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HPSCHD-L  November 1998

HPSCHD-L November 1998

Subject:

Re: Does the instrument matter? (was Single-manual Goldbergs)

From:

"Hendrik Broekman [log in to unmask]" <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Harpsichords and Related Topics <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Fri, 6 Nov 1998 03:47:44 -0500

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (380 lines)

Warning: rather longish counter-rant,  Actually 'rather longish' ain't in
it.  It's too bloody long, but there you go.
 
To those correspondents to this list who are tiring (or, indeed, tired) of
this thread, I apologize.  I will make this attempt to clearly state my
position and then, off-list it goes!  You may all sign off as soon as you
like.
 
Well, alright then.  Shake the trees hard enough and acorns of agreement
start to fall into view.  There's hope.
 
 Gordon grumped that the aesthetic behind the old-instrument revival is
apparently dead.  Heavens! do I have such power to kill off a movement in
which I am _so_ deeply invested simply by believing what I do?  Only gods
have such power and in the immortal words of the politico (help me out
here, dear listers), 'If nominated I will not run, if elected I will not
serve' (not even as philosopher-king - though, like most, I would be sorely
tempted).
 
I also find myself very much in Owen's predicament
(Owen wrote:
Actually, I find myself in an odd position here. My position had been that
the single was appropriate and fully sufficient for the toccatas in the
first place. I was grateful to get support from Hendrik for my position,
but I will have to say that in other contexts my rant might be closer to
Gordon's about the benefits of diversity and appropriateness.)
 
To add some perspective, please remember that this disagreement arose when
Jim Bunch (primarily a violist) was investigating the now-imfamous D-maj
Toccata and asked about some apparent finger conflicts that made him unsure
as to whether it was inappropriate to pursue the piece on his 1X8'
single-manual harpsichord.  Really, I was only trying to be supportive and
helpful!
 
Observed in real practice by disinterested third parties, Gordon's position
and my own would probably be indistinguishable.  But at the level of core
belief there seem to be some real differences.  In this matter Gordon
adopts a relatively absolutist position that one ideally must have it
nearly all, satisfactory (perhaps 'correct'?) instrument, music and
performance (although he does allow people to enjoy the music in the
privacy of their own homes in any manner they may choose to make it - so
Jim, it's OK) .  Nearly?  Yes. I find a commendable lack of niggling about
hall ambience, a matter about which we here in America have much to feel
inferior to our colleagues in Europe.  On the other hand, I espouse a
somewhat more relativist position that insists on a good performance first,
all other things second.  I have a feeling that, for the purposes of
debate, Gordon tends to diminish the importance my second tier of
desiderata might have in my thinking much as he stretches his
interpretations of my opinions toward the ridiculous.  As much as I may
feel this does me a disservice, in a debate it's a useful tactic in
eliciting a clarification so I suppose it must be expected.  (Sigh!)
 
However, I strongly suspect that in practice Gordon and I would choose to
go to the very same concerts and purchase the very same recordings for
nearly the very same reasons, i.e., for all our closely-held and differing
beliefs we happen to share a great number of preferences.
 
I like to hear (and play) Balbastre on a full-voiced French double, just as
does Rebecca and, I expect, Gordon as well.  However, I also have intense
memories of a concert given by Leonhardt in Brugge one harpsichord festival
year.  With all the instruments available at the festival, he played a
Bruce Kennedy round-tail German double sort of thing (Zellische or
Mietkische, not Hassische) with a rather poppy, italianate sort of sound -
hardly any sustain in the treble.  The concert was in Sint Anna's Kirke, a
rather small stone confection with canvases of saints hung around walls
over the seats lining the perimeter.  The instrument was probably on the
other side of the rood screen from my vantage, but after the first few
measures, I could hear very well.  OK, we already have one potential
contextual disconnect: harpsichord recital/church.  The second half I seem
to remember was one of GL's transcriptions of a Bach 'cello sonata - fair
enough.  The first half?  Forqueray!  There's another disconnect: French
music - I mean _really growly_ French music - on a light-bassed
German-style instrument.  Should I have walked out?  I admit to having been
offended by the prospect, but it was a great concert: eye-opening as well.
Leonhardt managed to 'play that concert with what [he judged] to be an
advantageous and effective combination of instrument and music (not
necessarily 'correct')'.  I'm glad I stayed to hear.  I reiterate: a player
of genius will make apparent difficulties disappear.   Given the choice,
would I knowingly go to hear the same program played on a Steinway?  Only
if I believed the player capable of bringing it off.  I'm sorry to report
that, off the top of my head, no one comes immediately to mind - but it
could happen, really it could.
 
