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‘Not without effort does one reach the end’, wrote Frescobaldi at the end of his Toccata IX, which is an apt summary of the music, with its florid ornamentation and brisk passagework, sometimes doubled and in contrasting motion within a single hand. It’s also true of recordings of Frescobaldi, if the performer lacks the virtuosity and whimsy essential to the music.
Francesco Corti, fortunately, has plenty of both, making this a delightful survey not just of some of Frescobaldi’s most challenging works but also several pieces by contemporaries (Francesco Lambardo and Michelangelo Rossi) and predecessors (Giovanni de Macque, Rocco Rodio and Scipione Stella). This is dazzling and challenging music, sophisticated, courtly and often outrageously inventive. Sudden harmonic inflections and tempo changes – largely at the discretion of the player – require the ability to project a sense of improvisatory abandon. Interpreting the music also demands the performer make key decisions about often enigmatic details in Frescobaldi’s printed scores.
Corti has the skills and grounding in the idiom to make sensible and compelling choices throughout, often strikingly different from other performers – compare the stately reserve of Gustav Leonhardt or operatic license of Jean Rondeau. Highlights include the wild ride of his Capriccio sopra La battaglia and the clarity and structural control of the extended Cento partite sopra passacagli. Interspersed with these are short dances, fleet and charming proof of the magnificent range of Frescobaldi’s invention.
Also interspersed are the ‘southern’ composers, meaning composers in the Neapolitan tradition for whom Gesualdo’s mercurial and hypersensitive chromaticism was a key influence. Among them, Giovanni de Macque writes music with a particularly strong profile, especially his Consonanze stravaganti.
The music is performed on two harpsichords, both by Philippe Humeu, based on Italian precedents. The tuning, a modified mean tone, gives the music its characteristic, deliciously sour notes whenever it strays even slightly from the tonal centre.
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