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Six Baroque Releases
You Should Know About

Review By David Cates
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CD Label: Various, See Below

 

 


Francois Couperin
Concerts Royaux
Le Concert des Nations, Jordi Savall et al

CD Label: Alia Vox AV 9840

Francois Couperin's Concerts Royaux are chamber music of the most subtle and lovely kind. The music appears deceptively simple; a melodic line over a harmonized bass line that in this recording is richly and sensitively elaborated by the five-member continuo group. The soloists on this CD are all exceptional; Marc Hantai playing a lovely baroque flute, Alfredo Bernardi on a gently pungent baroque oboe, and Manfredo Kraemer on baroque violin. This music epitomizes the highly formalized and delicate style of France in the early 1700s, which requires the most refined sense of phrasing and poise. Jordi Savall's small ensemble of consummate artists elevates these little jewels to a transcendental experience. I've listened to them over and over again; there is tenderness and poetry here in abundance, and an intensely beautiful texture of sound that is like a perfect massage to the ears and spirit. An unsurpassed performance which represents the very best that French baroque chamber music can possibly be. Absolutely beautiful sound.

 

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Johann Sebastian Bach
Toccatas
Blandine Rannou, harpsichord
CD Label: Zig-Zag Territoires ZZT 050501

Bach's Toccatas are relatively early compositions, all probably written by the time he was around 30 years old. There are seven of them in all; they descend from the prior century's tradition of German keyboard toccatas, which have alternating sections of colorful rapid passagework, counterpoint and fugues, and recitative-like parts. While some of Bach's toccatas are familiar (most notably the D major warhorse), they're often seen as some of Bach's early and less interesting work. In unimaginative yet competent hands, they usually sound kind of repetitive. But, as we now can tell, there's more here than meets the, um, eye.

This is a really interesting, thought-provoking recording. I have to say these initially struck me as profoundly French performances; they're played in a very lush, almost sensual and indulgent way–but that's not a criticism at all. The choice of instrument, Ms. Rannou's favorite Ruckers-Hemsch copy by Anthony Sidey, has a very wet, resonant sound–a sound that oddly works in her hands, but it's really more like a transcription of Bach to a big juicy French harpsichord than anything Bach would have been familiar with before 1720, when these pieces were written. The sound is so rich, orchestral and reverberant that it brought to my mind the famous Bach-Stokowski symphonic arrangements; this is nearly an arrangement from one kind of harpsichord to another, but with mostly the same notes. That's not bad per se, but it's initially a little weird.

The kinds of harpsichords that Bach grew up around were likely pretty crisp, plucky things; interesting and effective instruments descended from the south German tradition of the seventeenth century — or Italian harpsichords. But then Bach was primarily an organist then; big sounds, rich in fundamentals, in big reverberant spaces with a really dramatic effect were his thing. I think that's why these performances, in the end, grow on me. And, these are brilliantly played.

I love the way Ms. Rannou seemingly instinctively understands the shape, momentum and structure of each phrase – in a fluid, passionate way. No note is gratuitous, and nothing is studied, academic or severe. There are many fresh surprises here, ways that phrases are understood and shaped in a novel way.

I haven't been entirely convinced by her previous Bach recordings, and I still have some reservations about this one, but it makes you react to it, which is more than one can say about most performances. If that sounds like underwhelming praise, it's not. This recording is highly recommended.

 

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Domenico Scarlatti
Sonatas, Volumes 1 and 2
Pierre Hantai, harpsichord
CD Label: Mirare MIR 9918, 9920

Scarlatti wrote over 555 short sonatas for the harpsichord. Or the piano. Well, we don't really know what he wrote them for. Now there's a mystery! Within this rich corpus there are pieces in all sorts of styles. What we know him most for, of course, are the pieces that evoke the Spanish folk music that must have inspired Scarlatti after he moved to Spain and Portugal from relative obscurity under the shadow of his successful father in his native Italy. Scarlatti's music is frequently incredibly difficult and virtuosic, with leaps and wild hand-crossings and rapid arpeggios and runs; very few players have the ability to play some of the sonatas.

Pierre Hantai dashes them off with incredible panache and ease, and in so doing captures the feverishness, the brashness and bravura of this music. Put aside the memories of how you may have heard Scarlatti before; this is really different. Horowitz' piano recordings are still wonderful, but they're a different world and the piano just doesn't have the sizzle and drama that the harpsichord brings to these works.

Hantai plays, on Volume I (no, this isn't going to be a complete edition series of all 555) a very intriguing instrument, a copy of a 1715 anonymous little harpsichord from Thuringia, the province in which Bach was born and raised (the original is currently in the Bach museum in Eisenach, Germany). It has a peculiar fizzy, crisp and open sound; it sounds somewhat Italianate, but drier. Its construction is odd too — of a school almost all its own. Strangely, it sounds quite Spanish.

Volume I is terrific; a great combination of a unique and powerful sound and stunning playing. Some of Scarlatti's best Spanish-inspired barnstormers are included on this recording, and they're really fun. Hantai's essay on his view of Scarlatti as the first impressionist composer is fascinating. This recording is a real ear-opener.

