Written by Anne E. Johnson

For the majority of classical music fans, Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643) might not rank among the pantheon of composer superstars, but he was one of the most influential composers in European music history. J.S. Bach could have told you that. And the proliferation of recent recordings prove that this Ferrara native still has an active fan club.

The majority of Frescobaldi’s output was for harpsichord or organ, two instruments he played masterfully. He played so well, in fact, that for many years he held the post of organist at St. Peter’s Basilica – yes, that St. Peter’s, the one in Vatican City. His music was still required studying two generations later when Bach hand-copied Frescobaldi’s collection of organ pieces, Fiori musici; the older master’s influence can be heard in the young master’s early works for organ.

Bernard Foccroulle recently released Frescobaldi: Organ Works (Ricercar), which includes nine selections from the Fiori musicali and a dozen or so hymn settings and fantasy-style pieces. Here is Foccroulle playing the Fifth Toccata on a 16th-century organ. You’ll notice a wandering, improvisatory sound, as if the organist were making the music up as he went along. First it’s one musical idea pondered and puzzled out for a while, then another, then another. That, in a nutshell, is Frescobaldi’s great gift to keyboard music:


Foccroulle really understands the composer’s mantra to his students, that one’s organ and harpsichord playing should be “con affetti cantabile” (as if it were sung). Sadly, that toccata is the only track available free in the U.S., so I can’t share others with you. But it’s a recording worth checking out if you’re an organ fan. Foccroulle is a brilliant player with a naturalistic, non-fussy style and a career-long interest in finding interesting instruments to play. You can get access to the tracks via Amazon streaming on their UK site.

It’s useful to compare this to another collection, skillfully played but with quite a different musical approach. Italienische Orgelmeister (Italian organ masters – on IFO Records) includes music by Frescobaldi and others, played by Fiorella Benetti-Brazzale on historical organs from the Vicenza Province. In this recording of a Bergamasca from the Fiori musicali, Benetti-Brazzale’s style is more upright, if you will, and less fluid:


More commonly played than his organ works, Frescobaldi’s output for harpsichord has been getting a lot of attention. Yoann Moulin has a new recording called Frescobaldi: Intavolatura di cimbalo. The album title means “Tabbed for harpsichord,” in other words, pieces notated to be played on that instrument as opposed to organ. Here, Moulin plays Frescobaldi’s Toccata No. 1, with a longing, cantabile tone that I bet the composer would have loved:


To contrast the sound, here’s Moulin playing Frescobaldi at the virginal, an instrument similar to the harpsichord but box-shaped, and with only one string per pitch, not two.


It’s fun for fans, and a clever way to promote an album, the way Moulin has re-recorded pieces from his CD as live videos. But there’s more than marketing to the explosion of Frescobaldi video clips on YouTube in the last few years.

Want to know what happens when the bottom falls out of the early music recording industry at the same time personal recording develops into a viable endeavor? Well, a few months ago my answer would have included dropping tracks on SoundCloud, but now that amateur-audio archive is rumored to be going under because they can’t figure out how to make money. So now, it’s all about YouTube.

The video juggernaut has become a haven for early music practitioners who want their playing preserved despite not having a recording contract. Some of these musicians are deserving of attention, and many love Frescobaldi. And so, a few examples:

Harpsichordist Rosemary Thomas offers Frescobaldi’s correnti and ciaccone, two types of Baroque courtly dances, with verve and stateliness. These being dance pieces, one can argue that the free and wandering sound of a toccata is not appropriate (you’d end up with interpretive dance). There are moments when that extra breath before a downbeat – considered an “authentic” requirement in this style – might be a nanosecond longer for listener (and dancers!) to prepare without feeling rushed, but Thomas’ playing has rhythmic stability and a strong sense of harmonic motion.


Andreas Zappe’s recording of correnti, on the other hand, takes a more fillagreed and freewheeling approach to rhythm. The playing is exciting and kind of wild, more like you’d expect for a toccata; good luck to anybody who tries to execute corrente dance steps to it.


And speaking of toccatas, Sevastianos Motorinos dives fearlessly into rhythmic Wonderland for his interpretation of Toccata No. 11, milking Frescobaldi’s twists and turns for all they’re worth. This is one juicy, scene-chewing performance:


I don’t mean to imply that modern respect for Frescobaldi is only a recent phenomenon. As proof, I leave you with this wonderful 1935 recording of legendary organist Marcel Dupré, playing Frescobaldi’s Toccata pour l’Elévation:

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