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The Long 17th Century: A Cornucopia of Early Keyboard Music
Daniel-Ben Pienaar (piano)
rec. 2018, Duke’s Hall, Royal Academy of Music, London
AVIE AV2415 [75:50 + 74:58]

South African-born Daniel-Ben Pienaar is currently teaching Performance Studies at the Royal Academy of Music in London and has a rapidly growing reputation, with a distinguished list of recordings to his name. These include Bach’s Wohltemperierte Klavier (review) and the Goldberg Variations (review), Mozart’s Complete Piano Sonatas (review) as well as Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations and Bagatelles Op. 126  all of which appeared on the Avie label; Pienaar’s recording of The Complete Keyboard Works of Orlando Gibbons was released by Deux Elles. 

In all the recordings by Pienaar which I have heard - unfortunately I haven’t heard him live - a striking virtue is his clarity of articulation which is also very evident here, especially in the more polyphonic pieces as, for example, those grouped under the heading ‘Intimation and Imitation’. I don’t believe that it is heretical to say that in some cases the lucidity of Pienaar’s playing reveals the polyphonic patterns more clearly than many, if not most recordings of these pieces on early instruments.

Debates about the use of the modern piano in performing music written before any approximation to such an instrument existed still continue, though perhaps not as fiercely as they used to. I well remember  in Oxford in the 1960s discussions in which some seemed to regard pianists who continued to play Bach as, in effect, land-grabbing imperialists; this meant, in turn, that the then ‘new’ harpsichordists performing Bach were thought of, by others, as quasi-insurgents reclaiming ‘their’ lands from colonialist powers. Such an ‘ideological’ approach can surely be left behind now. Few, I think, would now believe it necessary to ‘justify’, say, Hewitt playing Bach on the piano or Scarlatti interpreted by Pletnev or Pogorelich, or to dismiss them as intrinsically valueless. Of course, such performances do nothing to ‘replace’ or invalidate performances on instruments the composers would have been familiar with and such ‘authentic’ performances certainly reveal things about the music which the modern piano may largely conceal. But, conversely, perceptive use of the piano can uncover elements not so easily perceived in those performances. Neither pianists nor harpsichordist have an absolute and proprietorial right to the performance of, say, the 48 or the Goldberg Variations. To dismiss all ‘piano’ Bach is, I suspect, the product of prejudice rather than of honestly attentive listening. I say this since there was, I realize, a time when I was guilty of exactly that prejudice.

In what follows I have tried to respond ‘unideologically’ to these performances of pieces originally written for harpsichord, virginal, clavichord, organ or even spinet; often, of course, we don’t know quite which keyboard instrument – if any – the composer had in mind.

As suggested earlier, clarity is one of Pienaar’s great virtues, but his playing also has its full share, as appropriate, of wit, drama and emotion. The clarity I speak of is, as it always must be, the product both of ‘physical’ technique and quality of mind. In my experience some ‘authentic’ readings of music such as this (though not, of course, the best ones) seem almost more concerned with authenticity, with fidelity to ‘correct’ performance practice, than with communicating a piece’s particular qualities. One never has that sense with Pienaar. He audibly respects all of the 36 pieces, each by a different composer, which make up his programme here, and he obviously believes that his main task is to make clear what he values in each composition, by using the resources of the piano without distorting the original. Certainly, though Pienaar’s interpretations individual – as they should be - he never displays the kind of excessive idiosyncrasy one hears in, say, Glenn Gould’s playing of Byrd and Gibbons.

The 36 composers represented in this recital include both the famous, e.g. Frescobaldi, Sweelinck, Byrd and Buxtehude, and the lesser-known, such as Macedo, Bruna, Trabaci, Schildt, Tisdale and Kerll). Since Pienaar has previously recorded the complete keyboard works of Gibbons, he doesn’t include anything by that remarkable composer in this set. Another striking omission is explained by Pienaar in his booklet essay: “Purcell does not make an appearance […] mainly because I feel his keyboard music to be less interesting than that of his highly idiosyncratic teacher, Matthew Locke”. Of the pieces which are included many, I suspect, have never previously been recorded on the piano.

