The organ masses of Girolamo Frescobaldi (Taruskin might jokingly refer to him as “the guy with the freshly shaved head”) were meant to both accompany and replace items in the the mass ordinary. The music, therefore, consists of a hodge-podge of different functional items, from chant settings to canzonas to ricercars. His three most famous organ masses, collected for Fiori Musicali (“Musical flowers”), all end with “elevation toccatas,” which are both the musical and theological heart of the ritual. This is music to accompany the Eucharist, the most mystical moment of mass, and Frescobaldi captures the rapturous act through music of the utmost sublimity and grace. There is an elastic quality to time in this elevation toccata: the genre, after all, had its roots in improvisation, and the performer in much of Frescobaldi’s music is encouraged to interpret freely. Listen for all of the sumptuous suspensions, delicious chromaticism, and that raw, uncanny (some would say “out of tune”) quality of the organ temperament. (This would sound very different, and perhaps much less disorienting, on a modern instrument.) I can think of nothing so expressive of spiritual ecstasy as these elevation toccatas until we get to Olivier Messiaen.
This below recording of Frescobaldi’s Toccata nona is about as good as it gets, folks. Pierre Hantai (harpsichord) absolutely nails it. His performance is flexible, free, and improvisatory, some might even say “wild.” There’s been an unfortunate trend in recorded performances of this repertory (and “early music” in general) to make it sound smooth and “pretty”; perhaps contemporary audiences would like to transport themselves to an imaginary age of musical calm and purity. (There are a number of books on early music performance practice, including one by RT, on the must-reads list.) Hantai eschews this approach in favor of getting at the fiery essence of the music. There is nothing museum-y about this recording. Furthermore, working off of evidence from musicologists, the harpsichord used here was tuned down a 4th from A=440. This dark, wolfy quality puts us into a different sonic realm than we might be used to with harpsichord music. (And one that is, by most accounts, more historically accurate, for whatever that’s worth.) This is slobber material, and I’d highly recommend the full recording (although it’s showing up for a dreadfully high price on amazon. Most U libraries will have this one.).