“Chaconne” = FRESCOBALDI: Partite Cento sopra Passacagli; JUAN BUTISTA JOSÉ CABANILLES: Pasacalles del 1o Tono; Pasacalles del 4o Tono; BERNARDO STORACE: Ciaccona; LOUIS COUPERIN: Chaconne en sol mineur; Passacaille en sol mineur; JOHANN KASPAR KERLL: Ciaccona; PURCELL: Chacone: LIGETI: Passacaglia Ungherese; GEORG MUFFAT: Passacaglia; FRANÇOIS DAGINCOUR: Chaccone: La Sonning; JOHANN KASPAR FERDINAND FISCHER: Chacconne; Passacaglia; HANDEL: Chaconne; ANTOINE FORQUERAY: La Buisson: Chaconne – Gratieusement; RINALDO ALESSANDRINI: Chaconne: Déraisonnable beauté – Rinaldo Alessandrini, harpsichord – Naïve OP 30468 [Distr. by Naxos], 60:13 *****:
Here’s a concept album with a concept actually worth exploring. However, as Rinaldo Alessandrini observes in his intelligent and companionable notes to the recording, arriving at an accurate definition of the chaconne as a musical form has been complicated by the fact that the passacaglia, a similar musical form, is not always distinct, in practice, from its fraternal twin, the chaconne. Both forms “reiterate a melodic motif in the bass: a descending tetrachord in the passacaglia, and a harmonic progression touching on the principal degrees of the key in the case of the chaconne.”
But as Alessandrini notes, the terms finally departed from the basic concept of variations on a bass figure and came eventually to designate any piece that involved repetition and variation. In France, the two terms became interchangeable to the extent that any piece involving repetition and variation on a theme appeared under the rubric Chaconne ou Passacaille (“Chaconne or Passacaglia”—take your pick). Alessandrini concludes by saying, “The most convincing theory of the difference between passacaglia and chaconne (at least in the initial stage of development) is that the passacaglia embodies a binary rhythm with ternary subdivision, while the chaconne is in ternary rhythm with binary subdivision.” Intriguingly, of all the pieces Alessandrini includes in his program, only the works of Frescobaldi and Storace retain the concept of variations on a ground bass.
Both forms had their origins, in the distant past, as Spanish dances, and this provenance makes their appearance in instrumental dance music, including the ballets that the French adored, predictable. But the forms also showed up in sacred as well as secular music, vocal as well as instrumental works. Thus the passacaglia by Frescobaldi, the oldest composer represented here, bears the fingerprints of the madrigalists. The free-flowing melodic line, the brief pauses at phrase endings both hint at the vocal origins of Frescobaldi’s work. The passacaglias of Cabanilles and the chaconne of Storace show some of the same influences.
Predictably, then, the French composers Couperin, Dagincour, and Forqueray write chaconnes that recall the dance, with their lilting melodies matched to stately dotted rhythms. Forqueray’s La Buisson: Chaconne – Gratieusement, which also exists in a version for strings, is the most arresting, trailing off as it does into an irresolute coda, as if the dance has concluded with the partners feeling less than gracious toward one another. Alessandrini wisely follows this work with his own dreamy, somewhat irresolute little Chaconne, thus bringing us up to the present in this history lesson about two enduring but often indistinguishable musical forms.
Just as predictably, the works of two German composers of the High Baroque emphasize contrapuntal rigor. The Passacaglia of Fischer and the Chaconne of Handel, probably the two best-known works on the program, seem another order of composition entirely from the dancing chaconnes of the French composers.
Incidentally, if you’re just using this disc as background music or are otherwise distracted while listening, the presence of Gyrögy Ligeti’s Passacaglia Ungherese of 1978 should wake you up. It starts quietly and unassumingly enough, but pretty soon those slip-sliding appoggiaturas and big grinding dissonances give notice that we’ve left the genteel courts of eighteenth-century Europe far behind us.
Rinaldo Alessandrini brings a sure technique, a scholar’s understanding, and a music-lover’s sympathy to all this music with the result that the national and cultural differences noted above are observed with telling effect. Notice how Alessandrini emphases the vocal origins of Frescobaldi’s music with his ever-so-subtle use of rubato. All this makes for a program that educates, uplifts, and entertains, making it a pretty good bargain, I think. A fine very forward recording of the harpsichord from the Naïve engineers working in the Oratorio del Gonfalone in Rome is a further enticement, if needed.
— Lee Passarella