The chaconne and passacaglia are nearly synonymous descriptions of a musical form that flourished in the Baroque era. The distinctions between the two terms are debated by musicologists, but for practical purposes the terms essentially refer to the same thing: a repeated bass line, or ground bass, over which the composer constructs an ingenious set of variations, which must both follow the framework of the bass and sustain musical interest by creating a sense of forward movement and development. The combination of lulling, predictable repetition and evolving, unpredictable variety makes the chaconne one of the most sensually, viscerally satisfying musical forms ever devised. Pachelbel's Canon in D is perhaps the most familiar and widely beloved example of the use of a chaconne technique. Over the repeated four-bar melodic and harmonic pattern, the composer uses a melodically elegant three-part canon to create the variations.
In this album, Rinaldo Alessandrini brings his impeccable and lively musicianship to a variety of Baroque chaconnes and passacaglias for harpsichord, as well as two modern works, one by Ligeti and one that he wrote. The combination of the immensely appealing repertoire, the superb performances, and the sensitive engineering make this album a delight. In spite of the regularity of the bass, Alessandrini never plays mechanically, but brings an appropriately fluid flexibility, sometimes playful and sometimes soulfully expressive to the pieces. The strict restraints the form put on composers perhaps gave them a sense of license to be boldly adventurous in their variations, and several, particularly the Frescobaldi and Forqueray, have moments of delicious eyebrow-raising oddness, making them sound in those moments not so very different from the Ligeti. Alessandrini's contribution is a lovely, warmly contemporary, contemplative take on the form. The sound of the harpsichord, which can be difficult to capture in recordings, is full and resonant, never precious or twangy. This terrifically engaging album should interest listeners who love the Baroque and the harpsichord.