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This unique harpsichord recital by Trevor Pinnock charts two incredible musical journeys four hundred years apart. Inspired by the travels of Antonio Cabezón, the sixteenth-century organist and composer, Pinnock's programme weaves a path not only through Cabezón's life but also through his own enviable career.
A 24-bit 192 kHz studio master for this album is available from the Linn Records website.
Even with the next generation, of Bull, Frescobaldi and Sweelinck, the line between organ and harpsichord would have been very fine. Indeed, for players working in Calvinist cultures such as Sweelinck in the Netherlands and Bull as a sometime resident there, the organ would have been prized mainly as a secular instrument—it was no longer a major component of church services—so here the choice between organ and harpsichord would perhaps have been more a question of whether a performance was public or private. By the time of Bach, Handel and Scarlatti, the distinction between organ and stringed keyboards was much more obvious; and the clavichord was frequently used in domestic circumstances in both Spain and Germany. Scarlatti’s figuration is perhaps that which is most distinctively idiomatic to the harpsichord, though the early fortepiano might also be a viable choice for some of his sonatas.
The crossover between different instruments parallels that between different genres, and the overall picture that emerges of keyboard composers from the sixteenth century to the mid-eighteenth is of their supreme adaptability. One can immediately sense that all of them were familiar with many different types of music, together with their respective styles of performance. Notated keyboard music is sometimes a fascinating window into the way composers might have heard sounds around them, filtering and re-composing them into pieces that seemed to ‘digest’ the surrounding world. The keyboard was particularly apt at impersonating, but also refracting, other types of music. For instance, Frescobaldi’s toccatas reflect much of the expressive intensity and capriciousness of the contemporary madrigal, even though no actual text is involved. Bach’s French Suites model the patterns of the most ubiquitous dances of the time, each of which would have been instantly recognizable to many contemporary audiences, even when heard in a private, domestic setting. Scarlatti’s keyboard music has always been prized for the ways it encompasses other forms of music, particularly the popular idioms of plucked instruments; the various elisions and the merging of passages almost recall the sensation of walking between various groups of musicians, one group of sounds momentarily clashing with another.
Although keyboard instruments are able to encompass virtually any form of music, owing to the very varied textures facilitated by the use of two hands, the historical progenitor of keyboard idioms remains the human voice. This is immediately evident in Tallis’s O ye tender babes, a partsong that survives in the keyboard Mulliner Book: the skill for the player lies in presenting the continuity of line in each of the beautifully crafted ‘voices’. Again, the opening polyphonic texture of the piece by Cabezón could easily have been directly transcribed from vocal music. Even the progressive application of ornamentation as the variations proceed has its roots in the vocal practice by which singers were taught to embellish the simple lines that they had before them, cultivating a flexibility that would seem almost miraculous by today’s standards. Nevertheless, as the piece progresses, we can hear ornamental gestures that clearly fit the fingers particularly well, as if the keyboard is learning from the vocal practice and taking courage in its own range of possibilities. Vocal models also clearly lie behind the pieces by Byrd, Bull and Frescobaldi, in all of which we hear the progressive exploration of keyboard styles built on vocal models.
The overriding compositional principle in most of these earlier pieces is that of variation, which is the simplest, but also one of the most effective means of extending a song or idea over time. In the hands of such a skilled and perceptive composer as Byrd, the simple folksong about the carter’s whistle is crafted into an impressive sequence of variations where the immediate delight lies in the range of figuration. Here we see the notion of the greatest variety achieved within the greatest unity (an artistic aim that was to become central to aesthetics over a century later), but also coupled with a sense of progressive intensification as the piece proceeds. A further refinement of the variation principle is to introduce a sort of ‘lull’ in the proceedings before the final section, as if to provide the listener with a sense of relaxation before the concluding festive variations. It is interesting that Byrd reserves the use of descant above the melody until the very last variation. Sweelinck’s celebrated variations on Mein junges Leben hat ein End adopt a slightly different shape: the final section returns us to the contemplative mood of the opening, the greatest intensification occurring in the centre of the piece. Sweelinck makes a particular feature of the way the two hands can play in dialogue, as if they represented separate entities. This ability of the keyboard instrument to converse with itself has remained a central element of keyboard style ever since, and it greatly contributes to the ways in which the keyboard can work as an instrument entirely independently of other forms of music-making, mimicking the conversations and interactions between actual people.
