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This substantial volume of writings and recordings by American harpsichordist and director Skip Sempé is a release on Sempé’s own label, Paradizo. It is no mere vanity project, though, when the musician in focus has so very much to say that is worth reading.

Beautifully presented, the hardback volume lays out a great deal of Sempé’s musical rationale and thinking in essays, programme notes and liner notes by the man himself as well as interviews with him and the odd bit of other writing (his teacher Gustav Leonhardt’s paean to Flemish virginals of the 17th-century is included). All text is given both in English and in French. Keyboards and keyboardists feature heavily, of course, but by no means exclusively: Sempé’s thoughts here range across the stylus phantasticus and the canto meditearraneo, Iberian text and translation, metaphor in French baroque music, the northern viola da gamba virtuosi and the 1589 ‘La Pellegrina’ intermedii.

Sempé is at his most fascinating on the subject of instrumental resonances. For me, the special appeal of his work is in the paramount centrality of pure and beautiful instrumental sound; all other aspects of technique are means to that end, and the resulting evocative sororities bring me back to his discs again and again. ‘The best instrumental virtuosi reject being forced into an inexpressive framework,’ he says, ‘because their instruments speak so much more effectively when they are allowed to take advantage of their full range of resonance without damaging the quality of the sound. It is not a matter of dynamics, but rather of acoustic resonance. The mastery of resonances on a solo instrument, in chamber ensembles or in orchestras is part of the lost art of playing on ‘period instruments’. It is important to mention that this mastery of resonances is also one of the many secrets to great singing, and this is what instrumentalists imitated in the 16th- and 17th-centuries. Many such remarks offer keys to parts of Sempé’s sound-world, and will be of interest to musicians of all species.

There is plenty of photographic material to leaven the verbiage, and Sempé is generous in his coverage of his fellow musicians. In addition, five audio CDs are included, addressing hundreds of works by 45 composers over six-and-a-half hours of music by Sempé’s bands Capriccio Stravagante, the Capriccio Stravagante Renaissance Orchestra and Capriccio Stravagante Les 24 Violons, and fine colleagues. These are reissues rather than new material (fine recordings all, ranging through English instrumental pavans, embellished madrigals, diferencias and canzone, Monteverdi and the aforementioned ‘Pellegrina’ material, keyboard and viol solo works and French theatrical music) but it is very good to have a representative sample of Sempé’s work to hand for illustrative purposes. A deeply rewarding issue.

Catherine Groom Read the full review on Agora Classica

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Early Music Today, 2016 - ©Rhinegold Publishing