Interview with BBC Music Magazine

Earlier this year, I was interviewed for BBC Music Magazine’s ”Meet the Artist” feature; as the published version was significantly cut-down from the original, I’ve decided to post the full text of the original interview:

What do you particularly enjoy in both Bach’s Partita No. 4, BWV 828 and Poulenc’s Concert champetre?
is your approach to early works from the heyday of the harpsichord, eg. Bach’s solo keyboard music, different from the modern works for harpsichord that you champion?

Not that I’ve lived all that long, but Bach has been with me from the beginning of my consciousness, and I hope that the rest of my life will be spent in the service of his remarkable contribution to humanity. It would – and will! – take a lifetime to explain a tenth of what it is about Bach that makes me really wish to humble myself before him every time I confront his work. Bach is great because it’s really better than what any of us can do with it, and yet it can withstand some rather major abuse and sensationalism as well. His Partitas, for example, contain all these transferences of orchestral and vocal idioms to the keyboard, and yet what could the music be but perfect for the keyboard? I find it hard to take seriously the attitude that Bach didn’t care about which medium he was writing for; as far as I can tell, it seems that he really understood his media, perhaps, better than we do.

The one remarkable thing that, for me, stands out about the harpsichord concerto of Poulenc is that it was the first concerto-writing experience for a composer who had yet to turn thirty. And it’s quite striking just how this young composer treated the harpsichord, how he understood it, and his exploitation of the beauty of the plucked string. Of course, in a way, Poulenc is using the harpsichord in a manner that suggest nostalgia and the topos of the Baroque as understood by the early twentieth century, but I don’t believe it to be insubstantial in the slighest. Rather, I think he’s making a slight joke about the heavy-handedness of the approach of some to Baroque music. By contrasting the harpsichord with a full orchestral ensemble as well as exploiting the contrast between pseudo-Baroque and patently post-Romantic gestures and musical ideas, he is, in a way, showing the incompatibility of self-important ersatz noise with the grace and nobility of the Baroque, to put it lightly. In fact, I really don’t think he’s joking as much as everyone thinks Poulenc is wont to do – in some ways, in this concerto, he is dead serious, and the effect of the second movement in particular is poignant and filled with this sincere sadness that I find even more painful in considering the ‘second’ lost world (as opposed to the first one of the eighteenth century…) of inter-war France that was to die but a handful of years after this concerto.

I’m not sure I’d ever wish to verbalise my approach to anything, really, because if it were possible then I wouldn’t be playing. There are so many micro-calculations going on in the interpretation of a piece of music that our language fails in discussing most of it. What I will say, though, is that the approach to each piece of music, even by the same composer, must be different. Bach was not a ‘one trick pony,’ as they say. I’d like to think to myself that he, indeed, had very specific intellectual or emotional reasons of a great range of variety every time he dipped his pen in a bottle of ink and laid it to paper. It is, of course, extremely important to understand the cultural and musical context of any genre of music, but I also think that a great work, ultimately, has much in it that transcends its time and place and, of course, much that doesn’t. As in all things, one hopes to achieve a balance. Lastly, I’ll say that for me the musical message is what determines the use of technique – in other words, as I think Josef Hoffmann once wrote in relation to piano-playing (I’m sure I’m being very inaccurate in quoting him), one’s technique must be so strong and fool-proof that it can do anything demanded by the composer. To say that technique is somehow historically specific can be, at best, limiting.

What do you think of the harpsichord that Poulenc’s friend and inspiration for the Concert champetre, Wanda Landowska, used for the premiere of the work?  Would you consider using a similar instrument for your performances?

The famous ‘Grand Modèle de seize-pieds’ designed and built by the venerable Parisian firm of Pleyel, Wolff, & Cie. in 1912 (with the consultation of Wanda Landowska) perhaps bore the greatest brunt of the historical harpsichord movement of the 1950s and 1960s. With the message of historical performance practice and the movement inspired by artists such as Ralph Kirkpatrick and, in the generation after him, Gustav Leonhardt, now entrenched as a healthy part of our musical culture, we can have some distance, I hope, from the idea that ‘early music’ need always be a sort of sulky reaction to modernity. For one, Landowska could not have captured the imagination of the audiences of her time without something, shall we say, as colourful as the Pleyel, rich as it is with its variety of registers and pedals which permit the quick changes of registration typical of a period in the revival of Baroque music when people believed in this idea of ‘Terassendynamik’ (literally, ‘terrace dynamics,’ in which it was thought that dynamics in the Baroque era were based on additions and subtractions of various registers and colours – we now know that Baroque instruments are capable of an incredible range of dynamic expression brought out by other, more subtle means).