Bull’s variations on The King’s Hunt achieve intensification through various repetitions that are engendered by the theme itself. With this we not only hear some of the horn calls of a hunting party but also sense some of the surrounding sounds (the percussive potential of a harpsichord or virginals contributes greatly to such possibilities). From this (nearly) direct representation of the sound of the hunt we imperceptibly move towards a sense of the excitement and mood of the occasion, as if the various musical figurations model our own internal movements and feelings. In other words, pictorialism is only one aspect of this music; almost more important is the way Bull manages to conjure up the very atmosphere and affect of the hunt. It is in such ways that music seems to strike at the very root of our feelings and sensations.
Exactly the same variation principles lie behind Handel’s much later Chaconne in G major, HWV 435, and some of the figurations show the direct heritage of the keyboard school of Bull and Sweelinck (which was well transmitted into the German school throughout the seventeenth century). However, we can also sense that the world of music has expanded, particularly in the growth of the orchestra and the broader textures that this afforded. Yet vocal elements are also very much present: we hear echoes of the virtuoso opera singers of Handel’s day together with tender arias of love and loss. Even within the relative confines of the chaconne theme, we can also hear the larger harmonic palette that had been developed over the previous century (particularly longer-term chromatic progressions). Above all, we sense a larger public for this music, for which Handel the showman performs, capitalizing not just on his prodigious musical imagination but also on the remarkable agility of his fingers.
If variation remains the overriding principle for so much of this music, another that is clearly evident, whether in complete pieces or individual variations, is the dance. Here the harpsichord’s relation to plucked string instruments is particularly telling, since arpeggiation and the spreading of chords are such useful devices in encouraging bodily movement. Variations by Sweelinck and Byrd in particular often contain repetitive figuration that sets up the mood for a particular dance (such as gigue or galliard) and the repetitions of the circumscribed length of the basic theme are themselves very close to dance practice. Indeed, it is a very small step from Sweelinck’s variations to the balletto of Frescobaldi, where each in the sequence of variations presents a different dance pattern, as if providing us with a whole repertoire of dances for an evening’s entertainment. Bach—very much a follower of Frescobaldi—was also able to write a sequence of dances as a sort of variation suite, but more often than not he cultivated instead the individual character of each dance, thus making more of a musical distinction between each component of a suite.
In the sixth French Suite Bach shows himself to be clearly abreast of the popular dances of the day, such as the gavotte, bourrée and minuet. In some ways these pieces represent the closest the composer ever got to representing the social sounds of his own time and providing music that could actually function in dance. The Polonaise here is especially interesting in reflecting a particular fashion of the day. The two electors of Saxony who reigned during Bach’s time in Leipzig were both simultaneously kings of Poland, so there was a continuing political imperative to represent Polish culture and show how well it integrated with the Saxon. The older dances, those that traditionally open and close the keyboard suites of the early eighteenth century, tended to be less current as pieces for actual dancing. Indeed, its opening upbeat motive notwithstanding, the Allemande contains only echoes of its role as a dance and is rather more significant as representing a long binary span of music. We hear contrasts of voicing within a continuous and regular stream of notes, a clear central articulation and a second half that brings us back to the tonal world of the opening. In short, pieces like this could almost equally be described as early sonatas in Franco-German style, suggesting something of the dialectical balance of the later eighteenth-century genre. The remaining ‘old’ dances—courante, sarabande and gigue—are more recognizable in terms of their dance origins, but still contain a historical sediment of past practices, all synthesized into highly developed pieces that seem to bring all the elements to contemporary presence.
