British Clavichord Society

It was during my studies at the Witwatersrand University that I first encountered the early recordings of Nikolaus Harnoncourt, the Kuijkens and Gustav Leonhardt, and since then my credo has been that a piece of music sounds at its most convincing when matched with an instrument-type known to the composer, coupled with the appropriate playing aesthetics. Since the 1970s performance practice has changed considerably and not only in the field of period music; the influences on modern orchestras with regard to use of vibrato, natural horns etc. are noticeable and very welcome. It is now not unusual to hear Brahms or Debussy played on pianos from their time. Not all developments have been so positive, however; the modern piano has re-emerged as the chosen vehicle for early keyboard music, certainly if recordings and above all radio broadcasts are anything to go by. Here in Switzerland it is rare indeed to hear a harpsichord, aside from its use as a continuo instrument; if there is a piano recording available, it will be favoured, even for such idiomatic harpsichord repertoire as Couperin and Rameau. A CD featuring music of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century France played on a reconstructed Mersenne clavichord is therefore all the more welcome.

This CD by Terence Charlston is more than just a recording: it reflects a research project in a field which has been to date largely neglected. The paradigm was that the clavichord was relatively unknown in France. In the article accompanying the CD (I write ‘article’ advisedly, as it exceeds by far what one would expect in a booklet text) Charlston sketches the history of the clavichord in France from the earliest times, which were at least the fifteenth century. No French clavichord has come down to us, but by means of literary sources and inventories he plots the path of the clavichord through French musical history. Marin Mersenne’s encyclopaedia Harmonie Universelle (1637), with its detailed description and engraved illustration, represents the most significant landmark along this path, although many commentators have dismissed it, on the grounds that the description is vague, the illustration does not conform to modern ideas of perspective, appearing distorted and out of scale, and the instrument shown does not resemble closely any surviving clavichord. What it does have in common with surviving sixteenth-century clavichords from other parts of Europe are multiple bridges, five in all, but it is a larger instrument than, for example, the Pisaurensis of 1543. Unlike contemporary clavichords, which mostly had a short octave in the bass, the Mersenne instrument has a full four-octave compass, C–c 3 . An article by Maria Boxall in the Galpin Society Journal of 2001 demonstrated that the apparently ‘vague and inconsistent’ account by Mersenne was, in fact, both precise and detailed, and this inspired the clavichord maker Peter Bavington to attempt a reconstruction. The result, an impressive one, is used on this recording. It is strung in iron and brass, with twisted strings in the extreme bass, and is tuned in quarter-comma-meantone at a pitch of a = 392Hz. A small compromise was made in that low C # was sacrificed and strung and tuned to AA.

Finding suitable repertoire for the instrument was a research project in itself. Little was printed, or has survived, between the seven volumes by Pierre Attaignant in 1531 and the later seventeenth- and eighteenth-century prints and manuscripts. As Charlston points out, however, keyboard music at this time was not clavichord-specific, and lute repertoire, itself fundamental in the evolution of later French harpsichord music, translates well to the clavichord. As would have been common amongst contemporary players, Charlston has made a number of his own arrangements, both from keyboard and lute repertoire and from vocal chansons. In addition to pieces from French sources, he has also explored imported French music in other sources. Included, for example, is La Bounette from the Mulliner Book (mid-sixteenth century). Here Charlston has filled out the basic two-part structure with additional parts, which gives the piece increased stature. The ‘Aberdeen Manuscript’, a little-known source of French keyboard music, provided a suite of five dances. One piece, ‘ Tu crois, ô Beau Soleil ‘, is printed in Mersenne’s Harmonie Universelle together with hints on playing divisions by Pierre de la Barre. For the recording Charlston follows the air with a single improvised variation based on de la Barre’s indications. The Harmonie Universelle was also the source for the longest piece in the programme, namely Charles Racquet’s four-part Fantasie , which is taken from a handwritten score included in the author’s personal copy.

The CD programme is divided into three sections; the sixteenth century, the early seventeenth century and the later seventeenth century. Particularly effective, from the last section, is the D minor Prélude by Jean Henry d’Anglebert. The programme thus covers an impressive 200 years of French keyboard music, for which the fretting on the clavichord, diatonic, presents no barrier.

The sound of the clavichord is impressive. The five separate bridges in effect create distinct registers on the instrument, as one moves from one bridge to another. This is particularly effective, for example, in the sequential passages in the second track, the anonymous Prélude sur chacun ton . It also gives clarity and added character to contrapuntal parts. The bass is warm and rich, giving the impression of a greater range than the instrument actually has. This is particularly noticeable in the fourth track, La Magdalena . The clavichord would appear to have a wide dynamic range, effectively demonstrated in Gérard Scronx’s Echo in F , although the player should share credit for this.

On some clavichord recordings one has the uneasy feeling that the player is not at one with the instrument. An instrument is borrowed or hired for the recording, possibly three weeks beforehand, because it seemed a nice idea, but when one listens to the recording, one’s impression is that the player is more at home with another member of the keyboard family. The instrument’s expressive possibilities are not utilized to the full (this is particularly evident when one happens to know the clavichord in question well!). This is certainly not the case with this recording. Charlston makes full use of the musical possibilities offered by the clavichord. In La Magdalena he alternates the lower and upper registers of the instrument; the effect is of two contrasting manuals on an organ. He works well with the natural sound of the clavichord (often neglected). Particularly in the later pieces he makes sensitive use of Tragung (what would the French word be?). The lute-like qualities of the clavichord come to the fore in the Sarabande by Chambonnières and one hears how the player is working with the natural decay of individual notes. This is clavichord playing as it should be.

I have already commented on the booklet text, which includes a section by Peter Bavington on the instrument. The booklet is well illustrated with facsimile pages from Mersenne’s book, including the engraving and some musical texts. Charlston’s arrangement of La Bounette can be compared with the two-part original in the Mulliner Book. My only regret is that the text is only in English; a French, possibly a German, translation would have been welcome, but I appreciate that this would have rendered the booklet, 24 pages as it stands, unwieldy.

A highly recommended landmark recording.

—Paul Simmonds