Sunday 17 March 2013

The fifth volume in a much praised series of recordings of Frescobaldi from Richard Lester on Nimbus

Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643) was born in the north Italian town of Ferrara. Although there is a surviving baptismal record it is difficult to read the actual day but, nevertheless, there is no doubt that it was in September 1583. Frescobaldi’s father was an important citizen of Ferrara, possibly an organist. At the time, Ferrara was an important musical centre with Duke Alfonso II d’Este being an enthusiastic supporter of music.

Frescobaldi, who was taught by Luzzasco Luzzaschi (c.1545-1607) the court organist, seems to have been something of a prodigy as an organist himself. Frescobaldi was influenced by Gesualdo who visited Ferrara in 1594. After Duke Alfonso’s death Frescobaldi stayed in Ferrara and, around 1597, became organist at the Accademia della Morte de Ferrara at the age of only 14. By 1604 Frescobaldi was working in Rome with Guido Bentivoglio, the son from an important Ferrara family, as his patron. In 1607, when Bentivoglio was made archbishop and papal nuncio in Flanders, he took Frescobaldi with him to Brussels where he may have met Peter Philips (1560-1628) and Pieter Cornet (c.1570-80-1633).

As his relationship with Bentivoglio declined, Frescobaldi found a new patron in Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini, nephew of Pope Clement VIII. In 1613 he married Orsola del Pino, having already fathered a child by her. In February 1615 Frescobaldi took up a post in Mantua but this seems to have been unsuccessful and by May he was back in Rome, having continually been paid by St Peter’s. The dedications on some of his works indicate that he moved amongst illustrious people, some of the most powerful in Rome. In 1628 Frescobaldi was given leave of absence to travel to the Florentine Court where documents describe him as court organist or maestro di cappella. By 1634 he had resumed his post as organist at St.Peter’s. By now Frescobaldi had a widespread reputation. Johann Jakob Froberger (1616-1667) received leave of absence from the Viennese Court to travel to Rome to study with him.

Frescobaldi died in Rome on 1st March 1643 and was buried in the church of SS Apostoli.

Nimbus Alliance  have just released the fifth and final volume of Richard Lester’s Frescobaldi series that summarises works written towards the end of the composer’s life.  Lester plays a copy of an early 17th century Italian harpsichord by Colin Booth and the 1588 Costanzo Antegnati organ in the church of San Nicola, Almenno San Salvatore, north east of Milan, an instrument that Frescobaldi  could have played when he visited Milan in 1608.

The other artists on this recording are Elizabeth Lester, who plays a copy of a 16th century recorder and Polly Armitage, who plays a copy of a 16th century flute, as well as Londa Ntotila (soprano) and Judith Dolosso (baroque cello).

NI 5887
The disc opens with Frescobaldi’s Toccata per spinettina e violin on harpsichord and recorder, delightfully played with some spritely rhythms and lovely flourishes for recorder. Canzona III (La Bernardinia) has an opening that reminds me of the famous Paganini Caprice Op.1, No. 24 so favoured by later composers for variations. Here the Canzona receives beautifully shaped performance from Richard Lester, Elizabeth Lester and Judith Dolosso.

The combination of recorder and organ in Canzona I works extremely well, particularly in the way Richard Lester manages to balance the organ so well with the recorder. This is a lovely performance.

Fescobaldi’s Six Corrente for harpsichord receive some lovely phrasing in what are attractive little pieces. There is a lively first corrente, a rhythmically flowing second, a beautifully layered third, a fourth with changing rhythms, a light and sparkling fifth and a nicely sprung sixth.

The lovely timbres of the renaissance flute bring a lovely atmosphere to Canzone V (la Donatina) with a melancholy central section whilst there is tremendous agility from Polly Armitage in Canzona II (la Bonuisa) perfectly partnered by Richard Lester.  These two canzonas are an absolute delight.

Soprano Londa Ntotila joins Richard Lester for two arias, Se l’aura spira and O moi cor. Ntotila is a little unsteady a times but can bring a richness to her lower range in these lovely arias. She is set rather back in the acoustic which doesn’t help the sound. Ntotila is sensitively accompanied by Richard Lester (harpsichord).

The Capriccio sopra Bataglia is for solo harpsichord and is a terrific piece, full of energy and brilliance, fabulously played by Lester. Cappricio sopra Pastorale features the lovely 1588 Antegnati organ in a lovely flowing piece that shows so much of the timbres of the instrument, especially in the hands of a master such as Richard Lester. It is remarkable that this organ has survived in such fine condition.

The next track on this disc has the bells of Almenno San Salvatore complete with bird song. It seems that, when the recordings were being made in the church of San Nicola, the bells were heard to sound out, thereby tempting the recording engineer to record this atmospheric sound.

The Schola Gregoriana del Duomodi Bergamo join for the remaining works bringing an authentic monastic sound with a fine vocal security. Dating back to 973, the Schola at the Cathedral of St. Vincenzo was founded by Bishop Ambrose I. The Choir of the Cathedral of Bergamo was re-established in November 1996 by the master Don Gilberto Sessantini and Mario Valsecchi. Part of this choir is the Gregorian Schola of the Cathedral of Bergamo, under the direction of Don Gilberto Sessantini, who undertake the study of medieval monodic chant.

The plainchant settings of the Magnificat and Hinno (hymns or anthems) for the various occasions of the liturgical year are interspersed with Frescobaldi’s ‘improvisations’ for organ. It would have been the practice at St. Peter’s in Rome, for such organ versets to be improvised on a daily basis.

With such a characterful old organ and these fine singers the Magnificat comes alive whilst taking us back to the 17th century. Richard Lester plays the Antegnati organ with lovely directness. The Magnificat is opens by a firm voiced solo member of the Schola before the organ plays the ‘improvisation’ between each of the verses of the plainchant.

Richard Lester plays an opening verso for the four Hinno that are sung here, again contributing a verso between each verse of the plainchant. The two remaining Magnificat are performed in the same way as the first with the solo member of the Schola singing the word ‘Magnificat’ before the ‘Primo verso’ on the organ.

Richard Lester’s playing, combined with the Schola Gregoriana lovely singing, brings a real authenticity that ensures that the settings are never dull or earthbound in any way.

This makes a suitably attractive conclusion to this much praised series of recordings, with some first rate music making. The booklet notes are very informative and have full texts and translations.

However, for an even greater insight into these performances it is recommended that listeners go to in order to view two excellent twenty minute videos by Richard Lester. In the first he demonstrates his split keyed harpsichord, explaining its use, given the mean tone tuning, and in the second, filmed in Almenno San Salvatore, he shows us the Antegnati organ and demonstrates the various registrations.

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