Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Faraway Places

I have just posted the program for Christophe Rousset’s April 9 concert. I was struggling with the word “exotic” in the title (“Exoticism on the Harpsichord”) until I looked the word up:

Being or from or characteristic of another place or part of the world. Strikingly strange or unusual.

In that sense, the titles of the pieces from my very favorite three French composers are suddenly relevant, evoking faraway places, perhaps drums beating in distance, and … well, the imagination runs wild. Just consider a few of these:

  • Les Chinois (the Chinese)
  • Les Sauvages (the Savages)
  • L’Egyptienne (the Egyptian)
  • Air pour les esclaves affricains (Air for African slaves)
  • Air grave pour les Incas du Pérou (Serious air for the Incas of Peru)
  • Zaïde (Queen Zaïde in the Alhambra has to decide between the love of two rival Moorish princes)

Heavens: this isn’t just a concert, it is a National Geographic expedition! I know all of the pieces on this program intimately—all from Rousset recordings. It is hard for me to think of these as “exotic,” but the world was a much larger and mysterious place in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

If you already love the French baroque harpsichord repertoire, I can only assume you will attend this smorgasbord of delights. If you aren’t sure that you know or love this music, there is absolutely no better selection to serve as an introduction. Performed by the iconic musician of this repertoire.

Don’t miss the April 9 concert at the Auditorium at TSRI. I can think of no better acoustics for the harpsichord, and every seat is excellent. For details and to order tickets, visit the SDEMS website.


Monday, January 21, 2013

Dancing Duphly

Jacques Duphly (1715–1789) was one of the very late composers for the French harpsichord. Indeed, by the end of the eighteenth century, I’m not sure the harpsichord was hanging on anywhere else, except as a relic; the fortepiano was rapidly eclipsing it. I found a wonderful timeline for 200 years of French harpsichordists on Wikipedia that helps demonstrate where Duphly fits in. Duphly’s music is tuneful, energetic, and charming; it would be one of my first choices to introduce a newcomer to the instrument. Yet, there has been a dearth of good recordings, especially in the last decade.

I was fortunate to get an early listen to Christoph Rousset’s latest CD, brought from France courtesy of the SDEMS “French Connection.” I couldn’t wait to get my own copy, and it is now generally available in the US. In almost every way it is a stunning recording that uncovers the delights or this often overlooked composer and reveals the best of Rousset: the ebullient energy of his youthful recordings with what I can only describe as a laser-like focus on the nuance and details of a more seasoned master.

France produces many talented harpsichordists, (many of whom have performed in San Diego). I think I find Rousset the most unique in style, and he is second to none in technique. He takes his own tempi, many of them quite brisk. He doesn’t wallow in sentimentality, which is not to say that he is cold. Rather, I think he is a slave to dance and I have found all of his more recent recordings, such as his latest Froberger, are revelations because he maintains a dance-like pulse while introducing every subtlety of articulation and agogic accents the harpsichord can offer. If you know the music well, you will savor Rousset’s command of the very French notes inégales

Also stunning is the instrument itself, an instrument by Christian Kroll that was built in 1779 and found entirely in its original state. This is a very late instrument, with a big and refined sound, perfect for Duphly’s music. My one complaint with the recording is its sound: the ambient noise is a low roar throughout the recording. I’m sure this is due as much to the recording location as the placement of the microphones:la Galerie dorée de la Banque de France, obviously a large and resonant room. This is not distracting when played in a room at moderate levels, but it is quite obvious with headphones and it reduces the clarity of the sound. I wouldn’t let this discourage you from running out and buying this 2-CD set.

Christoph Rousset will make his West Coast debut April 9 at the superb TSRI auditorium, easily the best venue for a solo harpsichord recital in San Diego. If you don’t already have tickets, order them online now; people will be traveling from far and wide for this event.


Thursday, November 15, 2012

Less is More

I spent the day listening to the wonderful baroque organ at All Souls’ Episcopal Church, and it really was a revelation. What a glorious, big sound! This is a big sound full of nuance and color. I’m struggling to comprehend why we thought modern materials and technology could improve upon that design.

