In 1637 Marin Mersenne published his Harmonie universelle, which described the clavichord as an important keyboard instrument alongside its larger and more sonorous cousins, the harpsichord, spinet, and organ. Unfortunately, he chose a name, clavichordium, that was in everyday generic use, and his colleague and contemporary Pierre Trichet, in his Traite des Instruments a chords, was not entirely helpful a couple of years later when he consigned it as merely a training device for these other keyboards. Mersenne, however, did include a detailed description of the clavichord (also called a manichordion), along with a sort of exploded constructional diagram (replete with range), indicating that he knew full well that it was rather more common than the lack of surviving examples might have suggested. In this disc keyboardist Terence Charlston has teamed up with Peter Bavington to reconstruct Mersenne’s instrument, and moreover to gather a program of works that are historically sequential from the 16th and 17th centuries, in order to show what sort of common repertory might have been on the docket for performers on this soft-spoken chamber instrument.
This is more than just an historical documentation, for the various works are drawn from a wide variety of sources, as the excellent booklet notes by Charlston show (along with pictures of a couple of the scores). The result is a slow meandering of over a century and a half of music that is rarely, if ever, on a program. Finally, the instrument is pitched at 392 Hz with a quarter-comma meantone temperament, meaning that one has an idea of both the soundscape and resonance of the music of that time. Many of the works have been chosen from sets of pieces, some for lute and many arrangements of vocal pieces, particularly in the first section devoted to the 16th century. It is here we find the chanson Longtemps y a que je vis, anonymously composed but almost lute-like with strumming chords and a meandering line originally sung. The pair of galliards, one attributed to Antoine Gardane about 1550 or thereabouts, are lively dances with a fuller harmony, both sounding like they ought to introduce a Shakespearean play. Many of these short and rather tuneful Renaissance pieces come from the circle of Pierre Attaignant, a well-known publisher of tablature and consort music.
The second part moves forward in time to the first half of the 17th century. Here, keyboard music is beginning to become distinguished as a genre, though still attached to both dances and vocal works. The keyboard version of Pierre de la Barre’s song Tu crois, beau soleil is boxier, with some interesting internal countermelodies that still allow its lute origins to come through. On the other hand, the C-Major Toccata by organist Jan Sweelinck is a clear multi-voiced contrapuntal fantasy that is quite idiomatic, with running scales in the left hand that expands out in the right into a complex piece. The final section moves even further forward into the later century, when the keyboard was coming into its own. There is a lovely A-Minor Sarabande by Jacques de Chambonnieres (that is, Jacques Champion) replete with some carefully notated ornaments to the simple line, while a “Recit a troi” by Nicholas Gigault is a fantasy in which the voices wander about each other in a slow tread. The transcription of a song Laissez paistre vos Bestes by Nicolas Lebegue, with its lively folk-like tune and fuller harmony, demonstrates just how far this sort of imitative music has come over the time-span on this disc.
Concerning the sound of the recording, it should be cautioned that the instrument sounds a bit muted, which is a function of the constructional elements as well as the low pitch. In places, it would not be out of place to even note how much like a lute it sounds (and hence the dual repertory). Charlston’s playing is skillful and interesting, with discrete and appropriate ornamentation and a knack for never obscuring the melody, no matter what sort of counterpoint is going on. He also creates an intimate atmosphere that suits the popular nature of the works so well that one can easily imagine being in the parlor of a well-to-do French household of the late Renaissance or early Baroque period. While the refined but muted sound of the clavichord may not be everyone’s cup of tea, the reconstruction of the Mersenne instrument in and of itself is worthy of this recording, for it shows another facet of the development of the keyboard during this era and is an anodyne to the more robust harpsichord.