Pienaar has chosen not to arrange his programme chronologically, perhaps because it would have been difficult to demonstrate any real pattern of development) but to arrange it by ‘kinds’. The result is four subsets, as it were – ‘Intimation and Imitation’ (CD1:1-10), where the emphasis is on polyphony; ‘Dance’ (CD1: 11-24) where the title is self-explanatory; ‘Variation’ (CD2:1-7) where, again, no further elucidation is needed; and lastly pieces which might loosely be described as programme music, ‘Depiction and Evocation’ (CD2:8-12). While such a structure doesn’t provide us with an historical narrative, it does invite lots of comparisons. One such case is spelled out by Pienaar himself in his booklet essay: “the four pieces CD1:4-7 all share the characteristic opening rhythmic figure of the canzona, but at vastly different tempos. Specifying their differences in character, tonal palette and rhythmic lift becomes much more acute when one works them as a set, finding an individualised space for each in relation to the other”. The series of works using variation technique (CD2:1-7) provides fascinating lessons in different uses of the form, whether in the short variations in Bull’s Walsingham or the more sustained variations of Sweelinck’s ‘Mein junges Leben. Buxtehude’s variations on ‘La Capricciosa’, in their sophisticated playfulness and complexity come close to summing up the whole art of keyboard variations and seem to anticipate – and not just because they are here played on a modern piano - much of what later composers would do with the form.

When it comes to pieces which we know, or can safely assume, to have been written with the organ primarily in mind, the success that Pienaar achieves is particularly striking. This is true, for example, of his version (CD2:9) of Bragha’s ‘Batahla’, of Pretorius’s ‘Zwei Variationen: Nun lob, mein Seel, den Herren’ (CD2:7), Fresobaldi’s Toccata (CD1:10) and the tiento by Pablo Bruna (CD1:6). In all these cases one cannot profitably talk of the music having been ‘arranged’ for piano; rather it has been ‘translated’ from one instrument to another, rather as a work of literature might be translated from one language to another. An English translation of, say, Cervantes’s Don Quixote (which I mention since I am about to start my annual rereading of it) has to read well in English, to be adapted to the nature of English, and yet also be a pretty faithful ‘representation’ of the Spanish original. Pienaar certainly achieves the musical equivalent of such a translation in these tracks, ‘translating’ organ music into piano music. Pienaar writes more succinctly than I can of how such ‘translations’ have been effected. Thus, of the piece by Braga: “the Batalha […] was obviously conceived by its composer with extreme dynamic contrasts reverberating through a big space in mind. To enjoy and convey its quirkiness and asymmetries on the piano effectively means re-inventing the piece as a study in less crude colour contrasts, utilising the buoyant sonorities  possible on the piano […] alongside more solid ‘blocks’ of sound, and utilizing techniques of timing and pedalling in ways alien to the organ, thus bringing to the fore the oddness of this musical patchwork rather than the simpler pleasures of its echo effects”. Of the toccata by Frescobaldi’s he writes “its extraordinary chromaticism and strange cadential delays are heightened not by a contemporary tuning system as it may be on the organ, but instead by the capability on the piano to colour every note individually by touch, dynamics or the pedal, and where vertical relationships can be made to stand out through dislocation between the hands or individual voices”. The result is a fascinating and memorable reading both like and unlike a good performance on an appropriate organ – just as Charles Jarvis’s 1742 translation of Don Quixote (one of my favourite translations) is necessarily both like and unlike Cervantes’ original (the translator’s surname was actually Jervas, but he is now generally referred to by the version of his name accidentally produced by the printer/publisher).

There is another analogy which I believe to be relevant. Choosing the instrument on which to perform a piece of music is, it seems to me, very like the ‘casting’ of a play. In the theatre, until very recently, the choice of who to cast as, say, King Lear, would always have been exclusively limited to male actors. The last few years, however, have seen Glenda Jackson playing King Lear, Fiona Shaw taking on the role of Richard II and Maxine Peake playing Hamlet (Sarah Bernhardt, of course, famously took on this role in 1899). All of these recent female Shakespearean heroes seem to have been generally well-received by audiences and critics. In my own experience - here I am largely thinking of student performances I have seen - if the role is intelligently interpreted, the lines well delivered – one soon forgets about the sex of the actor. Women can be successful Hamlets, just like men. Women in our own time have succeeded in roles written in an age when they wouldn’t have been allowed on the stage at all – even to ‘play’ women. Surely we are reaching an analogous situation in the musical world, where we can stop worrying about the rights and wrongs, the ethics as it were, of playing the music of the past on instruments which didn’t exist when it was written, but take our joys and accept our disappointments as we find them, individual performance by individual performance.