At the risk of over-simplifying, a baroque organ (perhaps more accurately, a “baroque-style organ”) differs from a “modern” organ in several key areas. First of all, it is all mechanical, with the exception that nowadays electric blowers replace hand bellows. No electric relays or fancy electronics. Secondly, it is constructed with lots of wood components: there is no plastic and metal is relegated to the pipes and small pivots and connectors. Indeed, they are often assembled using wood pegs, rather than screws. Why does this matter? Wood has many desirable properties, including acoustic, but it also is sensitive to changes in humidity—just like other acoustic instruments. Finally, the air pressure used to blow the pipes is lower.

This feature of lower air pressure is similar to that of the pitch/tension for stringed instruments. Higher pitch results in higher tension and generally greater volume. There is a cost. Higher tension results in a brighter, more strident sound. Likewise, higher air pressure in organs may result in more volume, but it affects the sound. Think of blowing a whistle: with a moderate blow, you get a nice round sound. Blowing as hard as you can results in a louder, but more shrill sound.

Geoff Graham, the organist at All Souls', is like a proud father of this organ, and rightfully so. His enthusiasm for the features and nuances is infectious. I returned home with a copy of “The Organ Handbook,” by Hans Klotz at Geoff’s insistence. The details of the organ have always eluded me. Even worse, it abounds with terms of obscure German origin: Hauptwerk, Rückpositiv, Brustpedal, etc. Not to mention the huge list of stops: Rauschpfeife, Quintade, Gedackt, Rohrflöte, Sifflöte, etc., etc. I’ve looked on Wikipedia in the past to make light of this, with little success. Klotz’s book is a step in the right direction.

Maude Gratton at the organ
I must be truthful: all of the recordings I own feature baroque organs, mostly historic instruments that have been preserved or restored, so I’m sure I’m predisposed to their charms. However, I grew up with more modern pipe organs, and that is the live sound I am used to. And, for good reason: there aren't lots of baroque organs in Southern California. The modern organs may offer more of a lot of things, including volume and range, but for baroque music, a good baroque organ proves less is more.

Be sure to visit All Souls’ sometime to hear the real deal and decide for yourself. Better yet, hear it played by French virtuoso Maude Gratton Friday night. As Maude told me, it is the best instrument she has played in her American tour. Tickets can be purchased at the door. For details, see


Friday, November 9, 2012

Big Sound

The organ at All Souls'
I love big sound, which accounts for what seems like a small fortune I sink into my stereo equipment. Sound, mind you, not noise! Of all the solo instruments, nothing is capable of generating more decibels than the pipe organ. Try as I might, I can’t reproduce the experience of listening to an organ in my living room. There simply isn’t enough air to push around. This should be a compelling reason to come to All Souls’ Episcopal Church in Point Loma next Friday to hear French organist Maude Gratton play a program of Bach, Buxtehude, Bruhns, Weckmann, and Mendelssohn.

Maude Gratton is a name that risen especially over the last couple of years; I’ve been trying to get her lauded 2009 recording of W. F. Bach’s Fantaisies, Sonates & Fugues, but it remains an expensive import. (Perhaps I’ll get lucky and she will bring copies to sell at the concert…) She won the prestigious organ prize at the Bruges festival and was named “Young Soloist for Public Francophone Radio Stations” in 2006. A rising star, indeed!

Maude will be performing on not just any pipe organ, but rather the only baroque organ south of the Los Angeles area. An organ is an organ — right? Not really. Just like the piano and violin, modern organs are being built for size and power. The baroque organ is a more subtle instrument, one that uses lower air pressure (back in those days, they were pumped by hand) and direct mechanical connection from the keyboard to the pipes. This was the instrument that Bach wrote for and it is a unique opportunity to hear his music in that context.

Bach is, of course, a big draw, but Maude’s program includes pieces by other very important organ composers. Buxtehude is an oft recognized name; Bach walked half way across German to Lübeck to observe and study with him. As an aside, Buxtehude was offering his daughter as an enticement to inherit his important position, a trap Bach escaped. Weckmann was another important name. Considered by the Elector of Dresden the local superstar, a competition was arranged between he and J. J. Froberger; he may have lost the competition, but he gained an important friend and supporter in Froberger. Nicolaus Bruhns is the one name I didn’t recognize, and for good reason: there are only five of his organ works surviving, but he was considered one of the most prominent organists of his time. C.P.E. Bach said that his father admired and studied Bruhns’ work.

