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A Mutual Love Affair: Harpsichordist Gilbert Martinez in a dazzling recital of late-Renaissance music.

Review by Jonathan Saville

Harpsichordist Gilbert Martinez offered an exceptionally stimulating program titled "The Birth of the Virtuoso Harpsichord, Circa 1540-1640." The program, presented by the San Diego Harpsichord Society at Saint Peter's Episcopal Church in Del Mar, included lively and informative comments by the artist: historical material (placing the music in its context of time, place, and culture), some musicological commentary, and a bit of colorful gossip (John Bull's reputation for dishonesty and womanizing, Gesualdo's grisly murder of his wife). But of course what counted most was the quality of the performance, which was as skillful and exciting as the most demanding early-music aficionado could have desired.

...Individual harpsichords have distinct personal characters...A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the brilliance of conductor Zoltan Kocsis and his Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra, and about how wonderfully these music-making partners got along with each other. One could say that there was a similar relationship between Martinez and his instrument. This single-manual harpsichord was built (in 1995) on 16th-century Northern Italian models by Curtis Berak of Los Angeles, and it is a humdinger. It has the typical punch, vigor, and presence of Italian harpsichords, along with a thrilling robustness of tone. Its sound, expansive and blooming, filled the beautiful wood-lined sanctuary of the church with wave after wave of rich, resonant discourse. Its articulation is at once incisive and buoyant. Its capacity for sustaining notes is remarkable--a virtue Martinez made good use of, above all at final cadences, which he allowed to float expressively in the air as they slowly died away.

Individual harpsichords have distinct personal characters (much more so than--for example--modern grand pianos), and this one is like a living creature; the moment you hear it, you recognize it. If you listen to David Cates's profound (and sensationally recorded) Froberger recital on Wildboar 9701, you will encounter three tracks with the unmistakable voice of the Berak instrument, and you will have no trouble distinguishing it from the (also quite fine) "Giusti" by John Phillips, which Cates used for the rest of his CD. The Berak is in addition an unusually handsome harpsichord, with a visual sturdiness, seemliness, and noble elegance that suit its musical character perfectly.

Martinez loves this instrument, as he made clear in his comments as well as in the way he played it (Berak himself was present at the recital and must have rejoiced to hear his creation being treated with such a sophisticated understanding of its qualities). And if you know what good musical instruments are like, you will not think me crazy for saying that the instrument loves Martinez back. They are blood brothers. Martinez, too, is vigorous and incisive, with a big, robust musical personality (his playing reminded me uncannily of the great--and much lamented--Scott Ross). He goes for the strong effect, the powerful rhythmic drive, the breath-pause that reinforces the crucial chord and that underlines its significance in the phrase. He achieves subtle emotional expressiveness without ever losing sight of the larger structure of thought. He has a zest for virtuoso display when the music requires it (as it so often does), and--without overtly showing off--both he and the instrument seem to take delight in their ability to play so fast, so accurately, and with such dazzling scope and impetus. (A harpsichordist lacking such delight ought to keep away from the Spanish, Italian, and English works that make up this late Renaissance keyboard repertoire.)

Furthermore, Martinez, like the Berak harpsichord, is terrific at sustaining--not just sustaining notes (which requires only that the player keep his finger on the key) but, more importantly and more demandingly, sustaining the flow of musical ideas, moving the listener on from one point of structure to the next, making sense of the composition as a whole.

That kind of musicianship is particularly needed in the keyboard pieces of the period covered by Martinez' program. Most of them are relatively short. Few of them even hint at the complex and massive architecture of--say--a Beethoven sonata-form movement. It is easy to think of them as little more than shallow entertainments or "transitional" works searching for a form but not yet having found it. When one has learned their specific language, however, as Martinez has done, one begins to appreciate their beauty and their power--especially since the harpsichordist took care to include on this program only masterpieces of their kind.

