Author Topic: Are early works better performed on harpsichord or piano?  (Read 7359 times)

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David Pinnegar

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Are early works better performed on harpsichord or piano?
« on: September 10, 2012, 09:20:13 PM »
Hi!

In order to try to give perspective to the question of whether early works are better performed on harpsichord or on piano . . . a concert the other day was interesting . . .
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MyUS0cADzvA

Best wishes

David P
David Pinnegar, BSc ARCS

MusingMuso

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Re: Are early works better performed on harpsichord or piano?
« Reply #1 on: September 11, 2012, 02:40:23 PM »
Dear David,

The question itself raises further questions, since you chose to stick a piano and a harpsichord outside: the balance immediately stacked in favour of the piano. A harpsichord cannot sound good in a normal living-room, in a dead acoustic and certainly not outdoors, for it is an indoor instrument specifically associated with the acoustics of large houses, churches and baroque theatres. If you stuck a Silbermann organ outdoors, it would sound equally thin and unmusical. In fact, original instruments cannot be divorced from their proper surroundings, and there are many examples of neo-classical organs placed in acoustically dry rooms,  the musical result usually disastrous.

However, assuming that the instruments are in ideal surroundings, you ask whether it is better to play old music on old instruments or more modern instruments.

As someone who likes to hear historically informed performances, and who plays a fine neo-classical organ in a perfect acoustic, you may think that I would shun other styles of performance, but you would be quite wrong. In fact, one of my favourite recordings of the Bach Harpsichord Concertos is that recorded by Murray Perahia playing piano, which is far from historically accurate. There is no doubt in my mind that he understands the music perfectly, as does the pianist Angela Hewitt

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7MuioQ-zaKo

Now compare this to Trevor Pinnock and the English Concert: as historically informed as it comes, I suppose.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kpqm1hxgH-w

Why do each sound so convincing and so right, when one of them at least, is historically all wrong?

Answer:-  The piano provides the dynamic means of expression which shadows that of the orchestra, and in the second example, the dynamics of orchestra give the impression of the harpsichord being an expressive instrument, by allowing it to come to the fore or shrink into the background.  The difference is that of additive dynamics and reductive dynamics;  both a perfectly acceptable method of making expression possible.

Thus, Bach was writing expressively, but in a reverse way to that which we would normally associate with piano and orchestra. Itís the reason why a truly fine Bach organist can play Bach entirely convincingly, if not historically well informed, on a highly romantic instrument, and a pianist can do the same on a modern piano.

Nevertheless, there are works which lose something when played  the piano; especially music by Alessandro and Domenico Scarlatti.  There are moments when the vibrant rhythms of the music is hammered out in low, block chords, which is really an imitation of the Spanish Guitar. The sound of the jacks falling back after plucking the strings is an integral part of the music; providing a percussive rhythm which is clearly audible.

Best,

MM
« Last Edit: September 12, 2012, 08:23:10 AM by MusingMuso »

David Drinkell

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Re: Are early works better performed on harpsichord or piano?
« Reply #2 on: September 13, 2012, 05:31:57 AM »
It's amazing how Bach transcends the idiom.  I wonder if he is unique, or even unusual, in this.

David Pinnegar

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Re: Are early works better performed on harpsichord or piano?
« Reply #3 on: September 13, 2012, 08:02:55 AM »
Bach - yes - but in this case it was Scarlatti that we all preferred on the piano - or is that because we failed, as MM has pointed out, to appreciate the analogue with the strumming, for instance of a guitar?

Best wishes

David P
David Pinnegar, BSc ARCS

MusingMuso

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Re: Are early works better performed on harpsichord or piano?
« Reply #4 on: September 13, 2012, 10:01:24 AM »
Yes David, as well as a guitarist hitting rather than plucking the strings, with a thud. That's what the jacks do so well on the harpsichord, as well as lute registers, which can copy the effect of a guitarist playing away from the bridge of the instrument using perhaps only the side of the thumb.

With French music, the expression is in the elaborate ornamentation and the use of rubato, which often copies the complex phrasng of the French language. When played on piano, dynamics creep in and tend to ruin the musical intention.


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nawz_64cpHo

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WfFrGgAdYCk

Best,

MM

Ian van Deurne

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Re: Are early works better performed on harpsichord or piano?
« Reply #5 on: September 13, 2012, 04:53:27 PM »
It should be remembered that in the Barock age, the most important thing was the music itself, the instrument on which it was performed on was a secondary consideration. Bach's Passacaglia for instance, was written for performance on either the pedal harpsichord or the organ, although performance on the latter of course is infinately more satisfactory as it can provide far greater differences in dynamics and registration for each variation.

Gottfried Silbermann's organs sound just as well in a 'dry' acoustic as in a 'wet' one. Go and listen to the small organ in Pfaffroda (built 1715) whose sound is perfectly suited to this small church. (although when I played it a few years ago the 16ft Pedal Posaune was suffering from a bad cough!)