Volume 2 is also very fine; Hantai plays on a copy of an Italian harpsichord (it's easy to assume that Scarlatti brought several Italian harpsichords with him to Spain) with a bolder, fuller tone, and the pieces he chooses for this recording are great, even though he used the most stunning ones for Volume I.

 

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Bartolomeo Cristofori
Six Sonatas by Various Composers
Luca Guglielmi, fortepiano
CD Label: Stradivarius STR 33608

No, despite the title of this recording this isn't music by Cristofori but music by Handel, Scarlatti and others on an instrument after Cristofori. This recording is, I believe, the first of its kind on a very fine and unusual piano.

Bartolomeo Cristofori (Florence,1655-1731), was the ingenious instrument builder credited with the invention of the piano in the early 1700s. His principal patron was Ferdinando de Medici; there are connections between the Florentine court and both Scarlatti and Handel that imply that both those composers were familiar with Cristofori's instruments and possibly his early pianos. Three of his pianos survive, from 1720, 1722, and 1726. They are highly sophisticated instruments, and embody many innovations and astoundingly clever engineering solutions; they became widely imitated and there have been few improvements to the design of the piano action since then. Strangely, it is only very recently that these instruments have been studied by modern builders and caught the attention of musicians. One of the first and most successful modern copies was built in 1995 by Kerstin Schwartz, formerly an instrument restorer in the museum in Leipzig, and Tony Chinnery, a harpsichord maker near Florence. Their instrument is especially lovely; it has a soundboard of fragrant and warm cypress, and the brass strings have a sweet, warm sound. The hammers that strike the strings are made of small coils of paper, with little pads of soft leather where they strike the strings. The instrument is very light, fast, and responsive; very sensitive to a player's touch. It's a really special sound, nothing like the more brittle sound of fortepianos from the period of Mozart and Beethoven that sadly, in the 1980s and 1990s, became the conventional, one-size-fits-all fortepiano sound.

This recording features Handel and Scarlatti as well as some more obscure names, but all very attractive, interesting music. A performer might be overshadowed by how interesting this instrument sounds, but that would be unfair; Luca Guglielmi is a very fine player and makes lovely music here.

It's known that Scarlatti had access to Cristofori's pianos in Spain. Some of his sonatas must have been written expressly for that instrument, but we'll never know which ones. The famous castrato Farinelli owned a Cristofori piano; he likely traveled with it and it's plausible that Handel became acquainted with it then too. Is Handel authentic and convincing on this instrument? I can't say, but it's an interesting perspective.

Historians believe that a Cristofori piano must have passed through Dresden, Germany in the late 1720s, since Silbermann, an organ and harpsichord builder and friend of J.S. Bach, made an almost exact copy of the action mechanism in a slightly larger instrument that Bach played. Bach may have seen the original Cristofori piano, but there's no record of that and no real reason to assume that to be true. But it certainly did spawn German pianos of remarkably similar design that Bach did approve of and even acted as a dealer for.

This recording is quite beautiful; it has a sound you've almost certainly never heard before — I doubt there are more than a dozen of these worldwide — and it's the true ancestor of all pianos since. The sound quality leaves a little to be desired; the acoustic space seems a little confined and at times it seems too closely miked. But regardless I think it's a worthy addition to a music lover's library.

 

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Louis Couperin
Preludes; Various Works
Skip Sempe, harpsichord
CD Label: Alpha ALPHA066

This recording is absolutely ravishing. Louis Couperin was the first member of a large musical family to achieve real renown. He was a gifted harpsichordist in Paris around 1650. He died at an early age, having produced a small legacy of lovely music that includes many dance-inspired pieces as well as sixteen "unmeasured preludes." These strange and unique preludes appear as simply strings of whole notes, with no indication of note values, rhythm, meter, or tempo — with an occasional mark that looks like a bar line but isn't, and some enigmatic and stylized slurs. They are essentially richly elaborated chord changes that seem to meander around in a fairly random way, but somehow have an architecture that gradually reveals itself. Couperin's preludes are sophisticated pieces that have a decidedly improvisatory character, and each performer has the daunting task of figuring out how to deal with the cryptic notation and bring them to life. For this music is conceived t to be played, and what's written down is by its very nature incomplete — a pale shadow of the real thing.

Sempe succeeds in lifting the music off the page, as it were, in a very personal way. He makes it seem as if the music is being created right there; he is utterly at one with the style of this period. His playing propels the music forward and creates swirls of sound and texture in an exuberant and virtuosic way. He's very inventive, elaborating melodic lines and ornamenting at will — but never in a way that detracts from the music. It always sounds right and natural, to my ears. The rhythmic energy in the dance movements is nothing short of fabulous. It's just full of spirit.

Once you hear this, you'll have a hard time hearing other performances of the same music, they'll sound ponderous and dull by comparison. And the recorded sound is beautiful. This is one of my favorite recordings of the year, and I think one of the finest solo harpsichord recordings yet made.

Very highly recommended.

 

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