There are three or four broad genres of keyboard music in this period. The most familiar, and the easiest to take in, is the theme and variations, with the theme usually supplied by a popular song or dance tune. The original audience would have been familiar with the tune, and they derived a feeling of stable, comfortable orderliness from hearing it--the melody and the harmonic progression that went with it--over and over. (Modern listeners will get the point right away, because the tunes themselves tend to be instantly memorable.) The other pleasure of the form comes from the composer's inventiveness in decorating the tune, filling it in, enriching it, intensifying its momentum, heating it up--all without fundamentally altering it (the far-reaching imaginative changes in modern versions of the form, as in Brahms, Rachmaninov, or Kodály, never occur to the Renaissance composers).

Martinez programmed five of these variations sets--Anonymous (from Luys Venegas de Henestrosa's edition) on "Guárdame las vacas," Antonio de Cabezón on "La Dama le demanda," William Byrd on "John come kisse me now," Giles Farnaby on "Woody-cock," and (as an encore) John Bull on "The King's Hunt." They are all very much alike in their structure and their devices, and all are wonderful. When they are played with the sparkling commitment of a Gilbert Martinez, the listener never gets tired of them. The fun (and this is the deep fun of flawlessly composed art) is compounded in the famous Bull piece, which aside from being a set of variations is also an inventive depiction of a hunt, its tone-painting marvelously effective under Martinez' hands. (This sort of thing becomes a favorite procedure in the Renaissance and Baroque, beginning with Clément Janequin's polyphonic vocal evocation of the Battle of Marignan and culminating in works like Vivaldi's Four Seasons.)

A second genre, less immediately assimilable by a modern audience, is based on a more serious kind of vocal polyphony, translated to the keyboard. Cabezón's Tiento del primer tono, on Martinez' program, was of this sort, as was Gesualdo's Canzone francese del principe. The problem here is to follow the counterpoint, to fathom the relevance of the non-vocal keyboard decorations, and to grasp the non-reiterative musical structure in the absence of words. There is also, at times, the issue of which instrument is most suited to such a composition. Early keyboard music can often be played indiscriminately on harpsichord or organ: that is certainly the case with the Cabezón tientos. The advantages of an organ in a polyphonic piece are two: the notes can be sustained as long as one likes (so that one can follow a line no matter how slowly it is played), and the organ's variety of tone colors can help to differentiate the individual voices and clarify the polyphony. The Cabezón tiento, on organ or harpsichord, sounds like two very different pieces--and I am not sure how well the harpsichord version works, even when played as sensitively as Martinez played it.

Gesualdo's Canzone consitutes even more of a problem, and in diverse ways. Its style is undoubtedly that of the polyphonic song, familiar from the composer's madrigals. As an instrumental piece, it might well have been intended for a four-part consort: of viols, for example. The keyboard version, with its elaborate and often disconcerting decorations, may not actually be by Gesualdo (only three instrumental works are attributed to him), although its unrestrained chromaticism, its weird harmonies, its Mannerist excesses, and its often incomprehensible logic are very much the composer's own. The false relations are so pervasive and so unnerving, and there are so many forays into remote keys (which sound awful in a mean-tone temperament), that a listener who did not know the work might have thought that Martinez was making mistakes (he wasn't) or that the harpsichord had gone out of tune (it hadn't). Here as elsewhere, it was Gesualdo's brains that were out of tune.

A third major keyboard form was the toccata, free, improvisatory, fantastic in invention, constantly changing direction and mood, and often involving extreme technical prowess. The only piece on Martinez' program explicitly labeled toccata was by Giovanni Picchi (a fabulous exploitation of the keyboard, which the harpsichordist played with consummate fervor), but Giovanni de Macque's Seconda stravaganze and Bull's Fantasia XII were out of the same drawer, whatever they were called (and however personal their styles were). This form may have originated on the lute, and it may have achieved a stupendous flowering on the organ, but it is gloriously idiomatic on the harpsichord--above all on this harpsichord, and with this harpsichordist.

