In recent years much attention has been given to the so-called lute-harpsichord, also referred to as Lautenwerck. It is in particular the keyboard music of Johann Sebastian Bach which is regularly recorded on such an instrument. The main reason is that we know Bach owned two such instruments. The lute-harpsichord has not been preserved, but we know from the writings of the German theorist Jacob Adlung what they were like. It is this description which Keith Hill has used to reconstruct the instrument Elizabeth Farr uses in this recording.
Even though Bach owned lute-harpsichords, the title of this disc is strictly speaking wrong. Bach never specifically mentioned the lute-harpsichord, and it is therefore nonsense to suggest he composed anything for it. In fact, most pieces Elizabeth Farr has chosen were originally composed for the lute or for the keyboard. Some of them are transcriptions of pieces which were originally written for other instruments, for instance the violin, like the Suite in E (BWV 1006a) and the Sonata in d minor (BWV 964). It seems plausible to perform pieces written for the lute on this instrument. But I haven't read anything which suggests the lute-harpsichord was considered an alternative to the lute. As far as I know it was just another keyboard instrument that could be used as an alternative to the harpsichord, just like the clavichord. In the Bach Edition of Hänssler Classics, Robert Hill - Keith's brother - played many pieces which have nothing to do with the lute. There’s little overlap between Farr and Hill and as such this recording could have been a welcome addition to the catalogue. I would have welcomed it as such had I liked the playing of Elizabeth Farr. She is an excellent harpsichordist, and plays a beautiful instrument, but as on previous occasions I have considerable problems with her interpretations.
The main problem is the choice of tempo. Generally the tempi are pretty slow. The Sonata in d minor (BWV 964), for instance, takes 22:37, whereas Bob van Asperen (Aeolus) - never a speed merchant - needs just over 19 minutes. Robert Hill needs a little over 17 minutes for the Suite in E (BWV 1006a), whereas Elizabeth Farr takes 22:27. As a result some pieces virtually fall apart, the more so as the microphones have been placed very close to the instrument, resulting in a very detailed picture of the sound. The programme notes state in relation to the Suite in g minor (BWV 995): "The Courante sounds free and improvised in spite of its clearly identifiable rhythmic scheme." The problem is that the rhythmic scheme isn't that clearly identifiable because of the slow tempo and also because Elizabeth Farr messes around with the rhythm through frequent tempo fluctuations. In other movements it is even worse. The menuets of the Suite in E (BWV 1006a) are so slow, they are hardly recognizable as such.
In some of the suites on these discs the opening movement has a strongly improvisatory character, for instance the preludes of the Suites BWV 995 - 997. Here it is certainly justified to treat the rhythm with some freedom. But that doesn't mean every movement should get the same treatment: dances should be discernible as such.
There are other features of Ms Farr's performances which I find very annoying. She adds lots of notes to what Bach has written down. Although adding ornaments is one of the basic laws of interpreting baroque music, there is every reason for restraint in Bach's music. It is generally assumed that he wrote out most of the ornaments he wanted performers to play. And the performances by Elizabeth Farr prove that as the surfeit of ornament obscures the musical texture. The frequent change of manuals is also irritating. Sometimes only a couple of bars are played on one manual, and then Ms Farr moves to the other manual. In some pieces there is every reason to do so but she also does this when there is no call for it.
I have already mentioned that the microphones have situated been very close to the instrument. That results in a very detailed recording of almost every single note, which - in combination with the slow tempo - makes some pieces disintegrate. It also makes the action of the instrument too clearly audible, in particular while listening with headphones.
The programme of these discs is certainly interesting encompassing as it does a number of pieces from outside the harpsichord’s core repertoire. If played well, the lute-harpsichord is a fine instrument with an exquisite sound. It is just sad that the interpretations and the recording are largely unsatisfying.
Johan van Veen
We know how Bach himself played because we have a late description
supplied to us by F. Griepenkerl, a student of N. Forkel, who
was a student of W. F. Bach, who was a student of his father
JS. In a letter written 12 April 1840, Griepenkerl wrote: "Bach
himself, his sons, and Forkel played the masterpieces with such
a profound declamation that they sounded like
polyphonic songs sung by individual great artist singers, thereby
all means of good singing were brought into use. No cercare,
no portamento was missing. Even breathing was in all the right
places...Bach's music wants to be sung with the maximum of art."
If this isn't clear enough, then we have CPE Bach's advice on
how to play music, as quoted from his treatise, the True Art
of Playing Keyboard Instruments, in which he wrote, "Endeavor
to avoid everything mechanical and slavish. Play from the Soul,
not like a trained bird." It is these instructions that
inform our work.
If you so desire, you can read the article that my wife and
I wrote, which has been published and republished now more than
6 times and translated into German and Russian, titled: The
Craft of Musical Communication, which you can find on our
website at : http://musicalratio.com
In this article, we describe the foundational techniques used
greatest musicians on record including J. Brahms, J.Joachim,
J. Strauss Jr., Luisa Tetrazzini, Enrico Caruso, Maria Callas,
just to name a few. There are 11 techniques in all and these
are used singly or simultaneously by the practice of "layering"
one technique over another, over another.
These techniques are the same as those we use in speaking in
conversation. And when these techniques are erased from speech
or music, as they were in classical music beginning around 1940,
the result is utter boredom for the listener. Interestingly,
even Arnold Schönberg complained about this erasing phenomenon
in his article written in 1948 titled, Today's Manner of Playing
Classical Music. Indeed, these techniques are so basic to communication
that all animals, including insects use these techniques in
some form or other. For this reason we call these techniques
"Praeter Language", or the language before language.
These techniques are the "packaging" needed for brains
to easily understand the communication, the text, or the score.
Without these techniques, which Mr. Van Veen prefers, the normal
music lover is only being told what the notes in the score are.
Most normal music lovers listen to music to have a feeling and
care hardly at all about the scores. Providing
a feeling is what I am after, what I know Ms. Farr is after,
and what Wolf Rubsam is after...which is why, I believe, two
out of the few recordings we have made together have won prizes.
Keith Hill - Instrument Maker