Frescobaldi: Keyboard Works. Robert Wolley (harpsichord). EMI Reflexe CDC 7 47735 2 (1987)

Frescobaldi: Keyboard Works. Robert Wolley (harpsichord). EMI Reflexe CDC 7 47735 2 (1987), barcode 077774773522


LP Edition EMI Reflexe (EL) 27 0423 1 (1987) barcode 5099927042311 see entry on The prefix EL is for UK distribution only

Audio-cassette edition EMI (EL) 27 0423 4 (1987) barcode 5099927042342 see entry on the invaluable

Recorded 27-30 November 1985 at the Gemeentemuseum, The Hague, Netherlands


If the music sounds boring, it may not be the fault of the composer
Originally posted on 23 June 2011

I’ve had this CD for some twenty years and never could warm up to it. I found it colorless, very repetitive and boring. I blamed it on the composer. Because he was the author of so many Toccatas, Frescobaldi invites the comparison with Bach, but compared to anything written for the keyboard by Bach, he sounded to me rudimentary (keyboard music in a stage of infancy), rhythmically square, melodically unimaginative and repetitive, to make me wonder why he was considered by so many musicologists (and perhaps musicians) like such an essential composer: was it an harmonic daringness, then, that didn’t really strike my ears? Or just that he planted the keyboard seeds that were developed and brought to fruition a century later by Bach? I returned to it every once in a while, just to check if my appreciation might have evolved. It never did. [2022 PS: And I may not have been the only one with this impression: I’ve found no trace that the CD was ever reissued, unlike many from EMI Reflexe that later found a second life with Virgin Classics].

Only recently, I listened to a Frescobaldi recital played on the accordion by Stefan Hussong on Thorofon. I’m a diehard fan of the accordion, both in contemporary music and when it comes to playing 17th and 18th Century keyboard music (Bach and Scarlatti have been the most eagerly visited by accordionists – I wish they did more Haendel, Couperin and Rameau). In contemporary music the instrument’s timbral richness and eeriness has inspired many composers – Gubaidulina and Kagel among the most prominent – to write great compositions. As for 18th century keyboard music (or 17th as here), the accordion seems to me to an ideal instrument, superior in many respects to the harpsichord and even the piano: it has the sharpness of attack and digital virtuosity of both; but it also has the ability to sustain the sound, like a wind or string instrument, or like the voice, whereas piano and harpsichord, where the vibration starts decaying as soon as it is produced, can only try and simulate a real legato. But the accordion also scores over the organ with its clearer basses (those of organ are often “muddied” and indistinct), making it an instrument ideally suited to polyphony. Finally, I find that the accordion offers a timbral richness that is much superior to the (to my ears) relatively dry and monochromatic harpsichord. In fact, although I had heard contemporary compositions for the instrument before, I think it is Hussong and his recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations that made me an instant believer of the accordion as a substitute for piano or harpsichord in 18th Century music.

Moreover, for the sake of writing my review of Hussong’s Frescobaldi recital, I went to the International Music Score Library Project and, bless them again, yes, all the scores are there (go to Frescobaldi, tab “Collections” and look under “Organ and Keyboard Works (Frescobaldi, Girolamo)”). Following with the scores, I now realize that my weariness with Woolley may have had a lot to do not so much with the composer, and maybe not so much with the instrument, as with the interpreter. It is telling to compare one of the two piece shared by both recitals, the Capriccio sopra la Bassa Fiamenga (Woolley’s track 2, Hussong’s track 5): Hussong is simply more dynamic and lively than the stately Wolley. And it is pretty clear elsewhere as well: Wolley is finicky, distorts the rhythms of Frescobaldi more than seems required, roughens the scales, and doesn’t have that unleashed, galloping improvisatory feel so typical of the opening movements of Bach’s Toccatas.

But it’s also the instrument; compare the other piece shared by both recitals, Canzon Sesta detta La Pesenti (Wolley’s track 5, Hussong’s track 7): there is a kind of detached and vaguely bored elegance with Wolley’s that seems to point to the French court of King Louis the 15th, and an invigorating earthiness with Hussong. The timbre, the tone color is full and plump rather than vegetarian and emaciated, and with its reminiscences of the hurdy-gurdy or the musette, the accordion conveys wonderful whiffs of the village, the folk and the popular. Frescobaldi’s many dance-inspired movements suddenly make sense. It is uplifting.

Hearing Hussong with the scores under the eyes, yes, now I can hear Bach’s huge debt to Frescobaldi. There is nothing rudimentary in Frescobaldi’s four-part writing, it is intimidatingly intricate, and in fact, though a full century away, Bach isn’t very far – but it took me Hussong and the rich colors of the accordion to realize it; Woolley gave me no clue. Now, pianists, would you please invest in Bärenreiters complete edition of Frescobaldi’s Keyboard music please? It’s been out for more than fifty years, you know.

Comments are welcome