Another important point, not well known by many is that Gottfried Silbermann was almost single-handedly responsible for the development of the early piano in Germany. He called it 'Cembalo d'Amour' and three examples of his pianos were owned by Frederick the Great which Bach himself performed on them for him at Potsdam in 1748, the result of which was  "The Musical Offering' (BWV 1079) Two of these pianos are still there and although I have seen them, I had no chance to play them at the time but hopefully that can be remedied sometime in the future.


With best wishes

Ian


MusingMuso

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Re: Are early works better performed on harpsichord or piano?
« Reply #6 on: September 13, 2012, 06:33:48 PM »
It should be remembered that in the Barock age, the most important thing was the music itself, the instrument on which it was performed on was a secondary consideration. Bach's Passacaglia for instance, was written for performance on either the pedal harpsichord or the organ, although performance on the latter of course is infinately more satisfactory as it can provide far greater differences in dynamics and registration for each variation.

Gottfried Silbermann's organs sound just as well in a 'dry' acoustic as in a 'wet' one. Go and listen to the small organ in Pfaffroda (built 1715) whose sound is perfectly suited to this small church. (although when I played it a few years ago the 16ft Pedal Posaune was suffering from a bad cough!)

Another important point, not well known by many is that Gottfried Silbermann was almost single-handedly responsible for the development of the early piano in Germany. He called it 'Cembalo d'Amour' and three examples of his pianos were owned by Frederick the Great which Bach himself performed on them for him at Potsdam in 1748, the result of which was  "The Musical Offering' (BWV 1079) Two of these pianos are still there and although I have seen them, I had no chance to play them at the time but hopefully that can be remedied sometime in the future.





Just for the sake of pedantry, I didnít say that a Silbermann organ would sound bad in a dry acoustic. I was referring to neo-classical instruments. Actually, I have played quite a few organs in the Netherlands which speak into a dry acoustic; though usually the churches have wooden interiors, which make for a warm, natural resonance rather than any extended reverberation. I canít explain it in words, but for anyone who wants to experience a wooden interior of this type, I would recommend a visit to the splendid Georgian theatre at Richmond, in what was (quite rightly) North Yorkshire rather than the absurdly small and absurdly constituted county of Richmond.

David Drinkell makes the point that Bachís music transcends the musical idiom, and Ian makes the similar point about the music being more important than the means of performance. That is so, simply because the music of the era had both vertical and linear structure, and the instruments of the day  exploited this.....or was it the other way around? (We often underestimate the influence of instrument makers on the development of music). We might reasonably conclude that the solo instrumental voice was subservient to the contrapuntal architecture of the music; all made so beautiful by exquisite melody: the essence of ĎBel Cantoí. It is miraculous how Bachís music can be entirely satisfactory when played on a synthesiser, sung by such as the Swingel Singers or even rendered on a theatre organ with the help of percussion registers, as Carlo Curley did on one delightful recording of the G major Trio Sonata. All that is required is equality and compatibility of voices, and this is why the baroque was destroyed by the invention of Violas and Clarinets; not to mention Tubas and French Horns. Itís a case of colour in context, rather than colour for its own sake.

Returning to the original point about acoustics, I would suggest that ANY organ or harpsichord falls flat on its face outdoors, but at least, with the organ, sonority and balance CAN be maintained by a bit of extreme voicing, as in the case of Mortier and Gavioli etc. They are, without doubt, indoor instruments, whereas the piano can be wheeled into the street complete with monkey; assuming that the pianist has a licence.

Best,

MM

JBR

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Re: Are early works better performed on harpsichord or piano?
« Reply #7 on: September 13, 2012, 10:10:14 PM »

Just for the sake of pedantry...   
...I would recommend a visit to the splendid Georgian theatre at Richmond, in what was (quite rightly) North Yorkshire rather than the absurdly small and absurdly constituted county of Richmond.


With my pedant's hat on, may I correct you on this small point.  Richmond is, of course, in the North Riding of Yorkshire and has been for centuries!
A missionary from Yorkshire to the primitive people of Lancashire

MusingMuso

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Re: Are early works better performed on harpsichord or piano?
« Reply #8 on: September 14, 2012, 12:44:06 AM »
I have been harbouring a misconception for years.....I feel liberated.

I think I had been misled by the A1 roadsigns, which read "Welcome to Richmondshire"

Well that's good.....and William Hague MP is a national treasure. His speech in the commons about "President Blair" is one of the funniest in the history of parliament.  It's on Youtube, and always cheers me up when I go to it.

Best


MM

JBR

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Re: Are early works better performed on harpsichord or piano?
« Reply #9 on: September 14, 2012, 11:15:43 PM »
Who takes any notice of road signs?!
A missionary from Yorkshire to the primitive people of Lancashire

David Pinnegar

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Re: Are early works better performed on harpsichord or piano?
« Reply #10 on: September 15, 2012, 01:46:43 AM »
Dear MM

I had the privilege today of tuning for another concert of the Maestro today on a Grotrian Steinweg, as far removed from harpsichord as one can get.

