Christopher Stembridge

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Wondrous Machine Wondrous Machine
English keyboard music

Organ of the Ospedaletto in Venice (1751)

1 CD, Quilisma, London (2000), QUIL302

Purchase from Quilisma

Wondrous Machine


The Conservatorio dell’Ospedaletto has had a series of organs since its foundation in 1528. The present instrument was built in 1751 by the leading Venetian organ-maker of his day, Pietro Nacchini (his Opus 160). Its fine baroque case which predates it (1698) stands in the choir gallery situated above the main altar. The instrument has remained unaltered and was restored in 1983 by Franz Zanin.

Christopher Stembridge specialises in keyboard music of the renaissance and early baroque, particularly from Italy. In addition to publishing various papers, he has edited music by de Macque, Mayone and Frescobaldi. Apart from the organ, he also plays the clavichord and the cembalo cromatico, a harpsichord with 19 notes to the octave – a reconstruction of an instrument that was widely used in late 16th-century Italy.


Fanfare, October 2001

Both label and performer are new names to me, but then it's not often I'm invited to trespass on what is normally the territory of Haig Mardirosian. Christopher Stembridge is an English organist and keyboard player currently based in Italy, where he teaches and gives master classes on historic organs in Brescia and Arezzo. Doubtless that is the reason he has chosen to give this wide-ranging program of English keyboard works on an Italian organ, a small, single-manual instrument located in the Church of the Ospedaletto in Venice. It was built in 1751 by the leading Venetian builder of the day, Pietro Nacchini, and has remained unchanged since, having been restored in 1983. Full specifications are given in the informative booklet, along with the individual registrations employed for each work.

As the performer points out in his notes, his program has been dictated by the limitations of his instrument, which like most English organs until the 19th century, has no independent pedal, and a restricted range, the latter the reason for the paradoxical omission of Purcell. (Paradoxical because the disc takes its title from the famous bass air in Purcell's 1692 Ode to St. Cecilia.) The program covers a period of over two hundred years, from the strange, almost hypnotic, anonymous "Uppon la mi re" and Hugh Aston's well-known "Hornepype" variations (played on the characterful regal "Tromboncinin" stop) through to cornet voluntaries by Boyce and William Walond. Every form employed by English keyboard composers during this period is covered: dances, variations, the early repertoire based on sacred canti firmi, and free fantasies and voluntaries. Particularly impressive examples of the last named are the two Gibbons Fancys (MB 7 and MB 8), beautifully crafted pieces in mainly three-part counterpoint. Among the sacred works, the four based on the plainchant hymn Eterne rerum by William Blitheman (c. 1525-91) are especially fine.

Purist will probably claim that this is too broad a repertoire to be played at a single pitch (A1=438), and indeed several works have been transposed. As a nonspecialist I found the program a satisfying entity, not least because Stembridge's playing is highly accomplished both in it musicality and technical command. The instrument too, is appealing, the Principal both clearly defined and mellow, while the flute stops are most attractive. Given the diversity of the program, the high quality of the music, and the excellent performances, the disc warrants a strong recommendation.

Diapason, October 2001

“Wondrous machine!/ To thee the warbling Lute,/ Though us’d to conquest, must be forc’d to yield:/ With thee unable to dispute,/ The airy Violin/ And lofty Viol quit the field;”

Thus wrote Nicholas Brady in his Ode on St. Cecilia’s Day (1692). The wondrous machine featured on this recording is the Pietro Nacchini organ, op. 160, built in 1751 for the Church of the Ospedaletto and restored in 1983 by Fanz Zanin. The Ospedaletto was one of the four Venetian ospedali (orphanages) that were noted for their musical activities in the 17th and 18th centuries. Legrenzi, Porpora, and Vivaldi were among the teachers of the girls who studied and lived at theses institutions, and indeed, the didactic methods of these early conservatori becoame the foundation of later conservatories in Paris, Berlin, and London.

Christopher Stembridge has chosen 29 pieces by English composers from John Bull to Handel to perform on this organ, and the match of repertoire with instrument is felicitous. In his excellent liner notes, Stembridge explains his choice of repertoire: “Like its Italian counterpart, the English organ before the nineteenth-century was often a relatively small single-manual instrument without an independent pedal section: This description fits the Nacchini exactly, for it has one manual and a pull-down pedal. The specifications reflect the Italian tradition of creating a unified chorus based on divisions of the 8’ principal, with stops at 8’, 4’, 2, 1 1/3’, 1’, 2/3’, ½’, 1/3’and ¼’, (bass only) A hauntingly beautiful and full-bodied Voce Umana (treble only), flutes at 4’ (divided stop), 2 2/3’, and 1 3/5’ (treble only), and a wonderfully snarly Tromboncini ( a divided regal) make up the compliment of stops for the manual. A Contrabasso 16’ and 8’ is available in the pedals, which are permanently coupled to the manual. The temperament is modified meantone, and pitch is slightly lover (a=438) than a modern organ. A picture of the organ and stoplist, as well as a list of the registrations used on the pieces performed provides complete information about the instrument. Stembridge shows off the organ expertly, using creative and varied combinations of stops. The 8’, 4’, and 2’ foundations are solid and well-blended, and the full chorus, heard only on the last piece, a Chaconne by Handel, is brilliant but not overpowering. Among the most memorable sounds are the Voce Umana, in the Vers of John Blow (unfortunately, the only piece on the disk in which this stop is used), and the Cornetta 1 3/5’ and Tromboncini 8’ used as alternating solo colors in the Voluntary I by William Boyce. The Flauto 4’ has a pure, sweet sound, well-suited to the simple piece on which it is used alone (My Lady Careys Dompe, anonymous).