I have to say that there isn’t a single track on these two CDs that I could call a disappointment; To continue the discussion of individual tracks would only be to reiterate ad nauseam my conviction that this is a remarkable achievement, a brave undertaking splendidly realized.

Glyn Pursglove


Intimation and Imitation
Giovanni PICCHI (1571/2-1643)
1.Toccata (from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book) [3:42]
Tarquinio MERULA (1595-1665)
2.Capriccio cromatico [2:42]
Francisco CORREA DE ARAUXO (1584-1654)
3.Tiento de medio registro de tiple de decimo tono [4:35]
Matthias WECKMANN (c.1616-1674)
4.Canzon (III) in D minor [2:23]
António De MACEDO (?-?)
5.Ricercare a quatro de 4o tom [4:10]
Pablo BRUNA (1611-1679)
6.XI. Tiento de falsas de 6o tono [1:15]
Giovanni GABRIELI (c.1557-1612)
7.Canzon quarta a4 [1:40]
Louis COUPERIN (c.1626-1661)
8.Duo in G minor [1:54]
Alfonso FERRABOSCO (1543-1612)
9.Fantasia with G final [2:59]
Girolamo FRESCOBALDI (1583-1643]
10.Toccata cromaticha per l’elevatione (from Fiori Musicali) [4:42]
Giovanni Maria TRABACI (c.1575-1647)
11.Galiarda Seconda, Ottava (from Libro Primo) [2:06]
Giovanni Maria RADINO (d.1667)
12.Galliarda Seconda [1:08]
Peter PHILIPS (c.1561-1628)
13.Pavan in G [3:24]
Matthew LOCKE (c.1621-1677)
14. Suite III in C: Prelude-Almain-Corant-Saraband-Jig [5:55]
William TISDALE (b.c.1570)
15. Almand (from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book) [1:22]
Melchior SCHILDT (1592/3- 1667)
16. Paduana lagrima (after Dowland) [4:30]
Georg MUFFAT (1653-1704)
17. Suite IV in F (short version): Prelude-Rigaudon-Lepescheuses [4:27]
Johann Jakob FROBERGER (1616-1667)
18. Partita II in A (from Libro Quarto): Allemaande-Gigue-courante-Sarabande [7:55]
Jacques Champion De CHAMBONNIÈRES (1601/2-1672)
19. Pavane l’Entretien des Dieux [3:59]
Elizabeth-Claude JACQUET DE LA GUERRE (b.c. 1665-1729)
20. Rondeau in G minor (from Pièces de clavecin, Livre 2) [1:00]
Thomas TOMKINS (1572-1656)
21. A Sad Pavan for These Distracted Times [3:40]
Giovanni COPRARIO (c.1570-1626) - set by Giles FARNABY (b.c.1563-1640)
22 A Maske (from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book) [00:52]
Giles FARNABY (b.c.1563-1640)
23. The Old Spagnoletta (from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book) [2:01]
Heinrich SCHEIDEMANN (c.1595-1663)
24. Galliarda in D minor [3:22]

Johann Caspar KERLL (1627-1693)
1.Passacaglia in D [6:12]
Jan Pieterszoon SWEELINCK (1562-1621)
2.Mein junges Leben hat ein End [5:06)
Juan Bautista CABANILLES (1644-1712)
3.Pasacalles de 1o tono [5:32]
William BYRD (1539/40-1623)
4. Walsingham [6:04]
John BULL (1562/3-1623)
5. Ut, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La (1) (from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book) [5:18]
Dietrich BUXTEHUDE (1637/9- 1707)
6.Variations on ‘La Capricciosa’ [15:49]
Michael PRAETORIUS (1571-1621)
7. Zwei Variationem: Nun lob, mein Seel, den Herren [4:33]
Johann KUHNAU (1660-1722)
8. Sonata Quarta ‘Hiskia agonizzante e risanato’: Il lament di Hiskia per la morte annociatagli e le sue preghiera ardenti-La di lui confidenza in Iddio-L’allegrezza del Rèconvalescente [7:39]
Antonio CORREA BRAGA (fl.c.1695-d.1704)
9. Battalha de 6o tom [5:54]
Bernardo PASQUINI (1637-1710)
10. Toccata con lo scherzo del cuccó [3:35]
Gaspard LE ROUX (c.1660-1707)
11.La Favoritte [3:31]
Jean-Henri D’ANGLEBERT (1629-1691)
12. Tombeau de Mr. De Chambonnières [5:41]

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