He performed again the Scarlatti and perhaps the recording I made may be good enough for YouTube in due course but he introduced the sonatas making a significant point that Scarlatti's father was a composer and arguably the originator of opera buffa . . . . an artform in which feeling and expression exceeded the capability of the harpsichord.

In transcribing the idiom of the guitar for the harpsichord, the harpsichord is inferior to the powers of expression of the guitar. So in this case the expressive qualities of the piano may be more appropriate. . . . and certainly audiences are enjoying his more expressive performances afforded by the capabilities of the piano . . .

Perhaps other examples of early composers may be more arguable?

Best wishes

David P
David Pinnegar, BSc ARCS

MusingMuso

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Re: Are early works better performed on harpsichord or piano?
« Reply #11 on: September 15, 2012, 08:06:19 PM »
Dead David,


I know just what you mean about these inexpressive instruments..... 8)


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IPqCh21GbNI


Best,

MM

MusingMuso

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Re: Are early works better performed on harpsichord or piano?
« Reply #12 on: September 16, 2012, 09:40:57 PM »
Dear MM

I had the privilege today of tuning for another concert of the Maestro today on a Grotrian Steinweg, as far removed from harpsichord as one can get.

He performed again the Scarlatti and perhaps the recording I made may be good enough for YouTube in due course but he introduced the sonatas making a significant point that Scarlatti's father was a composer and arguably the originator of opera buffa . . . . an artform in which feeling and expression exceeded the capability of the harpsichord.

In transcribing the idiom of the guitar for the harpsichord, the harpsichord is inferior to the powers of expression of the guitar. So in this case the expressive qualities of the piano may be more appropriate. . . . and certainly audiences are enjoying his more expressive performances afforded by the capabilities of the piano . . .

Perhaps other examples of early composers may be more arguable?

Best wishes

David P


Dear David,


Working from a position of modernity backwards is never a good way of realising the intentions of a composer, anymore than is re-creating Hamlet in the street language of to-day. This is not to suggest that such a course of action is necessarily inartistic or contrived; far from it, but to suggest that re-inventing music or drama automatically comes up with something better is, I believe, a profound mistake. What you end up with is something different and any judgement of quality of artistic merit stands or falls on the basis of that elusive X-factor. Am I and others moved by it? If not, is it because I am being titlilated or irritated by the dictates of fashion or novelty?

The whole point of early music scholarship is not to discredit more modern interpretations, but to limit ourselves to those resources available to the composer, and to then explore means by which music can be played in such a way that it still moves the listener. That is terribly important, because it goes to the heart of the matter and keeps us grounded as active musicians. So many performances of early music are note perfect yet sterile, and the techniques of voice-leading, rubato  playing and balanced phrasing were the only means of expression open to the organist or harpsichordist of the day, other than changes of registration of course. I think I would argue that these basic essentials are vital to any understanding of the music, but once understood, it is perfectly possible to introduce dynamic expression as well. So many theatrical performances of Bach are ruined by an excess of dynamic, where the underlying architecture is lost to showmanship and spectacular changes of registration.

I would further argue that really expressive Bach is the preserve of the few rather than the many, whatever playing style is adopted and no matter what the instrument.

Musicianship is about knowing the difference.

The problem with Scarlatti Jr. (Domenico), is knowing exactly what type of harpsichord he played in Spain. I'm not sure that I know, but of anyone doesm please tell us.

Still, is is perfectly possible to play this music on other instruments, and here are a few examples, which I believe to be faithful to what the composer intended or implied.

Prepare to be delighted and amazed in equal measure.

The first example is the excellent Kenneth Gilbert playing Bachís BWV 847 as expressively as the original type of instrument will allow.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DvmCUx7NdLg
 
The comparison with the boy playing the same piece on a Bayern Accordion, (as expressive as it comes), lacks knowledge of structure and phrasing, but what technique!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ae6SmXJG064&playnext=1&list=PLBE9189DA4ACE826D&feature=results_video

On the same instrument, (played by a performer of outstanding maturity and fabulous technique), I would suggest that this is a very faithful and musically exciting transcription with all the passion and colour of the original.
 
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EFNNPZsO7-Q
 
How about Scarlatti transcribed to guitar? What fantastic technique! 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E00tVbSEaUA

Here is an example of the percussive sound of the jacks thumping back down on the harpsichord; the keyboard equivalent to the guitar bebung technique.     

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=endscreen&v=KdF_S57fyK8&NR=1

Trust that pesky accordionist to match the technique!         

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ehIW0KMNRXo

Best,

MM
« Last Edit: September 16, 2012, 09:58:56 PM by MusingMuso »

 


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