The music itself has a wondrous variety. Stembridge groups the pieces into three categories: dances and variations, liturgical music, and fantasies and voluntaries. Thirteen named composers and three anonymous ones supply keyboard music from a period of two and a half centuries. From the simple two-note ostinato bass of My Lady Careys dompe to the luxuriantly florid lines of Orlando Gibbons’ Fancy (MusBrit. 8), no musical texture or style of the early English school is absent. Stembridge has written excellent liner notes about the music, composers, organ, pitch, and eighteenth-century pieces for solo stops. Scholarship is mixed with humor as when we are told that Gibbons “once was referred to as ‘the best Finger of his Age,”’ Stembridge draws on his knowledge of Italian instruments and lifelong interesting Italian keyboard music of the Renaissance and early Baroque periods for his performance on this disc. He plays incisively, expressively and rhythmically with an intuitive grasp of the essence of every piece. When the instrument, music, and performance are so perfectly matched, historical music come to life. Highly recommended.

The Organ Magazine, November 2000

Anthologies of early English organ music are not commonly encountered on record, so this new release is a welcome addition to the catalogue. The programme encompasses some 200 years of composition in England, moving roughly in an chronological order from Redford and Alwood at the beginning to the closing Chaconne by Handel. The rather austere fantasias are offset by lively dances, which do much to prevent what could easily be a boring programme from being just that. Thus, Redford's Lucem tuam is introduced in a delightful fashion by the skittish My Lady Wynkfylds rownde by that well known composer, Anon. An increase in inherent variety maintains the interest as the programme progresses, moving towards to the voluntaries by Boyce and Walond, in the usual slow:fast style.

The performer is a great scholar, particularly of renaissance and early baroque Italian music – the similarities between such music and the English repertory are large, and without a doubt Christopher Stembridge proves an ideal interpreter. He currently teaches at the School of Church Music in Brescia, and this perhaps explains what may appear as a strange choice of instrument. Built in 1751 by Pietro Nacchini for the Conservatorio dell'Ospedelatto in Venice, it contains the typical stark Italian specification, coloured by flute mutations and a rasping tromboncini.

However, the delicacy of 16th and 17th century English organs has long since been replaced by weightier sounds, but in an Italian instrument such as that at the Ospedelatto it remains, and such an organ proves itself to be an ideal companion for the repertory. The tromboncini, a trumpet regal rather than a full length trumpet, is the perfect substitute for the regal, an instrument found in Henry VIII's court amongst other places. In this capacity this rather bucolic rank sounds just perfect for Aston's Hornepype , but its use in the Walond Trumpet voluntary I was less happy with.

The recording is extremely good, preserving the chirpy voicing of the pipework without forcing it on the listener – all too easily the high pitched ranks such as the Vigesimanona ½ and above can become piercing and overbearing.

The Living Church, September 2000

Wondrous Machine is what Nicholas Brady called the organ in the Ode on St. Cecilia Day, and a notably wondrous one is on exhibit in the CD by the name from Quilisma. On an organ built in 1751 by Pietro Nacchini for the Ospedaletto of Venice, organist Christopher Stembridge plays music by English composers of the 16th-18th centuries. The largely unfamiliar music and the almost completely unfamiliar sonority of the organ are attraction enough for curious music lovers. For the scholar some serious questions emerge. English music of this period on an Italian instrument built after it was all written? Musicological eyebrows might well be raised.

The Commonwealth saw to it that no English organs of the 16th-17th centuries survived. Italian and English organs of the era resembled each other, and the Italian instruments changed only slightly over time. Thus the choice of this instrument is not an impossible one. If anything, the Italian organs had a greater selection of stops, particularly those up to 1 ½ ft., and Stembridge uses these imaginatively to create a wide variety of sounds.

The 29 compositions are placed in four categories: dances and variations, liturgical music, fantasy and voluntary, and 18th-century pieces for solo stops.

Stembridge plays throughout with a slightly detached touch, undoubtedly appropriate for the period. In at least one instance he is perhaps too zealous in solving the organist's perennial problem- the instrument's lack of an accent capability. We generally handle this via a slight silence robbed from the note before the one to be accented. In at least one case Stembridge may have overcompensated by delaying the accented note to gain an even bigger pause, causing a somewhat annoying disruption in the rhythmic flow. Taken together, though, this is a richly rewarding musical presentation.

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