Despite the CD’s title, it is not dominated by Bach and Handel’s early music. Bach might perhaps have acknowledged his origins as ‘Thuringian’, but the epithet refers to the instrument used for this recording. As the booklet explains, this CD is a ‘portrait’ of a particular instrument: a recent copy by David Evans of the German harpsichord lodged in the Bachhaus at Eisenach.
We have here the opposite of what often happens with a recording of period keyboard music, where the player chooses the repertoire and then seeks out an instrument which works best for that music. Here, the player has chosen music to suit the instrument, offering a fascinating selection of mainly unfamiliar pieces by twelve composers. All are worth hearing, and were chosen to represent the kind of music which the two great German geniuses grew up with, here played on an instrument with a similar claim to our attention.
The original Eisenach harpsichord has been a focus of interest only in recent years, as modern makers and players have sought out harpsichords linked in some way with J S Bach. It is a rare survival, but may represent a style of building which was once common: German harpsichords differed in character according to their region, and few have survived.
The harpsichord’s musical design echoes that of surviving instruments of a much earlier date. A double soundboard results in a tone, when using one of the two sets of strings, quite like that of a Flemish Muselar (a large virginals, popular in the Low Countries a century earlier, in which the strings were plucked close to their centre point, like the one in the painting on the cover of the CD booklet). While powerful and direct, it is surprisingly melodic, although it might be tiring in the wrong hands. It was the copy which inspired the player in this case, and it was presumably chosen for its reliability of action, although the original was restored to playing condition in 1975.
The sound of this instrument is unusual and attractive, and Charlston remarks that both Bach and Handel may have known instruments like this in their younger days, but the question must remain as to what this particular one was designed for. Charlston is one of England’s finest continue players, who knows that in 18 lh -century Germany, even more than elsewhere, continue was the core of harpsichord training and performance. Solo playing was a relatively minor activity, contrary to today’s recitals, derived from the pianistic tradition.
Certain characteristics of the Bachhaus harpsichord suggest that it was not designed with solo performance in mind. It was built to be loud, rather than intimate and expressive. It was given a plain, unadorned finish, and the registers were movable only by old-fashioned projections through the side of the case. The keyboard is a minimal four octaves and one note, BB – c'”. Above all, it has what modern makers only now tend to include: a transposing keyboard, covering three semitones. It may well have been built expressly for ensemble use. The various pitches used by wind instruments and organs were irrelevant to solo music, but a transposer would have been invaluable if the harpsichord was used, for example, in church.
How was the original instrument’s transposer used, though? The present copy employs the central keyboard position, with a pitch of A=440, but it is more likely that it was the other two positions, for a low pitch around 415, and the high pitch two semitones above this, for which it was designed.
None of this invalidates the recording. We want to hear what this harpsichord sounds like, and the solo repertoire chosen does this very well. A nice balance has been struck between extrovert music (a Bach Toccata begins the CD, and Handel’s Harmonious Blacksmith Variations conclude it) and singing, sensitive pieces played on one register. By responding beautifully to the considerable variety of styles, Charlston illuminates the instrument as well as one could wish.
In general, he sounds completely at home, and especially so in more improvisatory material, where so many players fail. For me, highlights of his playing are the way he encourages us, when the music allows, to listen to the decay of the instrument’s tone, and the unforced spontaneity of the prelude to the Handel suite – the most successful playing of this awkward piece that I have heard. Several pieces not previously known to me include a stunning, extended Passacaglia lasting 11 minutes, by Johann Philipp Krieger, who died in 1725. More beautiful and inventive than the better-known long Giacona by his brother Johann, it was surely in Telemann’s mind when writing the final movement of his sixth Paris Quartet.
The booklet, dominated by an extended essay by Charlston on the music and its composers, is packed with information of interest to the specialist listener – down to a list of the several tuning systems used during the recording. Anyone seeking insight into the dating of the Bachhaus harpsichord (given as c. 1715) and the reason for it being in the Bachhaus museum, will, however, be’ disappointed. Perhaps it is unfair to voice slight complaints about the use of photographs: That of the Evans copy shows it finished in a manner quite different from the original – rather a pity – while the player is photographed sitting at yet another kind of harpsichord.
Nevertheless, and more importantly, we have here an innovative recording, exploring mainly unfamiliar music, on a type of harpsichord which is poorly understood today – one which, as Charlston points out, is very far from what our ears are used to in performance of German keyboard music. While one may ache to hear the original, the distinctive sound of the copy is clear. We may hope, in time, to hear the effect of the instrument when used in ensemble. As for the performer, one of the most satisfying features of the CD is that the restricted specifications of the instrument – one keyboard and two registers – allow us to hear a fine player depending on his own resources, and doing so with obvious enjoyment.