Richard Lester's meticulously-researched, delicately-executed yet rigorously-guided and sympathetic playing of Frescobaldi's keyboard music has been favorably received on Classical Net in the last four years… Volumes 1-4 of this series on Nimbus (NI5850, NI5861, NI5870 and NI5874) have been found to be illuminating, technically brilliant. The CDs represent a feast of original, beautiful and – sadly – still under-appreciated music that's carefully and attractively presented so as to appeal not only to lovers of Italian Renaissance music. But also to anyone with an ear for (Frescobaldi's) instrumental brilliance, melodic and harmonic originality. The composer possessed an uncanny skill of blending the original with the immediate. And this was in ways that were perhaps only really undertaken at that time by the likes of William Byrd, in the English tradition. Short, memorable, phrases and motifs vie for our attention with a drive towards the quiet, determined achievement of his music's larger architecture in such a way that textures visited along the way, ornamentation and harmonic progressions all seem entirely natural. Inevitable, almost. Yet without ever suggesting formulae or tropes that are too well worn.
Richard Lester seems to be gently and undemonstratively advancing the thesis that this is not only a winning combination. But is one which deserves our time and engagement. The nearly two dozen varied works in present collection were written towards the end of Frescobaldi's relatively short life (he died in 1643 aged 60). They come from the second volume of toccatas (1627), the Canzone of 1628, the Correnti and Arie from the Arie Musicali of 1630 as well as two Capricci from 1637.
Richard Lester is joined on this – perhaps the most colorful and varied CD of the five – by Elizabeth Lester (his daughter) playing Renaissance recorder; by Polly Armitage, Renaissance flute; and Londa Ntotila, soprano, on several of the works. The vibrato of the latter may be a little jarring to some. The two woodwinds, and indeed Judit Dolosso's Baroque cello in Canzona III, "La Bernardinia" [tr.2], have all the energy and warmth needed to add yet more understanding of the music. Somehow Lester and his performers manage to draw us in to the world of Frescobaldi; to invite us to see both the overall design as the composer developed his ideas, and the particularities of any one area of inspiration.
There is also extra atmosphere on this recording. Some numbers from it were recorded in the beautiful church of Santa Maria della Consolazione, known as "San Nicola", in the beautiful village of Almenno San Salvatore in Umbria on the organ there built in 1588 by Costanzo Antegnati. The harpsichord is a copy by Colin Booth of an early 17th-Century Italian instrument. The recorder and flute are copies of 16th-Century instruments. While recording in Umbria, the bells of the church were heard and so recorded and included on the CD [tr.16]. Then birdsong can briefly be heard at least once – at the start of the first Corrente [tr.4]. These are brief and entirely unobtrusive. But they somehow suggest a roundness, liveliness and completeness in experiencing Frescobaldi, which is wholly in keeping with the richness of the playing. This in turn amply and consistently reveals the depth of Frescobaldi's music itself.
It will become apparent after only a couple of tracks that Lester's playing and direction on this CD are every bit as energetic and perceptive as on the previous four. Possibly more so. The music has a spring and alertness throughout. But also seems to stop to look around. To reflect on its own inventiveness. Modulations of key are as common – and purposeful – as are changes in tempo, accent and dynamic. As we follow the melody, we can hardly escape dancing internally. At the same time, Lester never strays into declamation, which would border on the self-conscious. His playing also avoids the pedestrian by many miles; but it's playing which opens the heart of Frescobaldi's music to our closest scrutiny and enjoyment.
The choral works (Hymns and Magnificat) occupy the second half of the CD, rather than being interleaved between the keyboard ones. This works well: it throws the emphasis on Frescobaldi, rather than trying to confer superfluous form or format on music which can speak for itself. The nine singers from the Schola Gregoriana del Duomo di Bergamo are plain and undemonstrative – indeed, perhaps a little too distantly miked. The potency of Frescobaldi's marrying of organ to voice is not lost, though; and the results are genuine and unpretentious. The Schola's tradition is a long one; it dates back almost 1,000 years. It may be this that confers a certain dignity on the alternation of organ and sung versi. This is not music on a grand scale or charged with unusually exuberant or damp emotion; so the performers' precision and confidence in their delivery does service for the impression which it makes on the listener. And that's a pleasing one.
The booklet which accompanies the CD is up to the usual standard set by Nimbus with useful background and necessary technical detail. It contains the texts in Italian and English of the two Arie, the Magnificats and Hymns. It also refers to the Frescobaldi Experience website which Lester has created featuring two videos to accompany the whole series… also well worth a look. Each acoustic (in Wisteria Lodge, Cirencester, Gloucestershire; then Almenno San Salvatore) is responsive and sympathetic to the sense of exploration and thrust which Lester's enterprise on these CDs has shown us that Frescobaldi's music exudes. We're hearing something midway between a performance, a concert and an exposition. At this stage in the (still thankfully developing) reception of Frescobaldi amongst players and listeners, that's exactly what's needed. At the end of the series (and no-one who's been gathering this treasure since 2009 will want to hesitate here) one has both "reference" recordings laying out exactly what the composer has to offer. And appropriately personal and "particular" interpretations thereof in ways that make the composer's world both accessible and impressive. Thoroughly recommended.
Copyright © 2013, Mark Sealey