The last item on Martinez' program was A Sad Pavan, for these distracted times, February 14, 1649. The "distracted times" referred to by this great Renaissance composer (he maintained the Renaissance style even in the middle of the 17th Century) were the English Civil War, the destruction of traditional musical life by Cromwell and his fanatics, and the execution--just two weeks previously--of King Charles I. It is a majestic work, of overwhelming nobility and sadness, and about as far from the ordinary Renaissance dance-piece (another of the widespread genres) as it is possible to go. Martinez played it in a manner worthy of himself and of his instrument, with a dynamic grandeur that never flagged.

But this was no way to end a concert so filled with exuberance. Martinez had come prepared with "The King's Hunt"--and in an instant we were off with the venery-loving James I, his retinue, his hounds, his horns, his galloping horses, and the relentless arrogance of the Stuarts, all in pursuit of some innocent stag, with not a glimmer in the King's imagination that within a few decades the chase would be for prouder game, and his royal son's head would be hacked off on a cold Tuesday afternoon by a judicial act of the Puritan government.

So it goes in the history of rulers. Meanwhile, Tomkins, Bull, and their music-making crew are still with us, alive and well, as Gilbert Martinez magnificently demonstrated.

Gilbert Martinez, harpsichord
Saint Peter's Episcopal Church, Del Mar (San Diego Harpsichord Society)
Spanish, Italian, and English keyboard works, circa 1540-1640

This review first appeared in the February 13th, 2003 edition of the San Diego Reader
(Review reproduced by permission of the author)

‘Extravagant music’ from Ursae Majoris (MusicSources' Ensemble in Residence)

By Stephen Smoliar, SF Classical Music Examiner

The title of this afternoon’s recital by Ursae Majoris, MusicSources' Ensemble in Residence, at Most Holy Redeemer Church in the Castro wasSuonare e Passeggiare: Extravagant Music from 17th Century Italy and Spain. The overall theme of the program concerned how familiar material in the form of both songs and popular chord progressions could be subjected to elaborate (extravagant) embellishment and variation by practicing performers of this particular setting in both time and place. Three songs were offered by soprano Rita Lilly as examples of “source” material for these “extravagances.” One of these was an Italian love song, “Ancor che col partire,” by Cipriano de Rore. The other two were French: one another love song, “Belle, qui tiens ma vie captive dans tes yeux,” by Thoinot Arbeau, and a narrative of the Book of Susanna from the Apocrypha by Orlande de Lassus (referred to as Roland de Lassus in the program). Those familiar with music of this period would probably recognize Arbeau’s song as a pavane tune that surfaced in many different European settings (as well as the more contemporary Capriol suite by Peter Warlock). Those who know their dance history will associate both Arbeau (whose name was actually an anagram for Jehan Tabourot) and the pavane with his dance manual Orchésographie. In this case, however, the variations were provided by the Spanish composer Antonio de Cabezón.

Instrumental support for these “extravagant” developments was provided by Gilbert Martinez (director of MusicSources) on Italian virginal, David Sego on baroque violin, Josh Lee on gamba, and Alex Opsahl on both cornetto and recorder. While most of the performing seemed to be based on notated parts, the elaborations had a highly improvisatory and spontaneous sound. Indeed, Sego’s performance of a violin sonata by Biagio Marini seemed to spill out embellished passage after embellished passage with the same indefatigable approach to improvisation made famous by John Coltrane. The same could be said of an ongoing string of variations on the “passamezzo moderno” chord progression performed by Lee on his gamba.

This was a relatively brief concert, lasting only a little more than an hour. However, within that short span of time those of us on audience side were exposed to a wealth of inventive practices by over a dozen composers of the period. If these composers were a representative sample, then those who made music were clearly passionate about their work in those days; and that passion was well represented by the MusicSources performers (not to mention the enthusiasm in the audience that one would expect to find in a jazz club).