One final tradition that informs this recital is that of the prelude or fantasia. This reflects a form of improvisation that, rather than being tied to variation form, follows the whims of the player’s own imagination and delights partly through its unexpectedness. Frescobaldi’s toccatas clearly fall into this genre, in which freer and stricter (i.e. fugue-like) elements alternate during the course of a single span. By Bach’s time, these two elements became (largely through his own ground-breaking examples) separated into the genre of prelude and fugue. This means that a piece such as the Prélude in E major no longer has to be in the whimsical, fantastic style, but can alternatively represent the expansion of lyrical melody, presented as a miniature rounded form of beautiful proportions and tonal flow. Scarlatti’s sonatas build on both the notions of binary dance forms and the prelude. In this style, the unexpected and improvisational elements are somehow integrated into fully worked structures, definitely rendering them the most ‘modern’-sounding pieces in this recital. The range of ‘topics’, processing past our ears like a sort of dumb show, is extraordinary for music of this age. The Sonata, K490 creates the illusion of a solemn procession, despite its frequent changes of mood and sectional nature. The horn calls in K491 recall something of the idiom of Bull’s hunting scene, but this is more a sort of recollection in a private chamber, in which we also hear rustic dances and allusions to contemporary opera. Although Scarlatti’s music is more fashionable-sounding (i.e. ‘galant’, according to the terminology of the time) than most of that written by his contemporaries Bach and Handel, there is always a sense that these elements are not to be taken at face value but, in presenting different scenes and viewpoints (or, rather, listening-points) in succession, are somehow rendered uncanny by Scarlatti’s unique imagination.
John Butt © 2016
I was about four years old when I ‘escaped’ from our garden and walked up the hill to a house that reverberated with the magical sounds being made by the concert pianist Ronald Smith. Eventually I was discovered, contentedly sitting on the doorstep; after being given a delicious cup of cocoa, I was duly delivered back home. Later escapes led me to more exciting music, but also in the opposite direction, to builders who welcomed me with tea and doughnuts. Up to the music or down to the doughnuts? An almost impossible choice for a boy of any age. But Ronald Smith’s sister, June, took me on as a pupil when I was six. Music-making with her, even if hard work, was always fun: she gave me simple arrangements of Bach, each with a little story (I especially remember the one about Bach’s long trek to Lübeck to meet Buxtehude).
My years with her and as a choirboy at Canterbury Cathedral introduced me to a wealth of music, but perhaps my greatest discovery of early music for keyboard was through the two-volume Schirmer anthology I bought when I was 12 or 13. These pale-yellow volumes were a treasure trove. Of course the editions were far from Urtext, but here I found The Carman’s Whistle, The King’s Hunting Jigg (so called by Schirmer) and music by a whole range of French, Italian and German composers. A few years later I discovered a harpsichord in a local music shop and was immediately intrigued by its sound.
Around that time also, I bought a recording of George Malcolm playing Bach’s ‘Italian’ Concerto and Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue. Subsequently I bought vinyl records of Wanda Landowska, and of Gustav Leonhardt and Rafael Puyana, both of whom I heard in live recitals. I worked on one of Bach’s French Suites with Puyana at Dartington in 1969, and it was he who introduced me to the music of Cabezón. The greatly contrasting playing styles of my heroes fired me to find my own relationship with the harpsichord and its music.
Some listeners may be surprised that I should record such a wide range of music on one instrument. I do so simply because this is essentially a recital rather than a historical demonstration. The harpsichord I have chosen has travelled all over the world with me in the past 40 years. It was made in 1982 by David Jacques Way of Stonington, Connecticut, after a model by the mid-eighteenth-century French builder Henri Hemsch. I fell in love with it at first sight and was able to borrow it for a recital in New York. By the kindness of its owners it eventually found its way into my possession. The harpsichord is tuned in a meantone temperament for the earliest music and in unequal temperaments for the rest of the programme.
Trevor Pinnock © 2016