Froberger: Libro Quarto, 1656 (CD review)

Toccatas, Ricercars, Capriccios, and Suites. Webb Wiggins, harpsichord and organ. Smithsonian Friends of Music FoM 10-027.28 (2-disc set).

You might consider buying this two-disc set just for the sound. It's that good.

The fact is, when you consider all the people in the world, probably only a small fraction of them buy music of any kind. When you consider all the people who buy music, only a small fraction of them buy classical music. And of all classical buyers, probably only a small fraction of them buy harpsichord music, to say nothing of the music of Johann Jacob Froberger. It's a wonder this set has a chance to sell at all, given the size of its audience. Which is unfortunate, of course, because the music is pleasant and well played, and, as I say, sounds splendid.

Froberger (1616-1667) was a German Baroque composer, organist, and keyboard specialist. He was quite popular in his day, and his work continued to influence musicians well into the eighteenth century. The Libro Quarto of 1656 that we have here is among the last collections of his music that scholars have found. Webb Wiggins, a member of the Smithsonian Chamber Players since 1985 and an associate professor of harpsichord at the Oberlin College Conservatory, presents some of the pieces on harpsichord (one modeled on an instrument produced in Paris, 1667) and some on organ (one constructed on organ-building principles of the early 17th century), depending on the specific need or Wiggins's inclination. In either case, he plays them with the utmost grace and style.

Disc one contains eighteen items. First up are six toccatas, the form being Italian in origin and more seemingly improvisational than the other pieces on the disc. Toccata IV in F Major is especially moving. Wiggins plays most of the pieces on harpsichord but No. V in E Minor on organ, giving it a more-elaborate, ecclesiastical stance.

Next are six ricercars. Wiggins explains that they are "forms which refer to an old style of composition imitative of sixteenth-century sacred polyphony and having long note values, solid rhythms, and solid meters." Thus, he decided to play them on organ.

Six capriccios conclude the first disc. The capriccios are a little more lively than the other works, and Wiggins says they sound good played on either organ or harpsichord. He chooses, however, to play most of them on the organ.

Disc two contains six Froberger suites. Unlike the Italianate music of disc one, the French-inspired suites are dance-based numbers. Therefore, Wiggins chooses to play them entirely on the harpsichord. These pieces are all in four movements, alternating slower with more active segments: Allemande, Gigue, Courante, and Sarabande. The exception is Suite VI in C Major, which begins with a Lamento, a lament for the Emperor's son and heir, who died the year of the composition. Otherwise, Wiggins plays the music in a stately, refined manner, appropriate to the times and eschewing any temptation to rush them along or impose on them any extraneous frills or false excitement.

I suggested earlier you might consider this set for its sound alone. It is indeed one of the best-sounding discs I've heard for a while, the harpsichord music in particular. Recorded in 2002 and released in 2009 on the Smithsonian's Friends of Music label, the engineers miked the harpsichord just far enough away to produce a rich, sweet, mellifluous sound, with a pleasant ambient glow, but not so far away as to obscure any inner detailing of the music. It is without doubt among the finest harpsichord recordings I've heard from any company ever.



  1. So glad you discovered and appreciate Webb Wiggins' Froberger recording. Your critique is dead-on, from the opening observations on the relatively rarified audience to the comments about the enlightened yet straightforward musical interpretations and the technical excellence of the recording. It's a "niche" musical document that merits such recognition. Thanks!

  2. Thank you for the incredibly kind words about the recording. It was a pleasure to record. Webb is an amazing player.

    Dan Shores - Engineer
    Sono Luminus


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Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

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