Il Cembalo di Partenope

Il Cembalo di Partenope: ‘A Renaissance harpsichord tale’
Catalina Vicens
Carpe Diem Records CD-16312. 66’35

The world’s oldest playable harpsichord (Naples, 1525)

Vicens CD.JPGHarpsichordist Catalina Vicens’ new CD ticks a lot of boxes. Firstly, it is recorded on the world’s oldest playable harpsichord, built in Naples c1525, and now housed in the National Music Museum of Vermillion, South Dakota, USA, where it has been recently restored. Secondly, her programme of 24 pieces represents the wide range of musical styles of the period of the instrument, played with a compelling sense of musical and period style. And, thirdly, it comes with the bonus of an imaginative story (downloadable as an audiobook) by Catalina Vicens, based on the instrument and “inspired by music, history and legends”.

The harpsichord is described as  “one of the finest, earliest, best-preserved and most significant historical keyboard instruments in existence”. As with many Neapolitan harpsichords, it is unsigned. Details of its construction suggest Naples as its region of construction. It is almost identical to another instrument, now in Milan, which has been dated to the period around 1525 – hence the assumed date of this instrument. Naples had been an important centre for harpsichord manufacture since at least the 1470s, with records of their export to Rome, Florence and the Medici court. The woodcut title page of Antico’s Frottole intabulate da sonare organi, published in Rome in 1517 shows a very similar harpsichord (pictured). It’s restoration included removing an additional 8′ stop added in the 17th century, and installing new jacks and brass strings. The compass is C/E-c3 and the pitch is around A=440. It has an attractively bright and clear tone.

The recording includes several pieces from Antico’s Frottole, but Catalina Vicens opens (and closes) with music from Antonio Valente’s 1576 Intavolatura de cimbalo, the earliest known collection of music printed in Naples, before jumping back around 50 years for music from the period of the harpsichord and popular in Naples, then under Spanish control. The music is wide-ranging, encompassing the learned counterpoint of extended Recercares, songs, and lively Renaissance dances, such as Calata ala spagnola from Joan Ambrosio Dalza’s 1508 Intabulature de lauto. The latter is an example of music intended originally for lute, but this was frequently also playable on keyboard instruments. Some of Tromboncino’s pieces includes fascinating little harmonic twists and turns.

Catalina’s Vicens’ playing is sensitive to the mood and style of each piece and features an attractive fluidity of pulse, bringing the music to life. If I was forced to make a criticism, I would suggest that her style of chord-spreading can become a little predictable at times. One attractive feature of the recording is that there is a sensible amount of silence between the tracks – too often this is too short, with pieces running into each other. Most of the pages in the booklet are devoted to “Catalina’s Fantasy”, an imaginative flight of fancy incorporating aspects of her own life, her experience with the historic harpsichord, and thoughts around her research. If you agree to sign up to Carpe Diem Records’ newsletter, you can also download it as an audiobook, accompanied by music from the CD.


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