During the renaissance and the baroque era the clavichord was the most widely disseminated keyboard instrument. Its being widely used in Germany is especially well documented. This explains why most recordings on clavichord include almost exclusively music by German composers. As far as I can remember I have never heard any French music on a clavichord. That makes this disc unique in the most literal sense of the word. That certainly goes for the instrument Terence Charlston plays: a reconstruction of an instrument which is only known through a description by the French music theorist Marin Mersenne in his Harmonie Universelle .
In his liner-notes Terence Charlston explains why so little attention has been given to the role of the clavichord in French keyboard music. The first is that no instruments of “inconvertible French origin” have survived. This explains why for this recording he could not make use of a copy of an original instrument. The second reason is that hardly any original keyboard music has survived from the 16th century, the period during which the clavichord was most popular in France. He then demonstrates from the sources that the clavichord was widely used and remained in use until the late 18th century. Armand-Louis Couperin, for instance, owned a clavichord at the time of the Revolution. Many official inventories also include references to clavichords. This makes one wonder why not a single original instrument has survived, a question which is not discussed in the booklet.
This being the case the description of a clavichord by Mersenne is especially interesting. For a long time this was considered a product of the author’s fantasy rather than a description of an instrument which might actually have existed. It was the harpsichordist Maria Boxall who in 2001 in an article argued “that it is, in fact, both precise and detailed, and the engraving shows the instrument’s true proportions in an early form of isometric projection.” It inspired Peter Bavington, a London-based builder and restorer of historical keyboard instruments and a long-time specialist in clavichords, to try to reconstruct a clavichord according to Mersenne’s description. In the booklet he describes the problems he had to solve and the questions which needed to be answered. The result is the instrument Charlston plays in this recording. It is quite different from the clavichords which are usually played in concerts and on disc and which are mostly copies of German instruments. “It has a distinctive and attractive sound, similar in many ways to the lute or guitar, and is an elegant vehicle for all styles of keyboard music current at the turn of the sixteenth century and later”, Charlston states.
He has included some pieces from the few sources of original keyboard music that are available. In addition to that he plays pieces that were played by keyboard players of the period: they often turned to music for other scorings and adapted them for their instrument. Charlston divided the programme into three sections. The first is devoted to the 16th century. It opens with a motet by Antoine de Févin, and this is followed by a mixture of dances, chansons and pieces which were probably conceived for the lute. It is not surprising that many of these pieces are anonymous.
The second section includes music from the early 17th century. The main original keyboard work – in fact, written for the organ – is the Fantaisie by Charles Racquet. He was a member of a family of organists and was himself organist of Notre Dame in Paris. Unfortunately this fantasy is the only piece from his pen which has come down to us. We owe this to Mersenne who requested that the piece be included in his Harmonie Universelle . As this piece shows the influence of Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck and his ‘school’ Charlston included the Toccata in C by the master from Amsterdam. Gérard Scronx was from the southern Netherlands. There is no indication that he had any formal connections with Sweelinck or any of his pupils, but the Echo is dominated by one of the most notable features of Sweelinck’s style, the use of echo technique.
The later 17th century is the subject of the last section. This is the time the foundation of the French harpsichord school was laid. The man generally considered the father of that school is Jacques Champion de Chambonnières. He is represented by an unfinished sarabande which is preceded by the prélude from the Suite in d minor by his pupil Jean-Henry D’Anglebert. Louis Couperin was one of the main composers of keyboard music from the mid-17th century. He was not only a harpsichordist but also acted as organist, and this explains the fairly large corpus of organ music which has come down to us. The Duo forms part of that corpus. Nicolas Gigault left a pretty large amount of organ music but has been given little attention. The programme ends with a nice little Noël by Nicolas Lebègue, a specimen of a genre which would become very popular in the following century.
One issue needs to be mentioned. Terence Charlston points out that “the sound is greatly affected by the five bridges, each of which has a distinctive sound with the difference between bridges most pronounced where one ends and another begins”. There are some pieces where this difference in sound – which Charlston compares with the vocal ranges of treble, alto, tenor and bass – can be very clearly noticed. One is the motet by Févin which opens the programme: some phrases are repeated at a lower pitch which immediately makes clear the difference. Another is Tu crois, ô Beau Soleil by Pierre de La Barre where the melody runs up and down the keyboard and thus displays the different colours of the clavichord.
This is a unique recording in that for the first time we hear a clavichord in French keyboard music. It is also a groundbreaking recording, not only because of the first attempt to reconstruct a French clavichord as described by Mersenne but also because of the possible impact on the approach to French harpsichord music in general. As Charlston writes: “The different dynamic and acoustical space of the clavichord, which change the player’s sense of timing and gesture, can be transferred back to the harpsichord. Informed by this experience, harpsichord performance of the same gains a greater awareness of touch and perhaps less reliance on the sheer sonority and power of its plucked sound.”
Terence Charlston deserves much praise for his initiative in making this recording and Peter Bavington for his reconstruction of the Mersenne clavichord. The programme is well put together, including many pieces which are unknown and are played according to the performance habits of the time. Charlston once again proves to be a very stylish and sensitive interpreter. His performances here are simply superb. I should not forget to acknowledge the efforts of the technical staff which has managed to make the clavichord sound very natural. Ample reasons to label this disc Recording of the Month.
December 2015 Recording of the Month