I would, of course, consider using a Pleyel harpsichord were they more available for concert use. However, I wish to point out that in fact, as shown by at least one study of the instrument’s design, while the stringing of the instrument and the use of a superimposed metal frame have no relation whatsoever to historical practice, the scaling, range, and jack design virtually replicate aspects of the famous Pascal Taskin harpsichord of 1769 which Pleyel, after all, had borrowed for the purposes of study in the late nineteenth century. The sound quality of a Pleyel is, very often (though not always), quite bad, mostly because the low string tension and scaling is maintained in combination with a stiff, thick soundboard which the strings, then, cannot bring to life through vibration of the whole instrumental body. I would say that if a Pleyel were strung in period wire, one would be amazed at just what a difference it would make in the sound. In light of this, I feel perfectly fine playing a work such as Poulenc’s concerto on a more classically-oriented copy, since I’m fairly certain that Pleyel got a lot of things ‘right’ and, for better or worse, was trying to apply piano technology to the basic Taskin design. I’m not sure how Landowska would have felt about it, but Poulenc would have probably approved, in my personal opinion. I’m certain many a modern harpsichord maker working solely on the principle of historical copies doesn’t wish to hear me saying this! – but anyone doing good work knows, as a mentor of mine used to say, that the truth can stand a bit of fun, can’t it?

Is it difficult to balance the orchestra with the harpsichord in the Poulenc?

Yes and no. It’s actually quite remarkable how Poulenc figured out how to write for the harpsichord in a full orchestral setting. Both the solo moments and the combinations of orchestral and harpsichord sounds are quite effective and while I haven’t seen Poulenc’s drafts or working score of the work I’d like to think that Landowska and her basically maternal attitude toward Poulenc had something to do with it. I believe I read somewhere a claim by Landowska that Poulenc brought the score to her and she went over it with him ‘note by note’ — I’m sure a formidable woman such as Landowska would have perhaps, shall we say, been free with her pencil and eraser. She probably sent the young Francis out with a few francs to buy some cheese and bread for lunch while she ‘fixed’ a few things in the score.

There’s not much written for harpsichord and orchestra. Are you keen to expand the repertoire?

It’s funny you should mention this. I suppose my answer depends on what you mean by ‘much repertoire.’ There’s a great deal of rather good repertoire that has not fully entered our modern concert programmes, much of it from ‘the period’ — for example, there are the forty-odd concerti for harpsichord and orchestra, to my knowledge, by the three main sons of Bach: Carl Phillipp Emmanuel, Wilhelm Friedemann, and Johann Christian. Likewise, there are three or four remarkable concerti by Bach’s distinguished pupils Johann Gottlieb Goldberg (by whom I played a concerto in d-minor at the Wigmore Hall last season) and Johann Gottfried Muethel. When I say that these are good, I really mean it! I wouldn’t care to revive anything old because of its age and nothing else, after all. There are other works by lesser English and Italian composers of the period as well, but nothing that I would carry to dig up at this point in life. In the modern age, there are the concerti — some really excellent and first-rate — of Manuel de Falla (1926), Francis Poulenc (1928), Walter Leigh (1934), Bohuslav Martinu (1935), Frank Martin (1952), Viktor Kalabis (1975), Henryk Gorecki (1980), Michael Nyman (1995), and – last but certainly not least – a double concerto for harpsichord and piano by Elliot Carter (1961). I’ve had the score of the Carter sitting in my studio for a year and I haven’t dared touch it yet, but I know it will happen soon!

Naturally, I’m quite keen to always expand the repertoire, either through the commission of new works or through the expansion of the receptiveness of audiences to this instrument and its possibilities. I would say with an attempt at some modesty (I hope) that I haven’t had an audience member yet who hasn’t come to feel more positively about the harpsichord after a bit of listening – I’d prefer, for myself, that kind of influence for my work rather than the insistence of some who would prefer to protect the harpsichord from any confrontation with the real world or with real people.

(interview by Alice Pearson)