Mark Buller | 20 MAR 2019
Martin Hroch is a Czech harpsichordist whose career encompasses solo and chamber performing as well as teaching at the Janáček Academy of Music and Performing Arts in Brno. His new, self-titled album juxtaposes 17th- and 18th-century harpsichord music from France, Italy and Bohemia.
The album starts with four composers known for their contributions to the canon of French keyboard music: Louis and François Couperin, Jean-Philippe Rameau, and Joseph-Nicolas-Pancrace Royer. Louis Couperin’s Prélude non mesuré is an apt opener, following the French baroque tradition of a quasi-improvisatory introduction. Hroch here strikes a good balance between a strict adherence to the notated rhythms and free improvisation, being ever careful to slow the tempo whenever the texture thickens.
The album liner names the next work, by Rameau, as the Nouvelles suites, but doesn’t specify which one; in any case, it is the A minor suite. Throughout the series of movements, Hroch demonstrates especial skill with ornamentation, always ensuring that it doesn’t get in the way of the overall line nor the momentum. The third movement, a saraband, is particularly regal, and the fourth, subtitled Les trois Mains, allows Hroch to demonstrate his technical prowess in Rameau’s illusion of three hands.
After Rameau comes the better-known of the Couperins: François, nephew of Louis. His short La Misterieuse is afforded a careful handling that allows it a certain delicacy.
For me, the biggest discovery on this disc is Royer’s stunning Le Vertigo, a tour-de-force whose startling runs and moments of Sturm und Drang remind the listener of the keyboard sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti. The work’s driving figures test the limits of the instrument, and Hroch handles it all marvelously. One imagines that, were Beethoven born some 70 years sooner and in France, he might have written something similar.
Two Italian composers are represented: we hear a Ciaconna by Bernardo Storace and a Toccata by Frescobaldi. From a programming standpoint, the inclusion of these is a good choice: Hroch follows the heavy, busy Royer with the lighter work by Storace, based on Spanish dance; and follows this with the Frescobaldi, a composer whose innovations helped pave the way for the French style.
The album ends with a Sonata in D by Bohemian composer Leopold Koželuh, whose work is not as well-known as it ought to be. Koželuh was during his lifetime considered more of less an equal of Mozart, and in fact succeeded him as Kapellmeister at the court of Emperor Franz II. (Side note: Koželuh later arranged folk songs of the British Isles at the request of publisher George Thomson, who would later commission Beethoven for myriad similar arrangements.)
As the liner notes point out, this sonata works equally well on the harpsichord or the piano, composed as it was at a time when the piano was gaining currency. Set in three movements, the work owes much to the Viennese Classical tradition, and serves as a welcome foil to some of the preceding works.
Overall, this album serves up an engaging variety of works from throughout the harpsichord’s heyday, and is a fine introduction to the artistry of Martin Hroch. ■