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Fanfare Magazine: 37:4 (03-04/2014) 
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Harmonia Mundi

Code-barres / Barcode: 3149020214329 (ID285)

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Reviewer: Barry Brenesal


“Why have all eminent men, whether philosophers, statesmen, poets or artists, so obviously been melancholics?” Staier begins in his liner notes, quoting a treatise tentatively attributed to Aristotle. The answer, of course, is that they haven’t been, and aren’t, but reveal a range of moods, even if we make allowances for the four temperaments of Empedocles that Aristotle would definitely have been familiar with. But Staier’s essay is just starting. There’s a lot more to it. And while I appreciate the references in the liner notes to Georges de la Tour’s paintings (a personal favorite), to Burton’s “Anatomy of Melancholy,” to Albrecht Dürer, Saul and David, and an excerpt from Andreas Gryphius hectoring the world on its ubiquitous vanity, there is no discussion of the music on this album. Nor would it be possible, since most of it has nothing to do with the ostensible subject of the program.

We get to hear, of course, about Froberger escaping from pirates with a complete loss of goods, and his Lament on the Death of the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand IV receives yet another airing. But Froberger was, by most accounts, an affable and even optimistic sort. (The dowager Duchess Sybilla of Montbéliard, who became Froberger’s music student in her 30s, wrote that he was “loved for his good humor.”) Little of the other music on this program strikes one as melancholy. Some of it is in a minor key, but during the Baroque period that wasn’t associated exclusively with negative or chaotic emotions, as it tended to be in the Romantic. The Courante that follows Froberger’s Lament in his 30th Suite is a proud, high-stepping one; and if the Sarabande is a weeping thing, the minor-key Gigue that concludes it is witty. Ironically, a program built around melancholy could have been easily managed if it had focused upon English keyboard music and its arrangements at the cusp of the Baroque, because many English composers then portrayed the extremes of manic joy and depression; but that wasn’t attempted here.

What’s more, without pointing it out in the notes or on the cover, at least a couple of these works are excerpts from suites, rather than complete. For instance, we’re given the Toccata and Passacaglia from Fischer’s Uranie, but nowhere are we informed that the entire work comprises nine separate movements. I would have gladly traded much or all of this lengthy discussion of “melancholic disorder” for content on each specific piece. Readers deserve that kind of information, as well as some generally useful background on style brisé, the origins and changes to the Baroque suite over time, how specific dance movements evolved, etc.

The performances vary in quality. In general, Staier ornaments sensibly, and according to contemporary authorities. When he adopts reasonable tempos, as in the Allemande grave movement of Louis Couperin’s Suite in F Major, or in the Prélude and Allemande from Clérambault’s Suite in C Minor, the results are relaxed performances where the music flows naturally, if with a tendency to short the value of cadences. On several occasions, however, he rushes through works. The Passacaglia from Fischer’s Uranie is treated in this fashion, as is Muffat’s Passacaglia, and Fischer’s Toccata, so that the phrasing inevitably loses some of its flexibility, the ostinato fails to make a major effect, and the episodes move swiftly by without consideration for changes of texture, key, and density. Far better is Luc Beauséjour, in his second volume of the complete Musical Parnassus by Fischer (Naxos 8.554446). Not surprisingly, he takes nearly a minute longer to traverse the piece, and the results are both more coherent and stylish.

I also find that the heavy sound Staier gets from his Laurent Soumagnac-built harpsichord on this specific work suits it far less than the lighter, lute-toned Yves Beaupré instrument Beauséjour employs, though in fairness to Staier and Soumagnac, that is probably a matter of miking which makes so much of his harpsichord’s deepest resonance.

In short, the program itself fails conceptually, the music is relatively well-known and sometimes excerpted without passing that fact along, and the performances don’t always maintain the standard set by the best examples on this disc. Take a pass.

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