IN: Reviews

Onward Came the Clavichord


Carole Cerasi opened Boston Early Music Festival’s Organ & Keyboard mini-festival with the usual suspects of clavichord composers (Haydn, CPE Bach, and Johann Müthel), utilizing a 1789 by Johann Christoph Georg Schiedmayer example, which its owner Allan Winkler had brought to the floor of the nave of First Lutheran Church in Boston. Its larger cousins on the raised chancel, a double-manual harpsichord and Classical-Era fortepiano, towered over the diminutive Shiedmayer, but its small-scaled sound nevertheless filled the hall. Despite interruptions from helicopter, airplane, and emergency vehicle (the sounds were so intrusive at one point that she stood and lectured on the instrument until the noise subsided), she performed with a casual, in-control disposition. The instrument’s rich and complex tone reminded me of the parable of the blind men and an elephant, when three men debate the form of an elephant while each only knows one facet of it. The genius of Cerasi’s program (and of her playing) is that each piece showcased an aspect of the instrument’s timbre. While most performers (and listeners) know the instrument for its touch-sensitive dynamics, Cerasi used this to affect the articulation of notes which enhanced the instrument’s cantabile sound.

Müthel’s Arioso & 12 Variations showcased the instrument’s dynamic abilities. Müthel stands among the first composers to specify dynamics beyond the general p and f used in harpsichord repertoire. His autographs contain rapid dynamic shifts, crescendo and decrescendo markings, mezzo markings, and some double pp/ffs. Perhaps for this reason, Cerasi read from facsimiles of those autographs to ensure she did not miss any of the composer’s expectations. While Müthel uses these markings to inflect phrases, Cerasi took these dynamics a step further, using the sound’s decibel level to create contrasts between variations. The clavichord tone is extremely bright and nasal so these volume contrasts were minimal (in objective terms), but the echoing, high-vaulted ceiling of First Lutheran supported the subtleties of her playing and soothed the pungent tone. The softer variations sounded about as loud coming out of the instrument; but with fewer overtones, the notes did not bounce off of the brick walls as much, imbuing those examples with a more intimate, personal voice.

CPE Bach’s Rondo in C minor, H. 283 required much more of the instrument’s articulation to realize its intentions. The music, so packed with flashy arpeggios and 16th-note runs that almost every page turn bears the direction “volti subito,” demands a harpsichord’s intensity of articulation to deliver the short notes. A clavichord’s nasal tone can produce this definition, at least for short note values, while still allowing the player to control the dynamic shaping of lines. Perhaps more important for the arpeggios, the clavichord also allows the player to control the articulation of the end of notes as well. Unlike a harpsichord (or piano), where notes end abruptly with the fall of a damper, the end of a note on a clavichord comes softly as the weight on the key softens and the increased tension in the string dissipates. As Cerasi demonstrated, this allows for a thorough blending of arpeggiated figures since the overlapping of notes can be managed with great subtlety.

The smattering of pieces by Haydn showed off the clavichord’s sweet singing voice. Though its attacks can be harsh, the notes have a very long decay on the clavichord. Cerasi played with this aspect of the sound in the cantabile melodies of the Andante movements. She held notes at cadences until the sound faded out of the room. Melodies sang particularly well over Alberti basses and in recitative-like passages. The closer, Haydn’s Andante con variazioni in f minor, Hob. XVII:6, brought all of these elements together. Cerasi played the theme with graceful lyricism with traces of bebung, the clavichord’s vibrato technique—unique among keyboard instruments until the advent of the Ondes Martenot. The lines dotted figures expressed the degrees of articulation, while septuplet arpeggios displayed her sensitivity to blending. Sforzandos brought unexpected Neapolitan and augmented sixth chords out of the texture with shocking affect. The later variations featured feverish tremolos that climaxed with full arpeggios. The movement ended as softly as it began, with a graceful high F6 that rang for several moments before well-deserved applause.

A musicology PhD student at Boston University, Christopher Hodges earned a M.M. in organ performance with Peter Sykes.

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