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Calling the Muse: Old & New Pieces for Theorbo
Bruno Helstroffer (theorbo)
Rosemary Standley (vocalist)
Jean-Luc Debattice (reader)
Michel Godard (serpent),
Emek Evçi (double bass).
rec. 2017, Abbaye de Noirlac, France
ALPHA 391 [53:11]

A few days ago, I listened to this CD several times and made notes towards a review. However, before starting to write the review itself, I happened to pick up the November issue of the BBC Music Magazine. I was somewhat surprised, as I browsed through the magazine in my favourite Coffee House, to come across two discussions of Calling the Muse. One came in the magazine’s regular feature ‘Music to my ears: what the classical world has been listening to this month’ and is by the Radio 3 presenter Georgia Mann. She describes the CD as a “deeply emotional album” and is excited by the sound of Bruno Helfstroffer and his theorbo – “The theorbo is incredible: it has great depth, just like the mezzo voice … it’s such a flexible instrument, and this programme is so varied: he plays arrangements of Bach [only one actually], his own compositions and even Satie’s Gnossienne No. 1” (p.25). Later in the issue (p.100), there’s a review by Nicholas Anderson. He is, to put it mildly, less enthusiastic than Georgia Mann. His opening sentence labels the CD “a whimsical curiosity”. He tells the reader that part of him “inclines towards regarding [it] as self-indulgent nonsense”. (He seems most upset by the mixture of styles and composers represented. His final observation is that “the recorded sound … is too reverberant for the theorbo”. The reader is urged, at the end of the review to “Proceed with caution!”.

I have, I hope, been ‘careful’, though not over cautious, in my responses to Calling the Muse, but I definitely find myself sharing Georgia Mann’s enthusiasm more than Mr. Anderson’s slightly puzzled dismissiveness. If there is any self-indulgence, it is I think, primarily in the booklet notes provided by Bruno Helfstroffer which are too often about himself rather than the music he is playing.

In the course of his notes, Helfstroffer tells us that the first CD he ever bought (at the age of fourteen) was We Can’t Dance by Genesis, even though he had no CD player on which to listen to it! He went on to spend some years “playing blues and rock music and early music” [my italics, G.P.]. Apart from the last track on the album (‘Vos luths’), which I will mention later, his background in blues and rock doesn’t seem terribly relevant here. The danger is that some will view it negatively, as constituting some kind of ‘damaging’ influence on his ability to play a very different kind of music. But he certainly isn’t lacking in the relevant kind(s) of musicianship; he plays pieces by Piccinini, Castaldi and Kapsberger with a good understanding of the appropriate idiom, and his arrangements of Bach and Satie (especially) make clear his sensitivity and musical intelligence.

On the whole Helfstroffer is less impressive as a composer than as an interpreter of music written by others – his own compositions, while by no means worthless, are relatively weak. It is an interpreter that he shines. His phrasing in the early baroque pieces is beautifully judged and though he does allow himself moments in which he (and we) can luxuriate in the sound of his instrument (made in 2009 by the Swiss luthier Maurice Ottiger), such moments never damage the larger shape of the piece being played. The first two works on the disc, by Piccinnini, both make use of that old favourite ‘La Monica’ – a tune well-known across Europe from the 16th to the 18th century, and Helfstroffer is equally assured in the relatively sober allemande and the livelier corrente.

Helfstroffer seems to have a particular affinity with the music of Kapsberger – who seems to me to be somewhat underrated nowadays. The son of a German nobleman, Kapsberger was born in Venice and spent the whole of his life in Italy – indeed contemporaries often referred to him by Italianised versions of his forenames, so that he became ‘Giovanni Girolamo’. In 1604 he published, in Venice, his Primo Libro d’intavolatura de Chitarrone. He moved to Rome soon after this. There he established himself as a virtuoso instrumentalist and found influential friends and powerful, wealthy patrons. He acquired the nickname ‘Il Tedesco della Tiorba’ (The German of the Theorbo). One of the best modern interpreters of Kapsberger, Paul O’Dette (is it anything more than a coincidence that he, like Helstroffer started out as a rock guitarist?) characterizes his music as displaying a “near obsession with the unusual, [a] systematic avoidance of clichés, [and a] fondness for inventing new devices”. Helstroffer relishes all this – not least in his enjoyable reading of Kapsberger’s ‘Bergamasca’ – here, for once, Helstroffer’s note is actually about the music, rather than about himself. It reads thus in full: “This dance that originally came from Bergamo, northern Italy, makes the theorbo sound festive and lighthearted: the appropriate partner for a joyfully noisy carnival procession, where masks and rustic bergamasks interweave in a madcap riot of clowns and buffoons”. Helstroffer’s performance, without going over the top, captures Kapsberger’s typical irreverence. (And, incidentally, to my ears the recorded sound here complements music, instrument and performance perfectly).

