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CD Review

Gerolamo Frescobaldi

Harpsichord Works, Volume 2

  • Five Gagliardes
  • Toccata settima
  • Partite sopra l'Aria di Monicha
  • Partite sopra Ciaccona
  • Toccata nona
  • Partite sopra Passacagli
  • Toccata terza
  • Toccata quinta
  • Corrente e Ciaccona
  • Toccata settima
  • Balletto e Ciaccona
  • Toccata seconda
  • Toccata sesta
  • Partite sopra l'Aria di Ruggiero
Richard Lester, harpsichord
Nimbus NI5861
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Richard Lester's first volume of solo keyboard works by Gerolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643) was very well received on Classical Net at the end of last year (Nimbus NI5850). It seemed unlikely that this second installment could do anything other than please listeners every bit as much. That is the case. Lester has a natural affinity with the world of this influential and somewhat under-rated Italian Renaissance composer. As you listen to the first few pieces, the Five Gagliardes [tr.1] and Toccata settima, for example, you cannot help but be struck by their similarity in melodic direction and rhythm to the keyboard works of the English school – Byrd (who was indeed writing at the same time) in particular… listen to the runs towards the end of the Partite sopra Ciaccona [tr.3].

Yet this music is Italian to the core: there is a subdued sense of drama mixed with emotion and lyrical insistence that infuses phrasing and tempi. At the same time, the uncluttered detachment of the northern European polyphonists, whom Frescobaldi would have known both from his time at Ferrara and visits to Flanders with Cardinal Bentovoglio, is a crucial component of the way in which the music makes its impact. Lester is in total control of these aspects of the music. He has the admirable ability of both letting Frescobaldi's music 'breath' and find its own level of meaning to the listener. And at the same time Lester is a sure-footed and unobtrusive conveyor of the composer's highly personal sense of expression – without ever giving the impression of "reining it in".

That expression is at times somewhat enigmatic, it has to be said: a halting, almost faltering, progression (in the Partite sopra Passacagli [tr.6], for instance) makes us wonder exactly what Frescobaldi wanted us to feel. Certainly not something that was so polished and "perfect" as to have lost any of its edge. At the same time, there is nothing spurious, where attempts to create sadness or optimism are artificially imposed on the drive of the music. No layer of "effect", as a singer might hesitate in a Lied for emphasis. The integrity of Frescobaldi's conception is safe in Lester's hands. That must be – among other reasons – because he is so familiar with the composer's concerns, developments and the latter's judicious mix of tradition and experiment.

Indeed, there are several surprises in these pieces: harmonic and polyrhythmic innovations which alone ought to garner Frescobaldi more (approving) attention than he has received. Given that the composer was at great pains to annotate how his music should be played, the work of preparing and executing a convincing performance is a more than usually complex one. That we perceive the end result as so seamless and musically convincing is a real achievement on Lester's part. Fingering alone must have required considerable research and (re)thinking. Only really when this comes completely naturally – and with it a compelling sense of articulation – can convincing ornamentation succeed. It does here. It's minimal. But contributes to a musical whole that is highly satisfying and stimulating at the same time.

There is a total of 14 pieces on this CD – the longest is about 13½ minutes; the shortest 1¼. Nothing bombastic; no fireworks; no lugubriousness. Nothing overplayed. The pieces all have their own logic, bow in directions of their own musical inevitability. In sequencing them with just the right amount of contrast as well as maximum impact, Lester is a convincing guide.

This recording has a more spacious feel than that of the first volume. The harpsichord (by Giovanni Battista Boni, from 1619 – exactly around the time that much of this music was being written) was placed in the center of a large room to respect the circumstances under which Frescobaldi (whose first concert at St. Peter's in the Vatican apparently attracted 30,000 people) played. He must thus have been the exposed object of close and very public scrutiny. Lester gives us a sense of this by approaching the music with great deliberateness. Yet he does not miss any of its expressiveness. In fact, it's at times as though it's being performed for the first time, so fresh and uninhibited is it. The Corrente e Ciaccona [tr.9], for example, and Toccata settima [tr.10] almost force their structure on the ear and insist on being enjoyed as if not another note of music in the world had ever been written! For Lester to bring Frescobaldi's music to us with such clarity (yet never overbearingly) is quite an achievement.

The booklet which comes with the CD contains useful background information and descriptions of the music, and of performance practices. It's particularly informative on the tuning and temperament that have been chosen. This adds to our appreciation of just how special the instrument played here is. In the end this all contributes to a more profitable (and hence enjoyable) listen. If you enjoyed the first CD, this second will exceed your expectations. If the repertoire is unfamiliar, this series is an excellent place to start. Recordings of this music are few. Now to have available as accomplished a projected series of recordings as this is truly a treat. Frescobaldi was the most highly regarded composer (the most sought after, the most highly paid) in Italy at the time. Here is a performance and recording enterprise that deserves landmark status of its own. Unhesitatingly recommended.

Copyright © 2010, Mark Sealey.