Yet another personal anecdote.  In my youth (probably not yet having moved
from piano to the harpsichord) I attended a  recital played by Robert
Casadesus.  (For the currently-young: Casadesus was a French pianist and
composer, the greater part of whose career was spent in the years
immediately surrounding WWII.  He was one of Columbia's [bought by SONY]
workhorse pianists, very stylish and musical.)  His opener was a selection
of three or four of Rameau's pieces de clavecin.  Again, while in prospect
I was offended, I was convinced on its own terms by the performance which
was not precious but, rather, robust and honestly pianistic (totally unlike
Glenn Gould - shudder...) while trying to convey something like the proper
sense of delicacy.  I do not claim to have learned to like Rameau on the
piano, I don't.  Among other things, I have never heard any pianist play a
creditable mordent.  I suspect that this is one figure the modern piano is
incapable of rendering well.  In fact, the experience served to confirm me
in my subsequent choice of career.  But neither can I condemn Casadesus for
programming those pieces alongside Mozart & Ravel and making them work for
me.  And the pianist may yet be alive who can totally convince me that a
whole program of Rameau is a viable performance option.  (Though, by
definition, such a pianist would be regarded as certifiably crazy by other
pianists and would therefore technically not be regarded as a pianist in
the general practitioner piano-playing tradition - if you catch my drift.
Kind of a Catch-22.)
 
>Of course, the modern piano has longer keys, and stronger leverage at the
>back of the key.  Developments that I suspect were driven in part by the
>desire to facilitate hand crossings such as these.  How many can play the
>Goldbergs without apparent trouble on a single-manual harpsichord?
 
As you recognize, the design of the piano keyboard helps in any close
finger-work.  But we were trying to get Jim Bunch up and playing the
D-major Toccata, not the Goldbergs (they come next year, Jim).
 
>> ... than to their benighted choice of instrument.
 
>If so, how does that defend their benighted choice?
 
To my mind, it preserves the possibility that the instrument is capable of
better than the current conventional wisdom seems to be able to elicit from
it.  You may regard this as an impossibility, I may regard it as an
improbability and we both may have to wait for Hell to freeze over before
we hear such a thing, but until it is proved otherwise, the possibility
that it is possible is still in play.  (Boy-oh-boy, did I have fun with
that sentence!)
 
>> ... any more than you hum the performer's dress-ups.
 
>Well, I have.  Not literally, of course, since I can't reproduce the sound,
>but I have "re-listened to" concerts mentally to savor the sonority of this
>or that instrument.  And on many, if not most, occasions, I have noted how
>the instrument has enhanced, or degraded, the music.
 
As oft do I, but perhaps to a different purpose.  I regard the instruments,
the hall, the performers, the audience, the weather, etc. as contributory
to the general experience.  Are they all equal?  No.  The ratios vary
depending on the circumstances.  If I like an instrument, OK, if I don't,
too bad.  But, good or bad, I know this nearly immediately and then put the
matter aside, close my eyes and concentrate on the music.  If I know what
the performer/s is/are after without seeing, I am intrigued and listen
harder.  And if the performance overcomes what I judge to be substantial
difficulties in the way of instrument choice, I am especially intrigued and
try to figure out how the illusion is being pulled off.
 
>And if the instrument doesn't matter any more than the clothes, why did
>anyone ever go to the trouble of reviving old instruments?  ...
>Why not settle on one standard, generic instrument?
>I thought there was a reason why FF-g3 Franco-Flemish "concert" doubles
>aren't made anymore.
 
Being an observant and practical man, taking very much to heart my mother's
phrase that it is only the difference of opinions that makes a horse race
interesting, I have decided it behooves me (as well as every other
harpsichord maker) to offer instruments that might satisfy many differing
preferences.  It also satisfies my intellectual curiosity to make
instruments in radically different styles and attempt to appraise the
likely physical attributes that contribute to the several different sounds.
 
 
>>Of course it's possible to de-construct the experience (e.g.,
>>superb instrument, crummy player - but handsome/cute!) but for me, my
>>life's too short to willingly sit in a room for two hours listening to hash
>>being made of some of humankind's most exquisite creations just because
>>it's being played on the 'correct' instrument(s).
>
>What about the hash that results from an inappropriate instrument (see my
>previous paragraph)?
 
This will be dealt with below.  If not to your satisfaction we'll just have
to hash this one out off-list.  I suspect the difference is not as great as
you may fear.
 
> Whoever said a bad performance was excusable?  *Of
>course* a satisfying experience requires both a good performer and a good
>instrument.
 
Complete agreement here! Sorry if you think I mis-interpreted you.
 
>(I *don't* envy people who give beginning music lessons!  They
>are greatly underpaid for the great good that they do.)
 
Amen, amen, amen.  Long let such saints live among us.
 
