The Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò at New York University is celebrating its 33rd anniversary as an institution devoted to Italian culture. Its range of free public programming brings together many voices that promote intellectual and cultural exchange between the United States and Italy, situated in the late Baroness Mariuccia Zerilli-Marimò’s historic townhouse in Greenwich Village. On Monday evening Casa Italiana presented Francesco Corti, the internationally acclaimed Italian harpsichordist, conductor, and professor, in a solo recital titled “Frescobaldi and the South,” featuring Italian harpsichord music of the late Renaissance and early Baroque periods.
The spirit of celebration was in the air as guests packed into Casa Italiana to enjoy a reception with ample prosecco and pink-frosted cake. Before the concert began, Stefano Albertini, Casa Italiana’s long-time director, gave a warm introduction and treated the audience to a preview of Casa Italiana’s new web series called “Nuova York: Hidden in Plain Sight.” The series will extend Casa Italiana’s virtual programming, highlighting the ways Italian culture has shaped New York’s unique identity in the past and present. We watched a thoughtful feature on Fiorello H. La Guardia, the 99th mayor of New York City, and how his upstanding moral principles and advocacy led to important reforms and infrastructure developments for the city, such as the building of many bridges and the airport that bears his name.
The evening’s program celebrated another kind of infrastructure development: that of the early modern Italian keyboard school, which bears a distinctly Italian zeal. Best represented by Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643), whose bold and innovative works set a new standard for musical experimentation in Europe, Italian keyboard music from this period is distinguished by its deft integration of polyphonic textures, rhythmic vivacity, and expressive use of dissonance. The theme, “Frescobaldi and the South,” also the name of Corti’s album released on the Arcana label earlier this year, draws a frequently underexplored link between Frescobaldi’s northern Italian musical heritage (mainly Venetian) and influential composers from southern Italy, namely those in the circle of the composer and prince Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613). These included Neapolitan composers Giovanni de Macque (c. 1550-1614), Rocco Rodio (c. 1530-c. 1620), and Scipione Stella (1558-1622), among others. These composers are rarely heard compared to Frescobaldi, and it was refreshing to hear these pieces—some light and dance-like, others more serious and searching—thoughtfully juxtaposed.
This music invites daring spontaneity. Indeed, genres like the toccata (three of which peppered the program) are vehicles to display not only the performer’s technical ability but also their inventiveness. Corti’s playing was improvisatory and imaginative, utilizing the full scope and registration of the harpsichord, which helped to fill the acoustically dry space. One of the challenges of this music is balancing various levels of constantly shifting energy. Moments of fiery virtuosity, with rapid runs and acrobatic leaps, are contrasted with moments of repose, where the performer explores the harpsichord’s more pensive sonic properties. Corti deftly highlighted this music’s various dimensions by conjuring rich arpeggios, accentuating shocking shifts in harmony, and delicately shading the multi-layered textures in each genre.
The audience let out a great chuckle at the end of Frescobaldi’s programmatic and frenetic “Capriccio sopra la Battaglia,” where Corti smashed his arms briefly into the harpsichord at the end of the piece to signify the end of the battle. Another highlight was Corti’s exciting performance of Bernardo Storace’s “Ciaccona,” structured as a series of intensifying variations based on a repeating bass line, and among the most virtuosic keyboard pieces of the period. Corti’s attention to fine, expressive details throughout the program showed a deep and original understanding of the music and its attendant performance practices.
These Italian composers were enormously influential as instrumental music developed its own profile independently of vocal music during the Baroque period. For any fans of J.S. Bach’s (1685-1750) music, one can trace the influence of Frescobaldi on Bach through Frescobaldi’s student Johann Jakob Froberger (1616-1667), whose music Bach transcribed as part of his musical education. The toccata was one of many Italian genres that Bach drew upon for inspiration in his own musical development.
There will be another chance this week to hear Corti’s expert musicianship at Alice Tully Hall as harpsichordist and conductor, leading Juilliard’s period-instrument ensemble Juilliard415, on Friday, November 17th at 7:30pm.