Maude ends her program with a leap of a century to Félix Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn was one of the most important musicians and organists of the early romantic period and key to the revival of J.S. Bach’s music and popularity. This isn’t such a leap, really: he was born only 59 years after Bach’s death. It will be fascinating to see how the concept of the organ evolved during that period of evolution.
You won’t want to miss this. All Souls’ is easy to get to and has plenty of parking. For advance tickets, call (619) 291–8246 with a credit card and they will be waiting at the entrance.


Thursday, September 6, 2012

Christoph Rousset: an incomplete discography

French harpsichordist Christoph Rousset will be coming to San Diego this season, and this should be cause for great celebration, at least for those of us who collect harpsichord recordings. Meaning no disrespect to the late Gustav Leonhardt, but I was never motivated to collect many of his recordings—a fact that may shock some. However, I own many of Rousset’s solo recordings, making him the leading contributor to my collection of harpsichord recordings. (For the record, I have only 209 solo harpsichord recordings, representing 95 artists. If you think that is a lot, you should chat with SDEMS Artist Director, Laurent Planchon, who is a serious collector.)

In preparation for Rousett’s April 9 concert, I thought I would share some thoughts about a couple of my personal favorites. These are by no means official SDEMS positions, and your mileage may vary. Laurent and I have dueled over our perceived strengths and weaknesses of these recordings for many years. In fact, I find as the years go by that I have come to better appreciate some of which I considered to be his “lesser” recordings, and I reserve the right to change my opinions at any time.

Rousset’s first recording that really grabbed me by the ears was his 1993 recording of the Pièces de Clavecin of Pancrace Royer, for which he was awarded the “Diapason d’Or”. Up until then I believe that Royer’s music—some of the latest in the harpsichord repertoire—was largely ignored outside of France. This recording by the then young artist caught everyone’s attention, if only for its electrifying performance of Le Vertigo. This recording was an exercise in both energy and suave subtlety and I think it marks the point at which I became seriously passionate about the harpsichord. Rousset recorded on the 1751 Hemsch, one of the great historical instruments and a favorite of his in his early recording years.

Just as Glenn Gould re-recorded his defining performance of the Goldberg Variations later in life, Rousset re-recorded the Royer in 2008, this time on the 1749/1784 Goujon. This later recording has the advantages of improved recording technology, but to my ears the energy and concept is unchanged. If you have neither recording, or for that matter nothing of Rousett’s, I would order this later release right away. When you receive it, play it with your very best high fidelity setup, perhaps with the volume up just a little, and don’t forget to wear a sweater, because you will get the chills when Le Vertigo is performed.

Although Rousset is closely associated with French music, his recordings of German composers should not be missed. He received a Cannes award in 1995 for his recording of Bach’s Partitas. His recording of Bach’s eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, is especially memorable and sadly out of print. One of Rousset’s earliest released recordings (1992) was of the music of J. J. Froberger. Sadly, this fine recording is no longer available; although I still find the sound on it a bit harsh, Rousset approaches with just the right amount of German clarity and French subtlety. Fortunately, Rousset released a new Froberger recording in 2009, this time brilliantly recorded on the 1701 Couchet. This recording is memorable for at least two reasons (other than the fabulous sound). First of all, this isn’t a compendium of “Froberger’s Best,” but rather six of the early suites from 1649 and 1656. Secondly, Rousset has applied his deep understanding of the French dance forms to some of what are arguably some of the earliest examples of the French Suite that were to become the rage of the Baroque. It is a unique take on tempi and articulation.

I’ve just scratched the surface. In the process, I just realized that I had not ordered Rousset’s latest recording of the music of Marchand and Rameau. Yikes! I guess that will make it 210 harpsichord recordings.
Now is the time to order your season tickets. In addition to the International Series, which includes Rousset’s performance, you won’t want to miss the Recital Series. Visit the SDEMS web site for details.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Theorbo Envy

The announcement of our new season inspires me to reflect on some of the things we are going to hear. We are in that awkward period of “killing time”: our first concert is months away! I think you will find the season has something for everyone, maintaining our position as one of the leading early music performance hosts in the U.S.: we have really big names–again!

But, I want to step back and point out a personal favorite and that is over six months away: Hopkinson Smith performing Bach on the theorbo as a part of our recital series. The opportunity to hear a solo recital on the Theorbo is, well, not a common occurrence. This is a unique opportunity to hear Bach from a different perspective by one of the very greatest musicians of our day.