>>Much the same is true in my own living room.  Should I NOT play [X]
>>because I only have a [Y]?
>
>Living rooms are completely different circumstances from concerts or
>recordings.  None of us can afford 20-some instruments, each one the optimum
>for a particular subset of the repertoire.
 
To which accurate statement of dreary fact all builders, to the very last
one I assure you, mutter (sotto voce), 'Drat!'
 
>I envy you builders - you have
>the opportunity to play a wide variety of instruments and explore their
>tonal characteristics, listen to them side by side, and really appreciate
>what those composers were after.  The discussion a while ago of Scarlatti on
>this or that Italian made me green.  (Was it all just a waste of bandwith?)
>I want to understand this too, which is why I like BEMFE so much (and would
>be at Berkeley if I could afford these things every year) and why I'm so
>picky about performances.
 
By all means be picky, it is your prerogative.  Absolutely listen, learn,
analyse, evaluate and especially savor!  Here, I suspect our styles of
observation are sufficiently different to make each of us uncomfortable
with the approach of the other.  Musically, as a listener, I would love to
be solely a hedonist and let the whole experience wash over me and only
think about it afterwards.  As a performer myself, I can't allow any such
loss of control and centering.  Consequently, as I close my eyes listening
to a concert, shadows of the notes on the page form in my mind, the harmony
is tracked, ornaments and agogics duly made note of, etc.  When I'm
listening to a good concert, I'm hard at work.  The illusion is of having a
concert hall behind my eyes.  I want to know why things work and how I can
reproduce or improve on the effect.  Sorry, but I really don't have that
much time for the instrument.  If an instrument (or player, or audience
member, etc.) becomes too great an irritant then I might open my eyes, drum
my fingers and look at the surroundings.  Otherwise I'm gone, lost to the
world.
 
>By all means, play everything on whatever you've got, even if it's a Pleyel.
>Play Liszt on your virginal.  I used to practice the toccatas, the
>Goldbergs, 5-octave Scarlatti - you name it - on a GG/BB-f3 Flemish single
>(as much of those pieces as would fit!)
 
Hmm. range sounds familiar.
 
>But I would think that as you do
>so, you would be aware of the compromises that you are making, and think,
>"Gee, this would sound *so* much better on a <whatever>".  Especially when
>you know what that <whatever> sounds like.
 
Sounds to me like the 'glass half empty' approach.  I try equally as hard
to be aware of the compromises I make as to minimize the number of
compromises to which I am forced.  But I have limited resources, too.  I
sold my much-loved 5-8ve ravalement double three or four years ago and have
not yet been able to replace it with the instrument that should have been
ready within six months of the sale.  I have had to cope with a bunch of
stop-gaps.  There is a great deal of literature that I love very much that,
to my ears, cannot satisfactorily be jammed between the endblocks of a
seventeenth-century French double.  But the Cento Partite sopra la
Passacaglia fits nicely, wrong as might be.  Same with Bach Toccatas.  And
if I had to play such pieces in public on this instrument, I would without
hesitation because I know, in lieu of the 'correct' harpsichord, I can make
this instrument work for the music.
 
> People play Rachmaninov on an
>upright piano every day, but you don't see that in concert.  Beethoven
>included harpsichord on the title page of his "Pathetique" sonata, but do
>you really think that's a credible concert option?
 
David Fuller did so on his Dowd with knee levers.  It was interesting and
informative.
 
>As for my music room, I *was* going to buy an Italian (yes, single manual)
>harpsichord and a clavichord.  Maybe I shouldn't bother.
 
Oh, come on!  Life's too short to sulk.  If you want it, if it's meaningful
to you, that should be sufficient reason.
 
>>The _music's_ the thing and, though it may not sound to the _best_ effect,
>>though I may have to work harder to get the effect I want, range available,
>>I am not going to let the instrument sitting there dictate what I am going
>>to play.  And if the experience teaches me something, then I'm the gainer.
>
>Hmm.  I thought you said it was the performance.  Just what *is* the music?
>Is it just pitches and phrasing?
 
The *music* is what _I_ play.  The *music* is the experience _I_ have while
playing it.  The *music* is the discipline and study of music.  The *music*
is _my_ internalization and understanding of the whole of the piece and the
playing.  The *music* is the game.  The *music* is the joy.  If Gordon were
to use the phrase 'the *music*' with this meaning, it would be about
_Gordon_.  The *performance* is what I buy a CD or a concert ticket (or
sneak in) to hear.
 
>Don't you care what it actually *sounds* like?
 
Look, this is pretty offensive stuff.  Would I be any sort of successful
maker if I did not care about sound and a lot of other details?  What is so
confoundingly difficult for you to wrap your mind around here?  The
experience is greater than 'the sound'.  Of course the sound is important.
If some instrument does not sound to my liking, I do not like the sound.
Fine and done.  I cope. I care, but I cope.  I'm a pro - I can't afford to
dismiss every sound I would not be proud of coming from an instrument of
mine.  If the hall is too cold or too hot or too noisy, it is whatever it
is.  I care, but I cope.  If the performance is not to my liking and
unlikely to improve, I walk.  It's that simple.
 
