Review: Johann Jakob Froberger – Toccatas and Partitas for Harpsichord

Sergio Vartolo, hpschd. / 2005 / 2 CD / Naxos

Listen: Disc 1 / Disc 2

Froberger, aside from having an awesome name, was also a massively important figure in the early-mid Baroque period. He is one of the era’s most prominent composers of “programme” music, which is music intended to depict a story in some way, but differentiated from opera, ballet, song etc. in that the depiction is to be achieved entirely through instrumental means. It was hugely popular in the Romantic period, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 in F major being one of the most frequently cited examples, and it remains popular today──stories, images, characters and other things alleged to exist within rhythmic configurations of abstract sound ─ of course, try figuring out what the story is from listening to the music alone and you’ll be at a loss. I consider programme music a fairly useless term, it is a music distinguished from other musics entirely by non-musical things, much like the short-lived crabcore fad, which was some kind of metalcore off-shoot differentiated from metalcore only by the fact that mobile band members such as guitarists would crab-walk while playing their instruments. It’s clown shoes shit, but in light of the fact that Froberg’ errs on the side of writing incredible music, I’ll give him a free pass on that one.

Froberger’s keyboard suites, or partitas as Baroque suites are often called for reasons which elude me, which we are listening to here, are among his most important contributions to music. He developed and standardised the most recognisable form of the suite, commonly known as the Classical suite, which consists of some combination of the dances allemande, courante, sarabande, and gigue, and typically in that order, this last owing to the publisher’s whim more so than that of the composer, and this established order may have ─ don’t quote me on this, influenced also the development of the ordering of movements in the Classical era genres of symphony and string quartet, both of which also had four movements. This is also a bit of a stretch considering that suites after Froberger’s time also added things like introductory movements, menuets and sometimes even finales, and the symphony, as observed in the works of C.P.E. Bach, typically had three movements until Haydn developed the four movement form.

Vartolo’s account of these partitas and toccatas is a two disc set on ─ what else? ─ Naxos. Vartolo seems to be their go to guy for the harpsichord repertoire, which is just great for me because Vartolo is probably my favourite harpsichordist after Scott Ross. His playing is precise but also sensitive, and his readings of Froberger capture a sense of spaciousness which befits the composer’s highly idiosyncratic keyboard writing. In Froberger dissonances seem to linger for a small eternity, some never resolved, or done so in bizarre ways; a harsh gesture in the upper registers answered by a single note in the bass consonant only according to the memory of what came before it, that’s Froberger. It is a strange and desolate kind of music, odd things lurk in dark corners of the environment, their being there engendering a two-step pairing of the cocking of the eyebrow and then the widening of the eyes as, revelatory but held back from anything approaching gratuitousness, crystalline facets are gradually revealed not so much by an exegesis in the music itself but by implication and hindsight. Such flowery bullshit is necessary when talking about music, because it’s the only way to talk about it while avoiding the traps of a) boring the reader with technical jargon, and b) admitting you don’t know what you’re talking about. Wait, oh… damn it.

The sound is rich and sumptuous, the playing totally free of pomposity and bombast, and helped in conveying the dark and off-kilter character of the music by Vartolo’s adherence to what is at least an attempt to recreate the kind of tuning that would have been employed in Froberger’s time ─ and I ain’t talkin’ DADGAD here, oh no, this is hardcore shit. Vartolo uses two different harpsichords, one is tuned in meantone temperament at A=415 Hz, the other in Werckmeister III temperament at A=390 Hz, these being alterations of the intervallic width of the pure fifths of just intonation. The fact of some intervals being wider than others with these temperaments led to the predominance of specific keys, as the innate level of dissonance could be reduced by writing in, say C instead of G; this is why Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier was such a big deal, as well temperament, while having irregular intervallic widths, was calculated to avoid impure intervals and make each key much more uniform with each other in terms of their inherent dissonance. The most common temperament in present day western music is 12-tone equal temperament (12-TET or 12-EDO ─ as in “Equal Division of the Octave”), and most of the music you’ve heard in your life will be tuned, with some margin of error, in accordance with it, at the modern “concert pitch” of A=440 Hz. Not so in the good old days, different regions of Europe would have their own tuning systems invented by local musicologists and composers, and a single piece of music could vary wildly in sound from one performance to the next if a composer was also a travelling musician as Froberger was. Vartolo’s tunings, whether or not they approximate the real tunings Froberger used or was forced to use, do reflect the variegated nature of musical standards in the pre-Classical eras, and offer a tantalising glimpse of the true sound of the early Baroque.

This is a really awesome selection of Baroque keyboard music composed by one of its foremost masters, played beautifully by one of the finest harpsichordists and experts on early music of our time. The sound quality is great, with a rich natural reverb sympathetic to the colourful timbres of the instruments that really elevates the whole thing to the next level, making for a quite lovely waste of 100 minutes. Whether you like or dislike, or even think you like or dislike, the sound of a harpsichord, or of Baroque music in general, Froberger deserves your time and attention. Not only is this just plain good, there’s nothing else out there quite like it.

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