AN 2 9128 Moments Baroques Piano

Baroque Session on Piano

They spoke about it

Album information

From harpsichord to piano

The repertoire on this recording was written for harpsichord during the Baroque period, generally considered to span the years 1600 to 1750. While many pianists have played Bach, Scarlatti, Handel, Rameau, and even Couperin and Froberger, few harpsichordists have come to the defence of the harpsichord repertoire on the modern piano.

The idea was born during a meeting with Analekta president, François Mario Labbé. I was submitting some recording proposals for harpsichord and clavichord, and he asked me, “Why not make a CD of piano music?” Somewhat taken aback, I asked for a few days to think about it.

Not long after, I suggested a program that would not only include harpsichord repertoire already covered by pianists–Bach, Scarlatti, and Handel– but would also feature some lesser-known works. In compiling this program, I played for several friends on various occasions to get their opinions. After reading through quite a number of works, I selected those that appealed to me most and that I felt worked best on the piano.

Some pieces borrowed from the harpsichord repertoire sound very good on the piano, but I quickly realized that not all Baroque repertoire lends itself to the modern instrument with equal satisfaction.

Highly ornamented works are generally less pleasing on piano and more difficult to perform than on harpsichord. Similarly, contrapuntal works or works in a polyphonic style also require a great deal of adaptation. This is due not to how the piano produces sound (hammered strings) but rather to the nature of that sound and to the characteristics of the piano’s different registers. For example, creating definition for the inner voices of a Bach fugue is much harder on a piano than on a harpsichord. The thicker texture of the piano’s tenor and bass registers necessarily reduces the clarity of the music.

One other thing I soon noticed was the essential need to produce a wide range of dynamics within a piece. The fugue again provides the best example. On the harpsichord, the lack of dynamics is compensated for by its timbre, which provides great clarity in all voices. However, though all the voices of a fugue should have equal prominence, it is necessary on the piano to bring out one or more of them over the others so as not to obscure or flatten the polyphony.

One of the obvious differences between the harpsichord and the piano is the duration of sound; contrary to what one might think, however, this has a limited influence on phrasing and on how the music plays out. On the other hand, the piano’s pedal can be put to interesting use in many cases; if it doesn’t muddle the harmonies, the pedal can produce marvellous “watercolour” effects. I am often asked how harpsichordists play legato on their instrument without a sustain pedal. The answer is found in, among other sources, Rameau’s ornamentation table, in which he illustrates how to extend the resonance of one note over the next–which he called surlegato, or “overlegato”. This technique connects the notes and even makes the first note sound louder than the second, since the first’s resonance slightly covers the second’s attack. There are many examples in Bach’s two-voice works in which he directs the performer to extend the sound of certain notes to increase the harpsichord’s resonance.

To make a plucked string instrument speak expressively, the performer must use different articulations, just as a singer must enunciate consonants. These articulations consist of short bits of silence inserted between notes and that make certain notes stand out, creating a kind of hierarchy that helps listeners to understand the music. The piano and clavichord take a different approach, however. There is less emphasis on the notion of articulation, and musical expression is created more through contrasts, accents, crescendos and decrescendos–in short through a wide range of nuances and colours.

To give the harpsichord a pleasing sound, it is often necessary to incorporate subtle arpeggiation, slight offsets between bass and treble, or clear arpeggios in chords. On the piano, however, arpeggiation is required much less frequently.

As a harpsichordist, it has been fascinating to play a program of harpsichord works on the piano. It has shown me that certain works can benefit from the clarity imparted by the techniques of a plucked string instrument. They work much better when approached by way of the 17th and 18th centuries rather than the 19th and 20th centuries. On the other hand, some pieces, like Louis Couperin’s Pavane in F-sharp minor or the first part of the work by Böhm on this recording, lend themselves to a freer style and, in my opinion, must be rethought in truly pianistic terms.

© Luc Beauséjour
Translated by Peter Christensen

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Luc Beauséjour
AN 2 9128 Moments Baroques Piano
AN 2 9128 Moments Baroques Piano

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