Il Cembalo di Partenope
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This new album of haprsichordist Catalina Vicens is a unique, multifaceted musical and poetic project. First, it features music from Naples, Italy from around 1525, the year when the instrument that she plays was actually built in Naples. Secondly, Ms. Vicens conceived an imaginary tale of the life and story of that very instrument, partly based on historical facts, partly on poetic inspiration emerging from her encounter with this priceless treasure of a historical harpsichord. The album comes with a free audiobook download of that same story, narrated by Ms. Vicens herself and accompanied with original music from the disc.
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There are a number of distinctive features to mention about this recording: firstly, the beautiful sound of the instrument itself, which really is outstanding – and, what is more, ideally captured by the recording engineers. The second is Vicens' masterly, stylish and sensitive playing, showing exceptional insight and giving a remarkable impression of naturalness resulting in ideal tempi and embellishments. The third is the choice of music itself - a mixture of dances, song-based pieces and freely composed fantasia- and ricercare-style works. Thus there is plenty of variety and yet no incongruity, with all the works seeming to share a wistful, melancholy beauty; for, while the dance- and song-based pieces show remarkable depth, some of the contrapuntal works correspondingly acquire a dance-like quality, all of this resulting in a flowing sequence which conveys a remarkable unity of mood and purpose.
Among my great favourites in this programme are Valente's opening Fantasia, a magnificent, deeply reflective piece demonstrating the art of the keyboard – as well as the beautiful instrument and performance – at their very best; Valente's Gagliarda napolitana (3), one of those works of notable weight and depth for what you'd expect to be a simple dance movement. Other favourites of mine include Dalza's Pavana alla ferrarese (9), Fagliano's dance-like Ricerchare (10), Cavazzoni's Recercada (15), Veggio's Villano recercada (17) and the same composer's 'Tant que vivray', transcribed from Sermisy's wonderful chanson melody (20). Valente returns to bring the programme to a close with a superb Recercata (24).
The tastefully designed booklet, written entirely in English, also brings us another related treat in the form of a dream-like fictional tale by Catalina Vicens, intermingling history, mythology and personal experience and aiming to set a mood and provide a context – including a reason for the disc's title 'Il Cembalo di Partenope'. The story's intended connection to the music may not work for every reader/listener, but it does help to throw light on the player's deep involvement with her instrument and her music, and adds an intriguing extra touch to a keyboard recital which is already highly original in several respects.
Recorded sound is very vivid, including a gentle background rumble which was no doubt due to the modest size of the instrument and the consequent need to turn up the recording volume – to the extent that listeners may well find they need to turn their own volume down a bit to compensate. Altogether this is a carefully considered and exceptionally beautiful recital which should delight keyboard enthusiasts. In fact I wouldn't be at all surprised if it wins a few awards from the real critics.