I find that many have a hazy idea–at best–of what the theorbo is. You get points for recognizing it as a “big lute with a long neck,” but the theorbo has both history and ideosynchracies that make it special–and interesting. Yes: it is big, typically over six feet in length, making it possibly even more awkward to transport than a double bass. The theorbo was first conceived as an accompaniment instrument, designed to have sonorous sound that complemented the singer. Credit is often given to Giulio Caccini for its invention, and it seems to have been first introduced in his two collections, Le nuove musiche (1602 and 1614). To get its really low and full sound, the instrument’s neck was made so long that the top two strings simply couldn’t be brought up to standard lute pitch, so they were dropped by an octave. This is referred as “reentrant tuning.”
Reentrant Tuning
Another thing that sets the theorbo apart from other lutes is that it is usually strung with a single string per course. This may seem like a minor point, but it results in a pure tone that projects well and makes it possible to play with greater virtuosity.

Conceived as a continuo instrument, and given the awkwardness of reentrant tuning, you might be surprised to learn that there is a solo literature for the theorbo. In fact, I was first introduced to the theorbo by Hopkinson Smith’s 1978 recording of the music of Robert de Visée. I don’t know if this recording is even available any longer, but it remains probably the best out of my library of nine solo theorbo recordings.

Despite the challenges of transporting such an awkwardly large instrument, the theorbo is becoming increasingly common in early music ensembles. We have seen it a number of times at our concerts over the last several years. Thomas Boysen accompanied Paolo Pandolfo a couple of years ago and Benjamin Perrot provided the continuo for La Rêveuse just this last year.

Hopkinson Smith’s solo recital is guaranteed to be a more unique opportunity. Just because this recital is over six months away doesn’t mean you should wait to get your tickets! Order now: simply download this order form and mail it in.


Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Off the Beaten track

Two San Diego Early Music Society concerts this season established a connection that led me to my newest “favorite” recording: three string quartets by Hyacinthe and Louis-Emmanuel Jadin, performed by Quatuor Mosaïques on the naïve label.

I have begun to explore the string quartet repertoire seriously rather late in life. This repertoire is heavily dominated by the really big names, and rightfully so, but I like to find those lesser known gems a little off the beaten track. This can be a challenge because there is a vast supply of lesser known and decidedly mediocre music.

The first part of the equation connecting me to this recording was the brilliant performance by Quatuor Mosaïques. I hesitate to pass what I would consider to be informed judgment on their musicianship, since I’m a self-declared neophyte to the genre, except to say I thought they played with a combination of brilliance and simplicity, warmth and intensity, and great sincerity. But, then, I’m perhaps easily impressed by any world-class string quartet. What really sets Quatuor Mosaïques apart is their sound: they play with gut strings a full half-tone lower than modern quartets, resulting in a rich sound that is deep, warm, and devoid of harshness. It is an addictive sound.

The second performance, by Marcia Hadjimarkos, introduced me to the new name: Jadin. Her program included a sonata by this previously unknown-to-me and I was impressed by the originality and quality of this music. I know I was not the only one who sat up and took notice. This led me to a little research.

The Jadins were one of those musical dynasties in France in the 18th century. Such dynasties seem to be especially a phenomenon of the period: others that come to mind include the Bachs, Bendas, and Couperins. Two brothers stand out, Hyacinthe (1776–1800), whose life was tragically cut short by tuberculosis and Louis-Emmanuel (1768–1853). Both were born in Versailles and Louis-Emmanuel learned piano from Hyacinthe.

The Jadins are not entirely unknown. The ArkivMusic catalog lists nine recordings with works of theirs, although most of them are period compendiums. The Quatuor Mosaïques CD caught my immediate attention and it was soon delivered to my doorstep.

The opening two quartets, Opus 3, no. 1 and Opus 2, no. 1, are by Hyacinthe. Opus 3 is very Haydnesque or reminiscent of early Beethoven: very pleasant, indeed. Opus 2, on the other hand, is one of those quartets that makes you sit up and take notice: full of surprises and top grade themes that stick in your mind all day.

The final quartet on the recording is by younger brother Louis-Emmanuel: his Quartet no. 2 in f minor. It is distinct in style from the first two on the CD and is enticing, with character and passion.  Perhaps it is his only quartet that stands out, as there are no recordings of any of his other quartets.

It is great to get off the beaten track and find such treasures.