Clavichord International

In 1991, Francis Knights published an article that shed considerable light on the undervalued role of the clavichord in the early history of French keyboard music. With the cat out of the bag, one might have expected many performances of French clavichord music to follow, but this was not the case. The assumption that the clavichord had always been a German preoccupation surely played a role, but is might well be that players were not sure what a French clavichord music have looked like. Many writers noted that Mersenne’s depiction of a clavichord in his Traité des instruments a chordes (Paris, 1637) was an important witness to the existence of the instruments in sixteenth- and seventeenth- century France, but its poor perspective made deriving definite conclusions about the instrument difficult, if not impossible.

As Peter Bavington points out in his copious and informative notes for this disc, it was Maria Boxall who, in 2001, noted that Mersenne’s drawing was in fact not a perspective, but rather an isometric drawing, allowing one to attempt quite a faithful reconstruction in modern times. This is exactly what Bavington has done and the result can be heard on this recording.

Mersenne’s clavichord, with its five bridges and pentagonal shape, resembles some early Italian instruments, but differs in a number of ways, including a strikingly deep case (and concomitantly long tangents). The sound of Bavington’s instrument is lute-like, with marked differences in the various registers, the whole blending into a color spectrum that provides great clarity and definition to the music presented on this recording.

Terence Charlston also provides excellent notes, walking us through the careful process of choosing the repertoire, much of it tailor-made to the clavichord at hand. For example, Charles Racquet’s Fantaisie – one of many highlights on the disc – was chosen because a manuscript copy of the work is found in Mersenne’s personal copy of the treatise.

Charlston’s playing throughout is sensitive to the music as well as to the instrument, drawing maximum expressive power from each on every track. Listeners might be directed to start their exploration of this disc by listening first to track 4; the ‘La Magdalena,’ which is here attributed to Pierre Blondeau, allow for a thorough tour of the various registers and wide dynamic range if the instrument.

Besides the excellent notes from the builder and the player, the disc includes a number of photographs of the instrument, as well as photos of some of the early editions of the music, and the title page of Mersenne’s treatise, which includes a portrait of Mersenne. The recorded sound is clear and lifelike – indeed, the entire production is a model for recordings of this kind.

Like the shadowy but not insignificant history of the French clavichord, Bavington’s and Charlston’s accomplishment with this recording does not deserve to be overlooked. This disc is not only beautiful, it is important.

—Gregory Crowell