May 13, 2021


Johann Jakob Froberger: Suites for Harpsichord, Volume 2. Gilbert Rowland, harpsichord. Athene. $25.99 (2 CDs).

Bach: Harpsichord Works in A minor, D minor and C minor. Rinaldo Alessandrini, harpsichord. Naïve. $16.99.

Dance Music for Piano from the United States, Argentina, Spain, France, Hungary and Russia. Lisa de la Salle, piano. Naïve. $16.99.

     There is a tendency among some people to think of older music, specifically Baroque music, as elegant, refined, and essentially impersonal, a set of exercises in form rather than emotional expressiveness. Listeners who have heard the works of Johann Jakob Froberger (1616-1667), however, know how far this is from the truth. Froberger, one the earliest developers of the dance suite and one of the most-skillful creators of this movement sequence, composed highly distinctive forms of movements that again and again had the same designation, including Allemande, Courante, Gigue, Sarabande and others. He also created program music – indeed, music whose programs were so precise that Froberger often wrote them out, sometimes in very considerable detail, on the same pages as the musical notation. The second volume of Gilbert Rowland’s very well-played selections from Froberger’s suites, now available as a two-CD set on the Athene label, is an exceptional introduction to the composer or, for those who know his music already, a delightful expansion of their knowledge, since it is unlikely that many listeners will already be familiar with all 12 of these suites. The very first one offered here (in D, FbWV 620) opens with a descriptive and very personal movement bearing the title Méditation sur ma mort future, and although it is no more lugubrious than other movements in these suites, the mere existence of the title engages listeners in thinking about the topic that Froberger raised 400 years ago – and perhaps even about their own mortality. The rest of this four-movement suite consists of a Gigue, Courante and Sarabande, and all the other suites here – one in three movements, one in five, the remainder in four – are simply sequences of these and other dance movements. But “simply” is the wrong word, because Froberger’s rhythmic irregularities and unusual handling of Baroque dance forms give the music a level of complexity that Rowland explores with considerable skill and careful attention to period style and Froberger’s particular sense of it. Froberger was quite prolific and quite protective of his music, allowing only two pieces to be published in his lifetime and having friends and noble patrons keep and control the rest. And he apparently really did have a sense of ma mort future, since he is known to have made funeral arrangements for himself the day before he died. He is an unusual and highly creative composer, and was known as a keyboard virtuoso – as is clear from the demands of the suites that Rowland plays. Bach understandably thought highly of Froberger’s music, and the similarities and divergences between the two composers’ keyboard works are quite interesting. But hearing Froberger entirely on his own is all that is necessary to admire the quality of his compositions and the extent to which their content belies the notion of Baroque music as emotionally uninvolving.

     It is nevertheless quite intriguing to hear some Bach harpsichord works in juxtaposition with some of Froberger’s, and to contemplate the varied ways in which emotional – one could even say spiritual – connections can be made between composers and among the works of a single musical creator. Rinaldo Alessandrini’s new Bach recording for Naïve is a highly personal exploration of disparate Bach works, presented by Alessandrini as three minor-key sequences – A minor, D minor and C minor – with carefully parallel choices of pieces within each grouping. Each of the three sets starts with a prelude, an invention and a sinfonia: the A minor uses BWV 931,784 and 799; the D minor BWV 940, 775 and 790; the C minor, BWV 934, 773 and 788. Each group then includes two prelude-and-fugue combinations from The Well-Tempered Clavier: respectively, BWV 865 and 889, BWV 851 and 875, and BWV 847 and 871. And then Alessandrini gives each of the three assembled sets of pieces a different type of conclusion, thus distinguishing them by their overall musical arcs as well as by their underlying key signatures. The first grouping ends with the Fantasia and Fugue, BWV 904; the second with the Sonata for Harpsichord, BWV 964; and the third with an intriguing combination of the Fantasia, BWV 906 with the Ricercar, BWV 1079. The result of all this picking and choosing, all this assembling of different works into sequences connected by their underlying keys if not exactly thematically, is a very personal CD in which Alessandrini explores Bach in ways that make considerable sense to him even though nothing here was intended to be heard in these specific mixtures. The disc thus becomes one providing insight into the performer as much as into the music he plays – and, it should be noted, plays with great style and finesse. Alessandrini has clearly thought carefully about the relationships among the works that he has assembled in this form for this recital, and his exploration of the similarities and differences among the pieces – in particular, the similar-yet-different ways that Bach handles the six preludes and fugues – is fascinating throughout. It is interesting that he, like Rowland in the Froberger release, includes some pieces whose provenance is uncertain: several of the Froberger works are attributed to him but not assuredly by him, and the first piece Alessandrini offers (BWV 931) is of doubtful authenticity, although it makes an effective lead-in to the A minor sequence. Alessandrini and Rowland both show just how effective it can be to offer personalized, carefully assembled (the current buzzword is “curated”) Baroque pieces in ways that highlight their emotive elements while keeping historically informed performance practice always in the forefront.

     Lisa de la Salle takes personalization to a different level – not higher, not lower, just different – on a (+++) Naïve CD featuring dance music of various types from six different geographical regions. This is a CD that listeners will find very appealing if they gravitate to the music as strongly as the pianist does, if they do so in much the same way – and if they enjoy the rather arbitrary assembly of the program. Unlike the personalized Alessandrini approach to Bach – which listeners can enjoy if they like Bach’s music, even if they are not accustomed to hearing it in this particular setup – the de la Salle disc requires, for full effect, that listeners like these specific pieces by these specific composers, and enjoy them presented in this specific performer-selected order. The requirement to be strongly in sync with both performer and composers limits the likely audience for this disc, even though it is played stylishly and often with genuine panache. The first four of these13 works are American, beginning with Gershwin’s When Do We Dance? De la Salle also uses that as the overall title of the recital; it may be a bit cynical to say the answer is “never” when it comes to at least some elements of this musical potpourri. The three remaining American pieces are Art Tatum’s Tea for Two (not the delightful Shostakovich variations on the tune), William Bolcom’s Graceful Ghost Rag, and Fats Waller’s Vipers Drag. So we have four pieces from different eras, in different styles, arranged a bit jarringly and played with enthusiasm. De la Salle next goes to Argentina for, perhaps inevitably, Piazzolla’s Libertango, which is followed by Ginastera’s very different Danses Argentines No. 2. Then comes a quick trip to Spain for de Falla’s Danse du feu, and then a rather curious voyage to France for Valses nobles et sentimentales by Ravel (who was actually Basque), followed by Saint-Saëns’ Étude en forme de valse. As if there were not enough contrast between the two French-inflected offerings, de la Salle moves on to Hungary and Bartók’s Danses populaires roumaines, then rounds out the program with three works from Russia. They are Stravinsky’s Tango, Scriabin’s Waltz in A-flat, Op. 38, and Rachmaninoff’s two-piano Polka Italienne as transcribed for solo instrument by Vyacheslav Gryaznov. This is quite a selection of material, most of the pieces clearly unrelated to the ones that precede and follow them, the generalized notion of dance being the only unifying factor – and rather less so than in the suites of composers such as Froberger and Bach. The playing is pleasurable throughout, and it certainly seems as if de la Salle had fun assembling this musical mishmash that wanders all over the globe and through many stylistic periods (the works’ years of creation are roughly 1850-1950). Listeners who are swept up in, and by, de la Salle’s enthusiasm will find the disc a great deal of fun. But it will misfire for people who do not quite see and hear dance in general, or these specific dancelike pieces from these specific composers and nations, in exactly the way that de la Salle sees and hears them.

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