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Everything You Wanted To Know About Harpsichord, But Were Afraid To Ask


Text of the booklet "Harpsichord Gems, vol 4. Everything You Wanted To Know About Harpsichord, But Were Afraid To Ask"

Olga Martynova interviewed by Anna Andrushkevich

Nowadays many performers want to play music written for piano on the harpsichord. I began my conversation with Olga Martynova by asking what first gave her the idea.
It all began a few years ago. I was curious to know how music written for another instrument would sound when played on the harpsichord. I knew that Shostakovich and Prokofiev had been played on the harpsichord but had never listened to any recordings, maybe as a conscious decision. True, I have heard contemporary music written for harpsichord, but I find it sometimes even harder to play than other compositions that were never originally intended for the instrument.

Do compositions for piano change to any great extent when arranged for harpsichord?
Of course. Techniques ordinarily used are redundant here and the usual devices disappear of their own accord, giving the piece a newer, fresher sound, as if rejuvenated. The text remains inviolable, but there are many changes in the interpretation. After all, the harpsichord is an entirely different instrument demanding a different touch, a different approach from the performer.

Smoothly increasing or decreasing volume is impossible on the harpsichord, besides there are no pedals. So how can you retain the expressive qualities of a piece written for piano?
Yes, smooth dynamics and pedal effects become impossible. If you hammer on the harpsichord keys you simply produce a wooden thump and the notes are no louder, but on the contrary muffled. We are only left with articulation and agogic (emphasis by timing). For instance, if you play shorter notes – staccato – this gives the impression the sound is growing softer, while weighty playing where the notes appear fused together seems loud, and so on. This is why we vary our articulation when performing a piano piece on the harpsichord. Schubert’s Moment Musical is a good example. The score is marked legato at the beginning. But if the correct piano legato is played on the harpsichord, the polyphony originally intended is inaudible. This is due to the very nature of the instrument: on the piano legato gives added expression, but on the harpsichord it is impossible. As for dynamics, Baroque composers who had an excellent understanding of this instrument’s peculiarities created dynamic contrasts by the various musical textures: multi-toned chords sound louder than separate sounds. If the composer needed greater volume he wrote the music with increased density. But the composer’s technique is insufficient: the performer has to accentuate textural variations by skilful musical timing. Without this other techniques are practically useless and incapable of producing the necessary effect. Mastery of timing and the ability and understanding necessary to create an impression of movement and control this movement demand a specifically “harpsichord” mindset, and learning this is harder than anything.

So you choose the pieces to be played on the harpsichord from piano compositions. What do you take into consideration, apart from the range?
The texture. All the works presented on this disc are well suitable for harpsichord. In other words, an ear more accustomed to hearing Baroque music should not find the sound of these pieces out of place. On the contrary, you might think this is a typical style for the harpsichord. It even seems strange such pieces were not written when the art of harpsichord playing was flourishing, rather than at a time when the instrument is largely forgotten.

No doubt the harpsichord player is surprised as well as pleased to encounter a piece that could have been written for his instrument among 19th- or 20th-century piano music. Did you make unexpected discoveries when you were choosing these compositions?
Yes, of course. I found Cramer quite astonishing, for example. He was a pupil of Clementi and a renowned virtuoso, also a famous teacher and learned musician. During his lifetime (he was a contemporary of Beethoven) Cramer was a respected Bach scholar, something quite rare in the 19th century. We may assume he had a thorough knowledge of Bach and this is occasionally noticeable in his music, which sounds splendid on the harpsichord. I find that the music of many “minor” composers (Cramer is probably not one of the greatest) betrays their musical persuasion: we can determine a favourite composer from their own work. Cramer’s etudes clearly show that he was interested in the Baroque epoch.
He published two collections of etudes that have been widely used for teaching purposes ever since. Beethoven spoke well of them and set them as practice exercises for his pupils. As befits an etude, each of the pieces is intended to develop an aspect of piano technique.
For example the Etude in F minor is an exercise for crossed hands. But at the same time we distinctly feel the influence of Rameau, and a listener unaware of the real author might assume the piece dated from the 18th century. This Etude is written in a style favoured by Rameau (calling to mind Le Rappel des Oiseaux and Les Cyclopes) and is very much in keeping with that period in both texture and mood.
The B flat major Etude clearly follows Bach’s B flat major Prelude from Book 1 of The Well-Tempered Clavier. The A minor Etude is quite a slow exercise for arpeggios obviously meant to help the performer hold notes in smooth succession. But by their very nature these arpeggios refer us to Baroque music, to the arpeggiato preludes and numerous opuses for piano.
In the E major Etude there seems to be a reference to Mendelssohn, and I was pleased to discover that Hans von Bßlow had the same impression. There is a published collection of Cramer’s Etudes edited by von Bßlow, and in the commentaries he calls the E major Etude a prototype of Mendelssohn’s Lieder ohne Worte (Songs without Words), noting that it is in no way inferior in musical terms (I agree). But if we turn our attention to the texture, this is a three-voice composition where the middle voice is the most mobile, with unbroken sixteenths, while the melody and bass are written in longer notes. This texture can be found in Rameau and Handel and was very popular with earlier composers...

