There are already several highly complimentary reviews of this superb recording, so I'll only add a few words. The great assets of this recital from Andreas Staier are its 'melancholy' concept, the choice of works to demonstrate that theme, and Staier's performance. Those first two elements are, of course, closely related, and illustrate the profundity of baroque keyboard music at its best - even without the participation of JSB.
Every one of the composers represented here was an absolute master of his craft. To take only a handful of examples, JCF Fischer's Passacaglia from the 'Uranie' suite (track 7) is a dazzling, profound and unforgettable piece, all the more so here in Staier's magnificent interpretation. Louis Couperin's Chaconne in F begins with that arresting opening phrase which lends the piece its unique character, and never lets up for a moment after that. The Froberger laments which start and finish the disc are deeply affecting pieces, and after the latter (24) I only regretted the absence of the rest of the Suite mourning the tragic early death of the 21-year old Leopold IV, heir to the Austrian throne, with its glorious closing Sarabande (available on several Froberger-specific CDs).
But never mind, there's more than enough sweet and tragic melancholy here, and it's played in Staier's disciplined, classical style, not wayward or quirky, but deeply expressive. The anonymous French instrument is superb, and so is the recording. Unmissable for harpsichord fans!
We in this country know a thing or two about melancholy. Arguably it's partly brought on by our damp and foggy climate, and since the sixteenth century it's often been referred to as the "English Malady". Here in Andreas Staier's recording we have a Continental Baroque interpretation of melancholy, tied in with the Renaissance idea of vanitas. The cover of the album gives a good idea of what to expect: Giorgione's young man is in a reflective mood; perhaps he's meditating on the human condition, possibly brooding on the very meaning of life itself, and, eventually that which will come to all of us: Death.
Andreas Staier provides a thought-provoking short essay to introduce the concept behind this programme, with some startling observations. For instance, he is of the opinion that the chaconne or passacaglia might be taken as tolling the bell of ineluctable fatality. You might have thought of the chaconne in more simplistic terms, but this interpretation certainly opens your ears.
The pieces hold together, even though drawn from such distant cousins as Froberger and Clérambault; it's not all tombeaux, we also have the occasional stately courante and gigue thrown in too. The choice of temperament is possibly a make-or-break (depending on your ability to cope with octaves which aren't quite), but it certainly heightens the effect of anguish. The pitch is an unusual one, being at A=405, lower than conventional Baroque pitch but lending the instrument a deep sonority and enhancing the darker colours even further.
Don't be put off by the thought that listening to this recording might be in any way enervating: It isn't. It's at once alluring and deceptive in its choice of temperament but above all, it provokes some reflective thoughts in the listener. Personally I can't stop listening to it!
There are two excellent reviews here already by JB and C.Wake to which I have little to add except to endorse them wholeheartedly. Andreas Staier is a terrific harpsichordist, he has chosen some lovely and rather out-of-the-way repertoire and Harmonia Mundi have recorded it beautifully - the depth and resonance of Staier's instrument here is a joy.
My advice is to read the two fine reviews and then to snap this disc up - it's a cracker.
Update, August 28 2013: This disc has just won the Baroque Instrumental category in the 2013 Gramophone Awards - and very well deserved, too!
Andreas Staier always compliments his audience by expecting them to listen intelligently, but sometimes he goes further by witholding an explanation of what he is up to, when we listeners really need one.
In 2007, for example, he brought out a disc of Mozart 4-hands music (with Christine Schornsheim) on an 18th century machine called a "vis-à-vis" - a box with a fortepiano keyboard at one end, and a harpsichord at the other. Nowhere in his notes did he reveal who played what on what, and the most careful listening did not offer complete answers, as it turned out that harpsichord and fortepiano sounded much more like each other than we might have thought. Presumably that was the point Staier wanted to make.
Now he has produced a disc of late 17th century French music – a new interest for him – whose headline is "mélancolie" and the use of music to celebrate it and sooth it. The joker in this pack is the tuning – or "temperament" – Staier uses for his instrument, which is described (in very small print) as "after Lambert Chaumont, 1695". I have no idea what that means, but I do know that to me (who am not especially sensitive to pitch) it sometimes sounds very odd, and that my wife (who has very precise hearing) winced more than once when I played the recording.
The tuning we are all used to now – "equal temperament" – only came in gradually during the 18th century and was a matter of dispute. All this music would have first been played and heard in "unequal" tuning, which leaves some intervals purer and some wilder, which I suppose is the point Staier wants us to appreciate. I presume he chose this particular temperament as particularly appropriate to this repertoire, but he leaves us guessing.
Perhaps you think "mélancolie" sounds dull. It isn't. Staier plays suites that have a melancholy headpiece, but include other, livelier, dances. Overall he provides a varied and satisfactory programme of characteristic music on a wonderfully rich-sounding harpsichord, albeit with (to our ears) moments of eccentric tuning.
I suspect this disc will turn out to be a minor detour in Andreas Staier's extensive and fascinating discography, and I cannot pretend that this is other than specialised repertoire: but who else but Staier can make us listen so hard and enjoy the effort so much?
I love this, and I speak as someone who is normally averse to the Harpsichord and prefers his Bach on a modern piano. The conceit of the recital is a meditation on "melancholy" which was thought at the time to arise from an excess of black bile, one of the "four humours" ( the others being blood, phlegm and yellow bile). It was believed that an abundance of either one or more of these "humours" was the cause of sickness both physical and mental. However you don't have to know your "Physicke" in order to enjoy this marvellous recital in which Staier makes the instrument he plays sing again. The instrument itself (dating from 1749) was literally saved from the fire in 1993 and brought back to life, a labour of love which took some 2500 hours of painstaking work. The result is miraculous, a voice from the past long thought dead, which is wonderfully apt for this disc. Some of pieces played here are sombre, some are pensive or reflective and some are lively or dance-like. But the whole recording is a sophisticated blend of music which muses on the concept of 'vanitas', that all things in this world are temporary, that even a single note on a harpsichord fades into silence. We seem to be in too much of a hurry these days in our culture of instant gratification and rapid change to consider such concepts. This music gives us as good a reason as any to press our collective pause button. The sound is first class although the uneven temperament may cause some to prick up their ears. Early instruments if the acoustic is unsuitable can sound very dry and rasping. That is not the case here and in my opinion this is one of the finest recordings of a harpsichord that I have heard. The top notes are clear and uncluttered while the bass ones have a very pleasing depth and bloom. One to make converts even of the most cynical. This is not, despite the title, a record where misery loves its own company. Rather it confirms that, yes, life is fragile but even with its attendant trials and tribulations living should be enjoyed with gusto.
This collection of harpsichord pieces may not exactly help one to pass la Melancolie. Nevertheless Staier's playing and the wonderful instrument and sound engineering do support quite an elevaed state of listening pleasure.