The cornett was regarded as the King of Instruments at the turn of the seventeenth century, and this not only because of the uncanny proximity of its sound to that of the human voice but also because the intrument can be played extraordinarily fast. Our title for this album thus reflects not only the extravagance of the repertoire in terms of virtuosity, of notes-per-minute, but also its rich variety of expression. Jeremy West, acknowledged master of the instrument described by Mersenne as a 'ray of sunshine piercing the shadows', is joined by three leading exponents of this repertoire is this recital of dazzling virtuosity.
This is the scene: a small dusty town nestling in the Spanish semi-desert, the temperature approaching forty degrees celsius, heat shimmering from ancient town walls and low-lying terracotta rooftops. It is the Festival of Daroca, near Calatayud in the region of Aragón. We are drawn towards a lofty church and congregate in the cool, dark interior. Here, from unseen depths, the sombre sounds, shadowy harmonies and flamboyant ornamentation of a majestic period organ flow and grow into the austere space. This is the highlight of the festival, a recital of old Spanish masterworks by the leading exponent of the style, José Gonzales Uriol. Luxuriating in the rich, darkly evocative tones of the flue pipes, it is enough to snatch the breath away when, suddenly, an altogether different sound soars into the air.
Unlikely as it may seem, this is starting point of our cornett recital. Many of the period organs in Spain – and several are to be found in Aragón alone – had, if not two manuals, then one ‘divided’ keyboard. In other words, the keyboard could be used to accommodate one sound in the treble – perhaps a soloistic reed – while using a different sound, some open flues perhaps, to accompany in the bass. One dramatic solo sound on many Spanish organs was a mixture stop called Corneta. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the sound of this register comes as close as the organ ever can to that of the cornett itself and, interestingly, the split in the keyboard, occurring between middle C and C?sharp, gives a treble range entirely accommodated within that of the cornett.
Cornetts were used extensively in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spain, often – as elsewhere – in combination with voices. There are signs also of an independent repertoire but, unlike Italy, Spain did not have a well-developed publishing industry, so this repertoire is largely lost. However, much surviving organ music has a line, designed for the Corneta register, which is highly appropriate to the cornett itself. Expressively, too, the cornett seems not only to suit but to enhance this music, with its vivid contrasts of light and shade, so reminiscent of Spanish painting of the Golden Age. Hearing the cornett playing these organ pieces, darting in and out of the dark sounds of the organ accompaniment, one is reminded – perhaps more than by the Italian repertoire – of Mersenne’s description in 1636 of the instrument as a ‘ray of sunshine piercing the shadows’.
The earliest surviving piece for divided keyboard (‘de medio registro’) seems to be a Tiento de primero tono attributed to ‘Peraza’, probably Francisco de Peraza, a famous organist of Seville Cathedral. But despite the lack of written examples, the tiento de medio registro (probably often improvised) clearly flourished early in Andalusia, as is shown by the appearance in 1626 of the great collection Facultad orgánica by another Seville organist, Francisco Correa de Arauxo. Correa may have been of Portuguese origin and is said to have become a priest purely on the strength of his organ-playing, though he was dismissed at one point for extended absence without leave. His book consists mainly of tientos – contrapuntal pieces more or less equivalent to the Renaissance fantasia of northern Europe – among which those for divided stops stand out for their imaginative flair and the extravagance of their improvisatory ornamentation. Tracks (1) and (16) give an idea of the style with the lowest three parts providing a cushion of expressive counterpoint, over which the solo line picks up each successive theme before launching into sections of cavorting, circling decoration that at times recalls the cante jondo of the Andalusian gypsies.
The Tiento de quarto tono, played here on harpsichord and with the profuse added ornamentation that Correa recommends in his lengthy preface to the Facultad orgánica, is an example of his writing for undivided keyboard, while the beautifully lyrical Glosas (divisions) on the plainsong of the Immaculate Conception are an unusual example of variations on a chant melody, simply harmonized in ‘faburden’ style.
Improvised decoration of an existing melody is a universal art, yet one that reached a peak of sophistication in the late Renaissance and early Baroque. We have many written-out examples from Italy, yet relatively few – other than in keyboard music – from Spain. Thus the Trattado de glosas (‘Treatise on divisions’) printed in Rome in 1555 by the Spanish viol player Diego Ortiz, is especially valuable, not only to show how dances and other secular pieces were decorated, but also to indicate how players were expected to improvise counter-melodies to plainsong. Our final track (19) gives an idea of this style. The plainsong is heard in the bass of the harp, with Ortiz’s counter-melody on the cornett (the third, inner voice was added by Frances Kelly).
A setting of Lasso’s famous chanson Susanna un jour by Hernando, son of the great court organist António de Cabezón, exemplifies another style of glosa. Rather than a single line being encrusted with decoration (as in the setting of the same piece by the Venetian cornettist Bassano), Cabezón ornaments all five parts in turn with a variety of expressive figuration including triplets and quintuplets. The stretches in the piece make it awkward for solo keyboard (it may have been intended for harp); here we have scored it for cornett and organ.
In the seventeenth century Spain became musically somewhat isolated and Renaissance forms and styles persisted. This is evident in the mid-seventeenth-century Tiento de primero tono by Pablo Bruna, the ‘blind man of Daroca’; this is another piece de medio registro that in construction still has a late-Renaissance character, although its emotional impact is more up-to-date and Baroque. Extraordinarily, Iberian composers continued to write keyboard music almost entirely in four strict parts throughout the century, yet managed to imbue their music with a unique expressiveness. This is nowhere more evident than in the pieces based on falsas (‘dissonances’), such as the Tiento de falsas of Sebastián Aguilera de Heredia, another little-known but outstanding master from the region of Aragón.