What a beautiful comparison, Cramer and Mendelssohn. This disc features one Song without Words, but this is very different to the Cramer cantilena.
Mendelssohn was one of the first composers chosen for this album: I was keen to record this optimistic but very complex piece on the harpsichord. I had played it in the past to prove how adept I was at playing the instrument, to try and achieve the impossible on the harpsichord.

But you also play pieces from Schumann’s Album for the Young and Khachaturian’s Children’s Album.
That is because the piano technique required in pieces for children is obviously not intended to display all the skills of an adult pianist and so it can be adapted easily to the harpsichord. These pieces include harmonies that are easily achieved, they have a range suited to the harpsichord and their polyphony never demands a vast instrumental scale. Besides, I am very fond of this music. Schumann’s Mignon is one of my all-time favourite pieces. Mai, Lieber Mai is a charming miniature written as a rondo, a form much loved by Couperin. The pastoral mood is also very reminiscent of the French harpsichord composers, even the title of the piece might well belong to Couperin.

There is nothing by that name in Couperin’s work, but he did write a piece called Les Moissonneurs (The Reapers). How would you compare Couperin’s piece with the Schnitterliedchen (The Reaper’s song) by Schumann?
The text is completely different, but I think they are similar in content. Lively, buoyant, but not lacking in refinement. In Schumann’s time agricultural technology had obviously made little progress since the Baroque period, so these pieces bear some resemblance...

Schumann sounds quite unusual on your instrument. But the notion of playing Khachaturian on the harpsichord will seem extraordinary to many people. A piano arrangement of the Adagio from Gayane is among the Children’s Album pieces. What attracted you to this music in particular?
When arranged for piano this Adagio turns into a two-part invention. It becomes slow and very lucid, texturally frugal. There are many indications of tempo and I try to implement them, in fact they help a lot (in the sense of dynamics and time mastery). Overall, playing a piano polyphony on the harpsichord is quite a tempting prospect. If the force of the key stroke has no effect on the volume, all the voices are heard in an ideal way and moreover no particular effort is required of the performer in producing dynamics. Details that can remain unnoticed when performed on the piano are clearly heard in the harpsichord transcription and the polyphony becomes as distinct as possible.

This argument also favours the idea of playing Shostakovich’s fugues on the harpsichord, especially since they were written “in the spirit of Bach”. Would you say Shostakovich’s compositions are suitable for harpsichord, too?
Yes and no. Many of those preludes and fugues that contain evident allusions to Bach compositions are completely impracticable for the harpsichord. The very wide compass and indispensable use of the pedal (for instance if the piece demands a sustained bass note) make them completely unsuitable for an ancient instrument. Not many Shostakovich preludes and fugues can be performed on the harpsichord without undergoing serious alteration. Maybe only two or three in addition to those I play. Although Shostakovich’s polyphony is so delicate, when it is technically possible to play his fugues on the harpsichord they sound exquisite. The only complication that can occur is the dynamic climax. But for instance in the B flat minor fugue there is just one dynamic mark, pianissimo, at the beginning. Nothing more, for the entire ten minutes of the piece. Who could resist playing it on the harpsichord!
And the superb A minor fugue? It seems to refer us to the C minor fugue from Book 1 of The Well-Tempered Clavier. These works are akin in emotional intensity, as well as rhythmically similar. Nonetheless Shostakovich remains Shostakovich, and there is plenty of sharp rather than malicious sarcasm in his fugues. This sounds to best advantage on the harpsichord, since “sharp” sounds are easily produced.
The fugue in D major sounds very amusing on this instrument because both the initial phrases break off before achieving a strong beat, something uncharacteristic of Baroque phrasing. The ends of phrases are sometimes played more softly on the piano, but on the harpsichord it is impossible since all sounds have equal volume, so this lends a lively sense of humour to the fugue. Such a simple detail... It took me a while to understand this myself!
Generally speaking I was interested in trying to interpret these fugues as they might have been interpreted in the 18th century. I attempted to give them the treatment they would have been given then.

Probably we could say the same of all the pieces on this disc?
Yes, of course.

Translation by Patricia Donegan

Text of the booklet "Harpsichord Gems, vol 4. Everything You Wanted To Know About Harpsichord, But Were Afraid To Ask"


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