Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Bach: Famous Works on Pedal Harpsichord
Luc Beausejour
Analekta AN2 9970

Preludes and Fugues BWV 535, 541, 545
Passacaglia and Fugue BWV 582
Toccata and Fugue BWV 565
Eight chorale preludes BWV 605, 638, 639, 642, 643, 645, 690, 731


Though we are told that organists in centuries past used pedal harpsichords and pedal clavichords as practice instruments, it has come down to us as more of a novelty instrument or academic exercise than anything mainstream. E. Power Biggs had a pedal harpsichord made for him by American harpsichord builder John Challis in the mid-'60s and made a couple noteworthy recordings on it. For many--certainly for me--this was an introduction to the instrument, and these albums showed off familiar music (two LPs of Bach organ works and one of Joplin rags) in a totally new light.

But as the instrument does not exist in the wild, releases of pedal harpsichord and clavichord recordings after Biggs have been few and far between. Harold Vogel put out an excellent CD of Bach on the pedal clavichord in 1998, and a really splendid pedal harpsichord CD came out a couple years ago (2004) from Frenchman Yves Rechsteiner. And of course there's been the occasional recording of the even rarer pedal piano, a couple of which are reviewed below.

The piano is of course a very different animal from the harpsichord, and even from the clavichord with which it shares its touch-sensitivity. Both harpsichords and clavichords are more private, personal instruments; the clavichord can hardly be heard on the other side of a living room, and a traditional harpsichord--even a big one--is really only suitable for a salon, certainly not a modern concert hall, at least without amplification. This intimacy is one of the things John Challis attempted to remedy by putting a metal frame in his instruments (harpsichord structural bits traditionally being made entirely of wood). This frame was one of the things that rankled purists about Biggs' recordings of it, as it gave the harpsichord a bigger, more sustaining sound. The French piano manufacturer Pleyel had gone even further in the early days of the harpsichord revival, almost duplicating the structure of a modern grand piano in their large concert instruments as favored by Wanda Landowska.

This all leads to a discussion of authenticity and composers' intent and musical purity on which I haven't the expertise to venture forth. For my part, I find I'm more concerned with the sound than the authenticity, and I enjoy the sound of all these instruments. And in truth there are too few recordings for an enthusiast to be very picky.

So the current recording is a most welcome addition to the collection. Montreal-based organ and harpsichord teacher Luc Beausejour plays an instrument that hews much more to the historically accurate than the experimental, a two manual harpsichord and separate pedal instrument from Canadian builder Yves Beaupré. Bach of course translates beautifully to almost any instrumentation, no matter how far afield from that for which it was published (or believed to be intended). One can hear very satisfying Bach on steel drum or recorder ensemble, and pieces written for strings or voice sound great on organ or piano. So whether one is "supposed" to hear Bach on a pedal harpsichord or not, it sounds really fabulous.

To my ear there's a particular approach for Bach that renders his organ music most effectively, and that involves moderate-slow tempi at a mostly straightforward pulse (that is, not too flexible a rhythmic approach) and minimal ornamentation. It is with this approach that I think the genius of Bach's compositional mind shines out most forcefully, like the heat from a glowing ember.  Although playing styles have moved on some, E. Power Biggs achieved this glow often, practically laying the printed score in your lap, and I find that Joan Lippincott and George Ritchie both do very well in selling what Bach wrote. (Organists like Wolfgang Rübsam or Jean Guillou or Ton Koopman have brilliant and splendid things to say--and I love their work--but as with many great virtuosos their message is as much their own as the composer's.)

And by this admittedly personal standard, Luc Beausejour's CD here is a real home run. It's a great sounding instrument, and the performances are absolutely spot-on. To my thinking, if you were not familiar with Bach's music this would be one of the best ways to make an introduction. (As an aside, to my mind the d minor Toccata--probably the most famous single piece of organ music for some reason--is a piece that could be retired without too much protest, and Dr. Beausejour here makes the most persuasive case for keeping the piece around.  I even listened to it twice in a row.)

The recording is excellent, capturing the little ambient noises that are an intrinsic part of the instrument's mechanism. High marks.

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