Picchi: Complete Harpsichord Music and Other Venetian Gems / Stella

Picchi: Complete Harpsichord Music and Other Venetian Gems / Stella

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Giovanni Picchi (1572-1643) flourished in Venice, notably as the organist at the Scuola di San Rocco. He became renowned as a composer of both secular and sacred music, attested by his presence in the Nobiltà di dame by Fabrizio Caroso, the most important collection of dance music of the time. A collection of his canzone was published in 1625 and his fame spread to England, where a Toccata for harpsichord was transcribed within the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book (of which Brilliant has recently released the first-ever complete recording, 95915). Other important sources for his keyboard music include collections published in Venice in 1621 and an undated collection of intablatures (transcriptions and elaborations of music by other composers) which is now held in Turin. Together they amount to some of the most brilliant and appealing music for the harpsichord from 17th-century Italy. Picchi’s harmonic language was especially daring, and his flair as a performer is reflected in the style of his writing, which exploits the full range of the instrument. In complement to Picchi’s work, Simone Stella has chosen other jewels from Venetian composers of the time: toccatas, ricercare and canzone by Annibale Padovano, Claudio Merulo, Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli and Vincenzo Bellavere. Bellavere is another neglected figure nowadays, but the Toccata recorded here is a gloriously ornate example of the genre, alternating intricate counterpoint with filigree decoration.


Keyboard music was an important genre in Italy in the 16th and 17th centuries. Organists played a major role in music life, and the posts of organist in the main cathedrals and churches were rated highly. Only the top of the bill was good enough to act as such, for instance at St Mark's in Venice. Given that there were so many cathedrals and churches in Italy, it is not suprising that we only know the most famous masters of the time. The two Gabrielis and Claudio Merulo are among the best-known, who worked as organists at St Mark's. The disc under review includes music by some lesser-known organists: Annibale Padovano was organist alongside Merulo, and Vincenzo Bellavere occupied that post only for nine months, being succeeded by Giovanni Gabrieli after his death. Like the Gabrielis and Merulo they figure on this disc probably to fill the empty space, but they also could put the oeuvre of Giovanni Picchi into its historical context.

Picchi is a composer who is pretty well-known by name, if only because one of his works, a Toccata, is included in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, one of the main collections of keyboard music from the decades around 1600. His music is far less known and not that often performed. If it is, it is mostly as part of recitals or anthologies. To the best of my knowledge, there was no recording of his complete keyboard works on disc. It was Ton Koopman, who early in his career recorded his keyboard music. That was in the vinyl era, and as far as I know, it has never been released on CD, which is a big shame. Therefore, the recording by Simone Stella fills a gap in the discography.

Picchi's career seems to be a story of hit and (mostly) miss. He was born into a family which included several musicians, and was likely a pupil of Giovanni Croce, who from 1603 until his death in 1609 was maestro di cappella at St Mark's in Venice. From that one may conclude that he received an excellent musical education. He also knew many people from the higher echelons of society, which should have been helpful in assuring a musical position of some importance. In the mid-1590s he became organist at the Basilica dei Frari; he held this position until his death. However, attempts to add posts in other churches failed. In 1606 he applied for the post of organist at the Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista, but it was given to a pupil of Giovanni Gabrieli. In 1612 he attempted to succeed the latter as organist of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, but lost to Giovanni Battista Grillo. In 1623, Grillo died, and Picchi was given his job. Two further applications failed: in 1623 he tried to be appointed first organist, and in 1624 to become second organist at St Mark's. One may wonder why he suffered so many setbacks. There was undoubtedly a stiff competition from many keyboard players who were just as good as Picchi. His failures may also have been due to his character; who knows? It can't be his music, if what has been left is anything to go by.

In 1619 Picchi published his Intavolatura di balli d'arpicordo, a collection of keyboard music entirely based on then common dances. This kind of music seems to have been his speciality, as in 1600 his likeness appeared at the frontispiece of an important dance treatise. The keyboard dances were reprinted in 1621, but three further books of dances which Picchi promised to publish "when I see that this first book proves pleasing to the public", have never appeared (assuming that they have not been lost). It is rather speculative to conclude from this, as Howard Ferguson does in New Grove, that his music was not that well received. It seems that Picchi was well respected and appreciated by his contemporaries.

The printed edition just mentioned includes only nine pieces. In addition, Stella plays the Toccata from the Fitzwilliam Book and five pieces that have been preserved as part of a manuscript which is today in the National Library of Turin. Whereas many keyboard works of the time can be played on either the organ or a strung keyboard instrument (harpsichord or spinet), Picchi mostly composed dances, which require a harpsichord. Only the pass'e mezzi may be suitable to be played on the organ, but I can't remember ever having heard them on such an instrument. All these pieces are technically brilliant works, with lots of passagework. There are also harmonic peculiarities as well as passages with unusual rhythmic patterns.

The other composers included here have become mainly known as organists, as I already mentioned. Here they are presented with harpsichord pieces, although every piece can also be played on the organ. As Claudio Merulo and the Gabrielis are well-known, it may be useful to give here some information about the two unknown quantities.

Annibale Padovano was from Padua, and seems to have a made a name for himself quite quickly, as in 1552 he was appointed organist at St Mark's without any competition. In 1565 he moved to Graz, where he became organist at the court of Archduke Charles II of Austria; one year later he was promoted to 'chief musician' and a few years later as director of music. His keyboard music consists of two printed editions of ricercares and toccatas. Where Vincenzo Bellavere was born, is not known, but his first post was that of organist of a church in Padua. In 1568 he was appointed organist of the Scuola Grande di S Rocco in Venice. In 1584 he returned to Padua, but in 1586 he was appointed organist at St Mark's in Venice, as successor to Andrea Gabrieli. Nine months later he died, at the age of 46.

Whereas Picchi focused on dance forms, the other composers are represented here with more common genres, such as toccata, ricercare and canzon. Pieces based on vocal models were very popular at the time, and Andrea Gabrieli's Canzon francese detta Frais et Galliard is an example of this; the chanson is from the pen of Jacobus Clemens non Papa. Giovanni Gabrieli's Canzon I detta La Spiritata was conceived as a piece for an instrumental ensemble. The well-known theorist and organist Girolamo Diruta made a transcription for keyboard.

I am still hoping that one day Koopman's recording may become available on CD. However, Simone Stella is a worthy alternative. His interpretation is not fundamentally different from Koopman's, as far as I can remember the latter. The pecularities of Picchi's music come off to the full here, with the help of the splendid harpsichord Stella plays: a copy of an instrument by Carlo Grimaldi. His articulation is excellent, as is his sense of rhythm, which is essential in these dances. The remaining items are played just as well.

This recording of Giovanni Picchi's oeuvre is as good as one may wish.

--MusicWeb International (Johan van Veen)

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: BRI95998

  • UPC: 5028421959986

  • Label: Brilliant Classics

  • Composer: Andrea Gabrieli, Annibale Padovano, Claudio Merulo, Giovanni Gabrieli, Giovanni Picchi, Vincenzo Bellavere

  • Performer: Simone Stella