The Consort

The focus of this interesting CD is an instrument, rather than a composer, and the instrument itself is a replica. Unfortunately there is no known surviving example of an original French clavichord, so for this recording Terence Charlston plays a reconstruction by Peter Bavington of a clavichord described in detail in Harmonie universelle (1637) by Marin Mersenne (1588-1648). The music chosen for the CD reflects what is likely to have been played in France during Mersenne’s lifetime. While most of the 21 tracks are French, there are also pieces from the Netherlands, England and Italy.

Seven volumes of keyboard music were published in Paris by Pierre Attaingnant in about 1530. After this, there was a gap of almost 100 years before the appearance of two volumes of organ music by Jehan Titelouze (1623 and 1626) and a series of Livres d’orgue commencing in 1664 with a volume by Gabriel Nivers. Music for stringed keyboard instruments fared no better, with two small volumes of pieces by Chambonnières (1670) followed by suites by Lebègue (1677 and 1687), and a collection of suites by D’Anglebert (1689), combined with transcriptions from Lully. Although a large amount of material survives in manuscript, much has clearly been lost.

This CD is divided into three sections; it opens with eight tracks of little-known music from the sixteenth century. They include two longer pieces from Attaingnant’s keyboard prints and several arrangements from music for other instruments or voices by Pierre Blondeau, Guillaume Costeley and Nicolas Gombert. These are successful arrangements made by Charlston in accordance with contemporary practice. Pieces originally for keyboard include one in two voices, La Bounette , from the Thomas Mulliner Book ( c . 1565) and two exuberant Gagliardas from Antonio Gardane’s collection, Intabolatura nova di balli (1551), published in Venice.

The second section, entitled ‘The early 17th century’, opens with five short pieces from a manuscript now in Aberdeen, including an interesting Canaries in equal notes. These are followed by the most substantial work on the CD, the monumental organ Fantaisie by Charles Racquet (1597-1664), composed at Mersenne’s request, ‘to show what could be done at the organ’ ( pour montrer ce que se peuct faire à l’orgue ). This unique contrapuntal work is considered to be one of the finest fugues of the period, and a stiff examination of the performer’s credentials – here passed with flying colours.

Three selections from the Netherlands include a further demanding Toccata by Sweelinck, four preludes from a group of ten psalm-tone intonations, and an Echo Fantasia by Gérard Scronx, the possible author of a large manuscript compiled in Liège; in this work, the echoes sound most effective on the clavichord. Five short pieces from a Paris manuscript, a song setting from Mersenne’s Harmonie universelle and a Prelude and Volte by the lutenist Mercure offer further variety from this period.

The final section comprises five pieces from the later seventeenth century, opening with a commanding performance of the controlled drama of the unmeasured prelude in D minor from D’Anglebert’s Pièces de clavecin , followed by a sedate Sarabande in A minor by Chambonnières. The CD ends with three organ pieces: the rhythmically varied Duo by Louis Couperin, a plaintive Récit à trois by Nicolas Gigault and a lively setting of the charming Noel Laissez paistre vos by Nicolas Lebègue, from his Troisième livre of 1685.

Throughout the recordings, Charlston’s careful attention to details of articulation and ornamentation is impressive, and the range of dynamics he draws from the instrument should convince the most sceptical of the potential of the clavichord – under the right hands – to be employed in a wide variety of different genres. Charlston even includes pieces specifically composed to demonstrate the different tone colours of the organ. The clavichord is tuned in a quarter-comma meantone at a1=392khz, a semitone below the pitch at which seventeenth-century pieces are usually played; this produces a different listening experience from many recordings and live performances.

The accompanying booklet contains a facsimile of the clavichord reproduced in Mersenne’s Harmonie universelle, a detailed account of the history of the clavichord in France, and comments on the pieces played on the CD. There is a most interesting account of the instrument on which the recording was made and the challenges which Peter Bavington faced when building it. This CD is an excellent introduction to this repertoire, much of which is still largely unexplored and unrecorded; it will appeal not only to the specialist performer but also to those non-players who are keen to expand their knowledge of less familiar repertoire.

—John Collins