The quirky arrangement (‘A Tea with Bach’) of the minuet from Bach’s first Cello suite won’t please all – though it is far from being the worst that has been done to Bach in recent years and does have a certain almost impudent charm. The arrangement of Satie’s ‘Gnossienne No. 1’ seems to me almost wholly successful, though there are perhaps moments when Helstroffer rushes things slightly. Yet the theorbo’s sonority suits the music very well and for the most part this arrangement has a cool beauty in accord with that of the original.

The only track on the album to which I might have applied the epithet “self-indulgent” is ‘Dans la chambre de mon théorbe’ in which, over a performance of a passacaglia by Kapsberger, the French actor and poet Jean-Luc Debattice reads – somewhat melodramatically – a poem of his written in 2011 and dedicated to Helstroffer. Reducing Kapsberger to background music is something which I find offensive in and of itself; when this is done to foreground an excessively rhapsodic piece of verse, I feel even less happy about the idea (and its realization).

From my earlier strictures on Bruno Helstroffer’s own compositions I would exempt two tracks. ‘Thanks Toumani’ is dedicated to the great Malian player of the kora, Toumani Diabaté (it is not irrelevant that Diabaté has often worked across musical ‘borders’ – as with the late Roswell Rudd, a fine and adventurous jazz trombonist on the album Malicool, and with the flamenco ensemble Ketama). Helstroffer draws some very kora-like sounds from his theorbo – for what it’s worth I suspect that Kapsberger would have liked this piece!). At the close of the album, Kapsberger’s ‘Toccata Undecisima’ serves as a kind of prelude to an improvisation by Helstroffer, ‘Vos Luths’, in which Helstroffer makes us of a blues guitar technique known as ‘slide guitar’ or ‘bottleneck’ guitar style. In ‘bottleneck’ blues an object worn on one finger (usually of the left hand) is placed on the strings and slid up and down to produce deep vibrato and glissandi effects. It was widely used by the early blues players of the Mississippi Delta (see, for example, Ted Gioia, Delta Blues, 2008) and much imitated by later blues and rock guitarists. This must, I feel sure, be the first recorded example of ‘bottleneck theorbo’! The result is intriguing and evocative, but perhaps of limited usefulness. I suspect that even the adventurous Kapsberger, inventor of such techniques as “‘strascini’ (long slurred passages) [and] ‘campanellas’ (cross-string harp-like effects” (O’Dette) might have baulked at the thought of ‘slide theorbo’.

The “self-indulgence” of which Nicholas Anderson complains seems to me to be largely confined to the presentation of the CD and not to the actual music-making heard thereon. This is Helstroffer’s first CD made under his own name; I hope there will be more. If so, I hope that the talented Mr. Helstroffer will be encouraged, for the time being at least, to concentrate on the Italian repertoire of the first half of the Seventeenth Century – and perhaps on the music of Kapsberger in particular. Pace Nicholas Anderson, those who are not too rigidly fixed in their ideas and have reasonably open minds and ears should approach this CD, not with caution, but with a sense of pleasant expectation.

Glyn Pursglove

Alessandro PICCININI (1566-c.1638)
1.Partite variate sopra quest’aria francese detta l’alemana [5:07]
2. Corrente VI sopra l’alemana [1:51]
3. Comme un beffroi [5:27]
Johannes Hieronymus KAPSBERGER (c.1580-1641)
4. Toccata nona [2:21]
5. Perivoli Blue [4:24]
6. Thanks Toumani [7:53]
Bellerofonte CASTALDI (c.1580/81-1649)
7. Arpeggiata a mio modo [2:48]
Erik SATIE (1866-1925), arr. Bruno HELFSTROFFER
8. Gnossienne No. 1 [3:41]
Johannes Hieronymus KAPSBERGER (1580-1641)
9. Bergamasca [4:28]
10. Dans la chambre de mon théorbe [2:52]
11. Clan [4:22]
J.S. BACH (1685-1750), arr. Bruno HELFSTROFFER
12. A Tea with Bach [4:40]
Johannes Hieronymus KAPSBERGER (1580-1641)
13. Toccata undicessima [2:06]
14. Vos luths [3:51]



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