(Why is range a limitation?  There are work-arounds for that, too.)
 
Quote [copy, scroll, paste] >(as much of those pieces as would fit!) End quote
 
>Stretching the limits of your playing ability is a great thing, and teaches
>you what the instrument can really do.  But doesn't it also teach you what
>it *can't* do?  Doesn't it teach you that for a given piece of music, some
>instruments are better than others at letting or helping you produce the
>*music*?  Not always one best instrument, to be sure, but that some are just
>not up to the task no matter how well you play?  And for others that there's
>just no point in trying to fight it outside the practice room?
 
Sure.  Only my point is: don't shy away from minor difficulties (like
playing Bach Toccatas on single-manual harpsichords) but pick your battles
wisely.  Under no circumstances attempt to program against an instrument to
such an extent that, for whatever reason, success is either too difficult
to attain or too unlikely.
 
>>Then, when I do play that concert with what I judge to be an advantageous
>>and effective combination of instrument and music (not necessarily
>>'correct'), I just may have a few more tricks up my sleeve that enable me
>>to better overcome the instrument's as well as my own incapabilities.
>
>I have heard this rationalization from pianists who play everything on a
>Steinway.  "Sure, I've had to work my tail off to get close to the effects
>that a Graf would supply easily for this Chopin.  I must be a great musician
>in order to do that, huh?"  I would argue that such a player may be a better
>athlete on the keyboard, but their choice of instrument says something about
>their musicianship.  I hope that's not really what you mean here, Hendrik.
 
No of course not.  I once invited a good, professional (i.e., he made
recordings) iron-pianist to play a lovely 5-8ve Broadwood fpiano (this
range quite rare, actually) I had in my shop after giving it its last,
finishing, restorative touches.  Himself came in, sat down, played five
minutes and looked around and said, "Well, I'm glad we have Steinways."
With that bon mot, he left.  More than the ego bars such folk from
understanding the meaning or grasping the implications of these instruments
we both love.  But I cannot accept your assertion that "their choice of
instrument says something about their musicianship."  It says no such
thing.  It only says they have chosen to become part of a company of
like-minded individuals who love that particular instrument as they have
heard it played and wish, more than enything else in the world, and at
great sacrifice in compensation, companionship and precious life minutes,
to be able to play it that way well.  You can't just dismiss pianists as
the football players of the music world.  My point here is that, given
this, they will tend to swim as a school.  So-called HIP musicians swim as
a school, too.  Result: two different schools with very little overlap.  If
pianists' concept of musicianship does not match mine or yours, too bad.
If their studies do not prepare them for stylish continuo realization, too
bad.  If their studies do not prepare them to play Rameau well, ... I think
we don't have to worry too much about that one.  But they do not belong to
some lesser breed from the Planet of the Apes, Dr. Zeus.
 
>As I said above, it's one thing to play 400 years' worth of an entire
>continent's pieces on the one or maybe two instruments you have at home.
>It's quite another to put together a concert or recording program when there
>is a wide variety of instruments available for your use and more than two
>hours of good music for that instrument.
 
Sorry, concerts and recordings are two entirely different species of
endeavor.  Recordings have become a format for gesamtausgaben and, given
the broad distribution of the results and the advertising possibilities,
instrument makers fall over each other to supply just the 'right'
instrument(s).  Need an instrument?  No problem.
 
Programming concerts is an art in which several considerations must be
juggled including, not least, a budget for instruments that usually doesn't
pay for moving one harpsichord, let alone renting a fleet.  And if you are
the harpsichordist and have a 'theme' program that you very much want to
play, and, to be 'correct', you need a short-octave Italian (Frescobaldi),
a 17C Flemish single (Byrd, Gibbons & Bull, maybe some Froberger), a 17C
French single or double (L. Couperin) and an early 18C German single *or*
double *if* available (Bach, perhaps a Toccata, who knows?) and maybe a
late 18C French double for the encore (Duphly), what do you do?  You need
to play the concert - several times - before anyone will even contemplate
recording your performance.  This program might even be the basis of your
thesis.  No thesis, no job.  What do you do?
 
>Sorry if I'm stepping on anyone's toes here, but I happen to care what the
>music I pay to hear actually sounds like.
 
No problem, Gordon.  That's what the market system is all about.
 
Stop in our room at BEMF&E, play what we have (maybe my new instrument,
hope, hope) and then, if you like, I'll buy you a beer.
 
Best,
 
Hendrik Broekman
 
Now can I walk the dog and go to bed?

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