeur and introspection as well as exuberance, the unexpected, bright forging melodies, intriguing textures, variations in speed, innovative harmony and varying degrees of ornamentation contrasted with plain progression of tune. Merulo wrote with a certain detachment from the apparent intricacies of the instrument; or at least so Molardi's interpretations suggest. The regal second "Toccata Nona" which opens CD3, for example, is stout, and paced in such a way that it accrues to itself a regularity and dignity. The very next item, the "Ricercare dell'Undecimo tono" has as much power in its quiet, somewhat held-back movement from one chord to another and brief arpeggiati. Molardi plays with such deliberateness that the essence of Merulo's simple conception is not lost. Like riding a horse upright, each of the four feet contributes in concert to a clear and unambiguous oval trajectory. The result is that you never miss a nuance or intricacy, yet at the same time are made to dwell on what's under the player's fingers at any one time; never any slowing, slacking or anticipation of the next because the present is not enthralling enough.
Stefano Molardi was born in 1970 in Cremona; his Master's thesis was on Messiaen and he has studied with the likes of Ton Koopman and spent time at the Hochschule für Musik in Vienna as well as winning several international organ awards. He also teaches, plays continuo roles and conducts. Someone who should be ideally equipped to see right into the world of the also far-sighted Merulo. Indeed he is. Molardi's playing is trenchant, decisive and clean; yet expressive, warm and sensitive. His tempi and "devotion" to Merulo's lines are appropriate and add greatly to our appreciation of the composer's creativity and blending of the formal with the intimate. Listen, for example, to the opening of the Toccata quarta, 1604 [CD.2 tr.1]. It makes an announcement of something important. Yet is far from pompous or overblown. Very quickly, Molardi's commitment to conveying a generosity and mellowness that would not be out of place in a comparable work by Buxtehude is evident. As the piece progresses, the balance between due dignity and approachability serve only to convince us of Merulo's authority as a keyboard innovator and expert. This is typical of the care and perception which this player brings to every piece on these CDs.
But Molardi's playing exposes this authority not by suggesting drama when none exists; nor less by extending phrases beyond their measure. Rather, by a good grasp of the overall, the "outer", structure and architecture of Merulo's intentions and designs. Yes, there is an element of the Grand. One would expect that from a player influenced by the Venetian traditions. But every moment of pause, repetition, reference or echo is earned. Earned from genuinely new melodic and harmonic ideas. And Molardi is perfectly in tune with this type of form. It's not dissimilar, in fact, to the way in which Messiaen built his organ movements.
The main types of works on these CDs are toccata, ricercare and canzone. The interspersing of these types with several others lends variety and freshness to the CDs. The differing sound qualities of the two organs used adds to this freshness in sequence of textures and timbres. It's likely that the listener, even one relatively familiar with Merulo and his world, will be struck by the many registers, approaches to the formats and indeed harmonic explorations. Care has obviously been taken in the way in which your impression of the composer is enhanced as each new piece is revealed, progresses and then makes way for the next one.
The acoustic is not particularly resonant in the case of either organ. But this favors a clean appreciation of both the lower and higher registers of the instruments. In fact, just right for this music. This is a set that almost recommends itself, given the gap in the recorded and available repertoire. The technique and interpretative skills of Molardi leave nothing to be desired. If you have even a passing interest in the way keyboard music developed at the end of the Renaissance into the Baroque, and – especially – want to explore the ultimate influences on composers in this genre for well over a century, this set should not escape you.
Copyright © 2011, Mark Sealey.