While the music of seventeenth-century Spain shows an extraordinary continuity with the preceding age, in Italy the years around 1600 saw an equally extraordinary flowering of new ideas and techniques, in music as in all the arts. In the visual arts this was the age of Mannerism, of exaggerated effects often designed to deceive the eye and touch the beholder in an emphatically emotional way. In music, too, individual expression and direct communication became highly valued. This was the time of the birth of opera, of recitative and of the dramatic cantata, and the new expressiveness of vocal music also inspired instrumentalists to an unprecedented extravagance of dramatic effects and extreme contrasts. Our title for this album thus reflects not only the music’s extravagance in terms of virtuosity, of notes-per-minute (Mersenne was among those who felt that the cornett, in particular, should ‘almost always be played in diminution’), but also its rich variety of expression.
In the late-sixteenth century, instrumental virtuosity had been manifested mostly within the context of polyphony, for example in the divisions on motets, madrigals or chansons, such as those on Susanna un jour by Giovanni Bassano, head of the instrumental ensemble at St Mark’s, Venice. But after 1600 composers invented new forms that were largely independent of the old contrapuntal traditions, and for melody instruments such as the violin and cornett the most important of these was the solo sonata accompanied by basso continuo, the earliest of which (by Giovanni Paolo Cima) were printed in 1610.
Not surprisingly in a new form, different composers took their own approach to the sonata. We have recorded three examples here, all by composers associated with musical establishments of northern Italy in the 1620s. The sonatas of the Brescian violinist Giovanni Battista Fontana were published posthumously in 1641 with a title suggesting that they were suitable for ‘violin, cornett, bassoon, chitarrone, violoncino or other similar instruments’; this variety of possible instrumentations was typical of the age. Fontana’s Sonata sesta is characteristically lyrical; its predominantly sweet harmony is spiced with virtuoso passagework, often in complex syncopated rhythms. Like most solo sonatas, this one has a series of contrasting sections, including one in triple time; elsewhere, however, any changes of tempo are left to the discretion of the performer, leaving plenty of latitude in the interpretation.
The Sonata prima (1624) by the outstanding Cremonese violinist and organist, Tarquinio Merula, is likewise written in one continuous span, the appropriate characterization of each section being the performer’s responsibility. An obvious point of repose is a tremolo section near the end, in which the soloist plays gently reiterated notes, perhaps in imitation of a vocal effect, or of the tremulant stop on an organ. The bass plays an important role in this sonata, often imitating the solo line or playing energetic ‘walking’ figures; here the chitarrone plays a part, often independent of the organ bass, that has been skilfully reconstructed by Bernard Thomas.
Dario Castello, a Venetian wind player active in the 1620s, published two books of sonatas that show a concern that the music should be correctly understood: in contrast with many contemporary publications, the bass lines are often quite fully figured, and, more importantly, Castello uses words such as Alegro and Adasio to show the successive fast and slow sections so vital to sonatas in what Castello terms ‘the modern style’. His second book starts with two outstanding and dramatic solo sonatas for ‘soprano solo’ – usually meaning violin or cornett, though for a cornettist the Sonata seconda makes great demands in terms of stamina. On the other hand, this is real virtuoso music, perhaps some of the earliest in which pushing the technique to its extremes becomes a vital part of the music’s conception.
The spirit of extravagance underlies several of the Italian keyboard works on this disc. The Seconde Stravaganze by the Flemish-Neapolitan organist Giovanni de Macque is a kind of miniature toccata, an exquisite sequence of improvisatory ideas. Its chromaticism may seem especially unsettling with the pure major thirds of the colourful meantone tuning, which the composer almost certainly intended. Similar qualities are exploited in a fine Capriccio cromatico by Merula, and in the wildly extravagant and restless Toccata settima (c1640) by Frescobaldi’s pupil, Michelangelo Rossi. From an earlier age, the Toccata quarta by Claudio Merulo (one of the organists of St Mark’s, Venice, in the late-sixteenth century) is simpler in its harmony, reflecting the toccata’s origins as a piece for introducing plainchant in the various modes. However, it too is strikingly extravagant in the unpredictable shapes and rhythms of its abundant passagework.
The harp and lute solos recorded here were written in Rome and represent another strand in the rich pattern of the Italian instrumental repertoire: that of variations on a theme. Frescobaldi’s five partite on La Frescobalda were published in 1615 in his second book of keyboard pieces, but are well suited to the harp – the repertoire of which was partly interchangeable with that of the organ and harpsichord, especially in southern Italy. Such sets of ‘partitas’ had grown out of semi-improvised music for dancing, but their style had become too sophisticated for that purpose; with Frescobaldi, each brief variation has its own character and tempo. In contrast, the variations on the Ciaccona ground bass, attributed in a Roman manuscript to the German emigrant Kapsberger, remain closer to true dance music, creating a continuous line of idiomatic lute textures over the repeated bass line.
Our cover illustration is a picture of the wonderfully extravagant salt-cellar made by Benvenuto Cellini for Emperor Francis I. Cellini was a talented but reluctant cornettist who resisted intense pressure from his father to forge a career in the ‘cursed art’ of cornett playing. Instead he chose to become a goldsmith.
Hyperion Records Ltd © 1998