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Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

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Franz Joseph HAYDN (1732 - 1809)
Variations on "Acht Sauschneider Müssen sein" Hob XVII:1
Sonata in b, L47, W:30, Hob XVI: 32
Sonata in D, L34, W:22, Hob XVI: 24
Sonata in F, L43, W:27, Hob XVI: 29
Variations in D, Hob XVII:7
Variations in f, Hob XVII:6
Derek Adlam, clavichord (Derek Adlam, 1982, after Haas 1763)
GUILD GMCD 7260 [69.23]

Many of you remember early experiments at recording the clavichord. Thurston Dart, Ralph Kirkpatrick and Igor Kipnis all produced on LP clavichord versions of baroque classics, and all such recordings are gone, and a good thing, too. They sounded awful and nothing like any clavichord I ever heard. And I should know, having owned a clavichord for more than 30 years and having struggled unsuccessfully for much of that time to learn to play it with any facility.

The problem is that the clavichord is really quiet. I mean really, really, REALLY quiet. Sticking the microphone close in creates a false sound not because the volume is raised but because noises in the instrument that normally fall below the threshold of hearing are made audible, and they seriously detract from the music. Trying to bring out only the music and suppress the noises leads to draconian acoustic and electronic filtering regimes, so much so that I have always felt that it would be better to use a synthesiser and recreate the experience of hearing the clavichord entirely from scratch.

Why now do we have so many really good clavichord recordings? Is it because we know more about recording now? No, I don’t think so. I think that the instrument has simply been redesigned so that modern piano technique can be used on it, and all the old clanks and scrapes and wobbles simply don’t occur. In other words, we have good clavichord recordings because the clavichord used is one Bach would not recognise. In a way we have synthesised the sound, but mechanically rather than electronically. A clue to this is the date of the model for Mr. Adlam’s copy. By 1763 the clavichord was engaged in a death struggle with the pianoforte which, having nearly finished devouring the harpsichord, was now hot after the clavichord as inexpensive and much easier to play pianofortes suitable for middle class homes began to appear. Such "improvements" as were possible to stabilise the clavichord sound were being implemented. I would like to hear Mr. Adlam play a single brass strung fretted clavichord from 1663.

I actually attended a clavichord concert once. The performer (the man who had sold me my clavichord) had spent his whole life learning three pieces, and the audience (there were 9 of us) heard his whole repertoire. Fortunately they were short pieces because the entire audience had to hold his or her breath throughout, with breathing and squirming—heaven forbid coughing!—only permitted between pieces. This instrument was a single strung instrument with full bebung, which means that the performer had complete control of the pitch of every note at every instant, hence every kind of tremolo and vibrato could be used, resulting in an ethereal singing quality comparable only to a violin, perhaps with echoes of a koto, and quite unlike anything on this disk.

Well, this koto is now strung with iron wire. The new clavichord is ganz bebungfrei. It sounds as if the keys bottom into a kind of space age plastic which totally damps the clunk while clamping the pitch within a microHertz, and the keyboard is likely also acoustically isolated from the sounding box by another space age plastic or computer designed vibration isolation mechanism, although I have heard that a stack of paper punchings can also be effective. The amplified transient, which can sound just like a galvanised garbage can (that’s a tin dusbin to friends in the UK) falling down concrete stairs, has somehow been miraculously stifled. The result of these improvements is that one’s clavichord touch is no longer forever ruined by five years of piano studies, and we hear something that sounds wonderful and not unlike a clavichord, although if Bach pére and/or fils were in the audience, they would curl their lips and look very askance.

But who’s complaining when the music is served so well? We are presented with three Haydn keyboard sonatas and three sets of variations. As the commentator (D.A. Welbeck) points out, Haydn is remarkably under rated, and this music confronts us with the terrifying possibility that it’s all so good we might have to hear all of it, a prospect best left, as in my case, to retirement years while living near a large university music library. Instrumental concerns aside, these are superb performances of the music, the best I’ve heard on any instrument. The performer has as thoroughly mastered the music as he has the instrument, and the variety of volume levels and textures available to him have been effectively utilised. This shows most strikingly in the variation sets which will be new to most of us, and further demonstrate Haydn’s astonishing and wide ranging genius. It is to be hoped Adlam will continue to record more of these works for us, and set a new standard in Haydn interpretation, aesthetically and sonically.

Paul Shoemaker

A response from Derek Adlam

A bad experience early in life can leave an indelible mark on us. Mr Shoemaker seems to have been scarred for life by a bad clavichord with a thin, trembling sound barely audible above the clatter of ill-fitting keys.

It's true that there have always been bad clavichords around. A late 17th century writer complained about instruments where the listener hears more wood than wire, but consoles us by adding "they are good to burn when one wishes to cook fish".

A good clavichord on the other hand has a quiet action and a full, singing sound that responds to the player's hand like no other contemporary keyboard instrument. This is true for all types of clavichord from the earliest made near the beginning of the 15th century to the end of the 18th.

For my Haydn recording for Guild (GMCD 7260) I used a copy of a 1763 J. A. Hass clavichord made in my own workshop. This is a careful reproduction of a fine historical instrument. It makes no concessions to modern materials: the idea behind such a copy is to provide a present-day player with a "tool" exactly like those familiar to composers such as Haydn. And J. S. Bach and his sons would have known instruments very like this one. So no plastic bushings, no modern widgets, no "improvements": they're not needed. Nothing to get in the way of a player's search for the way to speak a composer's language -- finding the grammar, vocabulary, intonation and inflection of his voice.

In this and other good modern recordings of the clavichord there's no need for technical funny business -- no electronic tricks, no falsification, no lies. This is what fine clavichords actually sound like. Perhaps Mr Shoemaker should look at his own clavichord in the light of these comments and prepare to cook some fish? (But many thanks for the nice remarks about my playing on this disc. It's marvellous music.)

Derek Adlam, Welbeck, Nottinghamshire, U.K.


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