Girolamo FRESCOBALDI: Toccatas and Partitas—Christophe Rousset—Aparté 

by | Apr 22, 2019 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

Girolamo FRESCOBALDI. Keyboard pieces (Toccate e partite d’intavolatura di cimbalo, libro primo, 1615), —Christophe Rousset (harpsichord)—Aparté AP202—78:27, *****

I’ve been conversant with the name Frescobaldi since high school, and while I am fairly certain I knew very little about the composer or his music, I was somewhat more familiar with the name Chrisophe Rousset. I remember traveling across town to get the last copy of his Rameau double-CD set. How long I’ve waited for Rousset and Frescobaldi to come together!

During the time of publication of his first collection of keyboard pieces, Frescobaldi had assumed the post of organist at St. Peter’s in Rome. He’d been trained by Luszzachi, surrounded by the music of Gesualdo, Merulo, Monteverdi, and no doubt, the Gabrielis. A later collection, Fiori musicali, was part of Bach’s own music collection. While the name is not a household name in 2019, he made an impact that was felt for over one hundred years.

While I have met Christophe Rousset once, after a solo performance in the U.S., I don’t know the man or what he’s like. But there is a consistency among his recordings, his style if you will, that’s “neat.” I imagine he likes order and doesn’t finish a day with things out of place. Translated into musical performance, he can be quite regular and tidy in his playing. And while that signature is present in this recording, I also get just enough rubato and an organic feeling to his playing that seems so well-suited to Frescobaldi’s music. For sure, there is some guesswork as we perform early music. And outside of knowing what Frescobaldi sounded like performing his own works, we do have a modern performance practice with which to compare interpretations.

Frescobaldi’s music, namely the toccatas and partitas on this CD, are constructed from contrasting sections. These declarations are treated rhetorically, each their own microcosm in a longer, extended tableau of gestures, which musically we’d probably call “themes.” In the penultimate track, Toccata settima, Rousset takes the arrival at some unforeseen harmonies with pause and awe. What must have been surprising to an audience then, still today, largely unfamiliar with this sound world, Rousset’s solutions work at astonishing us with Frescobaldi’s turn of phrases into fresh harmonic progressions. Frescobaldi, after all, was born at just the right time to explore a new musical tradition, wherein solo instruments were emulating the power of sung text. By the baroque period’s end, instrumental music, to many, surpassed the limits of the voice.

The longest piece on the recording is the Partite sopra l’aria della Romanesca. The Romanesca was a harmonic progression used to structure many pieces, including vocal works. Frescobaldi’s piece, then, is an opportunity to provide variations upon a familiar bedrock. While at times I was in want of even more variation with tempo or instrumental effect, Rousset’s performance is nevertheless a virtuosic expression.  The Romanesca is not alone in Frescobaldi’s collection; he also includes his take on other familiar tunes, including “La Monica” and “La Follia.”

La Follia was recorded by Pierra Hantaï in his 1996 release of Frescobaldi’s Partite & Toccate on the Astrée label. In his reading, he’s even tighter than Rousset in his rhythm. Picking a favorite among the two is difficult; where the rhetorical presentation by Hantaï is interesting, Rousset’s reading, and his entire recording, steps ahead by virtue of his splendid instrument, originally brought to life at the end of the 16th century.

Fabio Bonizzoni records the partita on the Monica tune in his Glossa release from 2012. His recording spans two CDs and includes performance on organ.  But the comparison immediately brings to light (again) the superior instrument in Rousset’s possession, not to mention the superiority in the mastered sound afforded to Rousset.

My discography of Girolamo Frescobaldi’s works includes readings of diverse ensembles and soloists. Each are in search of the Frescobaldi style. The fantasy of his works is impressive, but his signature is the invention of rhetorical statements in sound that tease and delight listeners. Under Rousset’s hands, the pieces by Frescobaldi presented in this release successfully convey the musical language of the early baroque. Whatever success means in this context will never be verified, but the results are satisfying and pungent. The twelfth track, Quatro correnti is robust in its opening dance. Rousset conveys palpable confidence in his playing, and while the tempo does not change among the four short pieces, it’s the character that changes from one dance to the next. The effect may be subtle, but it’s the proof of Rousset’s expertise.

Rousset’s interpretations are not a far departure from other readings in overall concept, however those interested in the details will likely be glad to have yet another reading of these works in good company with those that came before. As ever an explorer of rare and superb harpsichords, Rousset’s presentation this time around is superior in part because of this instrument. The recording is also available in high resolution, 24 bit 96 kHz.

—Sebastian Herrera


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