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This book is absolutely superb. Martin Erhardt offers an organic and holistic approach to the study of historical improvisation, presenting not just a method (though it is certainly that), nor just a historical overview of the treatises and sources (though it is that too) nor just a dictionary of historical ostinato basis (although it is a well-organised one of these, as well; usefully, offering some different material to the readily available 50 Renaissance and Baroque Standards), but rather a whole prism through the many angles of which the subject may be studied.

Erhardt likens the art of improvising to that of good, free public speaking rather than the ‘reading out’ of a speech, analogous to so much musical performance. He intentionally narrows his focus to the ostinato bass, setting aside for now the kaleidoscope of other historical improvisation techniques from discant to diminution (perhaps there may be further volumes?). His style is immensely readable and practical – not in the least dry – and his knowledge lightly worn. Milo Machover’s highly successful translation from the original German is to be commended here, too. I think that the interested amateur and the practising professional would each find food for thought here, and I have used my copy in teaching quite young musicians who found no difficulties in comprehension; the assertion offered that the volume is suitable for class teaching is not in the least over-optimistic.

The loosely structured interweaving of text with musical examples means that neither becomes indigestible. Erhardt divides his subject matter into three sections: the first, substantial, section, is a thematically ordered historical overview, rich in examples, of the ostinato bass improvisation tradition, commencing with the simple two-chord pendular ostinato and romping through passamezzos, romanescas, bergamascas, canarias, folias, gambas, passacaglias and ciacconas to the ruggiero; the second section is a short and thoughtful treatise elucidating Erhardt’s attitude to spontaneous improvisation; and the third, a methodical guide. This last encompasses both technical sections (‘Proportio sesquialtera’; ‘Clausulae’) and more holistic areas (‘Psychology (how to deal with mistakes)’; ‘Independence from skeletons’) and it is these last that, to my mind, mark this out from the many other improvisation manuals on the market.

There are two accompanying CDs for solo practice, one at a’=415Hz and one at a’=440Hz (an excellent example of attention to detail), and the bibliography provided is usefully comprehensive, too. While systematic study would certainly yield rich rewards, this volume also stands successfully as a ready-reference tool.

Catherine Groom Read the full review on Agora Classica

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