I love Baroque keyboard music; but I can’t stand the harpsichord. (The notable exception being Yannick le Gaillard’s set of Duphly’s keyboard works.)
I’m a purist by nature and by confession so, let’s see... How can I rationalize my predilection for harpsichord music played on the piano?
What is called “world music” makes me gag. I regard musical fusion, such things as – and I really saw these on Youtube – a trio of folklorically attired middle-aged Balkan women singing one of those close-harmony Slavic folk songs so old that you can hear its pagan roots, accompanied by a digital drum track, or a flamenco guitarist accompanied by a bass player, as a crime against the culture akin to rape and battery.
Yet, I seem to have no objection to any re-instrumentation of classical music. One of my favorite CD’s is Satie played on medieval instruments. I enjoy hearing orchestrated chamber music and orchestral music arranged for chamber ensembles, and I was perfectly able to judge on its own merits a recording of Haydn played by a saxophone quartet. (Its merits did not amount to much.) I am breaking no personal taboo by listening to harpsichord music played on the piano.
The primary art of folk music is its performance; the music itself – its melodies, its harmonies, its text (if there is any) – is secondary. The primary art of Western classical music is its composition (in the big meaning of the word, as well as the narrow one) – melodies, harmonies, text; its performance is secondary. The Goldberg Variations is the same Bach composition, whether it is played on a harpsichord, a piano, or an accordion. (It is not the same composition if an attempt is made to render it on an instrument which plays only one note at a time.) That is my rationalization for accepting re-arranged classical music. It’s a pretty solid one, if you ask me.
Not so easily explained is my dislike of the harpsichord. It’s just a matter of taste, I guess. The harpsichord is, to my ears, just too plinkety-plunk.
The keyboard music of some of the big boys of the baroque has become standard piano repertoire.
There’s Bach, of course. My favorite all-round Bach performer is Ivo Janssen. Perahia’s Bach is lovely; his Goldberg Variations is a masterpiece. Kempff’s performance of the Well-Tempered Clavier is my favorite right now. Angela Hewitt’s Bach, which everyone was so excited about a few years ago, is pedestrian. Glenn Gould does not wear well.
There is so much Bach on piano out there that a stylistic outlier like Samuel Feinberg’s Well-Tempered Clavier, the soaring romanticism of which would be excoriated if it were applied to the one and only piano recording of Duphly, let’s say, can be savored as a lush and profound marvel.
The usual piano repertoire also includes Scarlatti – who’s as delightful to hear as a virtuoso bluegrass banjo – and Handel’s suites, and... I think that’s about it. Thanks to the cornucopian Naxos label, the collected Scarlatti-like keyboard music of Antonio Soler is available on piano. Angela Hewitt has recorded Couperin – nothing to complain about, since it’s the only game in town.
Searching the internet for more Baroque keyboard music on piano, I came up with the keyboard works of Rameau performed by Marcelle Meyer. Amazon sells the digital download, so I was able to preview bits of it. It sounded good so, for what the download would have cost me, I ordered it used on CD.
Marcelle Meyer playing Rameau is my newly discovered great CD. Her piano has a little something of the sound of Feinberg (who taught his students at the Moscow Conservatory that the piano is not a percussion instrument, but a string instrument), but Meyer plays with the definition which Baroque music requires (for German music, we call it clarity; for Italian and Spanish music, we call it animation; for French music, we call it delicacy) and has a marvelous knack, which I’ve not heard so clearly before, of suggesting the differing qualities of three registers – low, middle, treble – of an elaborate pedal harpsichord.
Meyer, who lived in Paris, recorded eleven pieces by Rameau in 1946, at the end of the occupation. Those were released on 78 rpm, of course. With the advent of the 33 rpm record, she returned to the studio and recorded all of Rameau’s keyboard music. The recording – in a easy-to-come-by Erato set or as a download – includes Meyer’s 1946 recording as well as the later one.
Meyer’s Rameau has brought a little joy into an otherwise fairly gloomy spring.
Yesterday, I downloaded the keyboard music of Giovanni Benedetto Platti played on the piano by Abelardo Galang II. I haven’t listened to it yet. I did sample it and can confidently say it will not make my short list of great performances. But it will have what I look for in baroque keyboard music played on the piano: an emotionally resonant expression of enlightenment wit.