Richard Egarr Plays A Recital On The ‘Keyboard Lute’

No, not a literal Lautenwerk, but actually a large Flemish-style 2-manual harpsichord by Gerald Self of San Antonio. (See picture, below right.) But Richard views the harpsichord, in its native idiom and its golden age (mostly the 17th century), as appropriately sounding like a lute as much as possible. I have known and heard a lot of lutenists in my life, as well as many of the finest harpsichordists of our age, and I have to say this: Richard Egarr, directly through his playing, will make a believer out of you. You will come away from his performance convinced of the essentially lute-like character of the instrument and especially of the best literature for it.

For a couple of decades, I have been fortunate to count Richard as a friend. This came about in part because he married another friend and long-ago colleague, baroque violinist Mimi Mitchell (about whom I’ll have more to say late this month when her tour takes her through Houston) and in part because Richard is a gregarious, generous man who loves his work and the people around him. Thus this blog post is not a review: I am in no position to offer objective, let alone negative commentary of any sort about such a superb musician. Let the angels offer advice; they are the only ones who play better than this fellow… maybe.

The program contained works by musicians whose names don’t often fall from the lips even of early music enthusiasts, mostly because what Egarr calls the harpsichord’s Golden Age has been eclipsed in our listening tastes by Bach, Handel, Scarlatti and others who composed largely in the first half of the eighteenth century. But there are good reasons to go back a century to capture the true flavor of the harpsichord, as distinct from the piano. Egarr said that there are no serious obstacles to performing Bach’s clavier works (the Well-Tempered Clavier, the French and English Suites, the Partitas, etc.) on a piano, even a modern piano. (I might add that the works have a different flavor on the modern piano, but the vehicle conveys Bach’s assertively linear and contrapuntal music without damaging it.) On the other hand, the composers Egarr chose for this recital… Louis Couperin (1621-1661), John Blow (1649-1708), Johann Jakob Froberger (1616-1667), and Blow’s student, vastly more famous in our own time but regrettably untimely deceased at the peak of his powers, Henry Purcell (1659-1695)… are what Richard calls “hardcore” harpsichord composers, simply not effective on piano but stunningly beautiful on harpsichord.

In that century, harpsichordists knew and admired lutenists, sometimes as good friends. Many keyboardists wrote their works for stringed keyboard instruments with the style of the lute in mind: the sound continuous, the individual notes overlapped as arpeggiation, sustained on lute because there’s nothing to stop them, and on the keyboard by a conscious effort on the part of the performer to sustain as many of the notes (consonant or dissonant) as make sense in the context. It is this style at which Egarr excels, in my opinion, beyond any other living harpsichordist. (His teacher, the late great Gustav Leonhardt, was arguably of comparable skill and expressiveness in this “style brisé” when I heard him perhaps 20 years ago.)

An aside: In his other musical life, Egarr is also conductor of at least two baroque orchestras, most notably as Music Director of the Academy of Ancient Music. So much music; so little time…

Another aside: Richard has some recent recordings available, including some of the literature mentioned above; just search your favorite sources.

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  • MandT  On Sunday February 5, 2012 at 1:34 am

    This is absolutely fascinating ( I just unconsciously made a pun here). Love these musical posts! Reminds me of the joys that music brings…..particularly in these dark times. I must have mentioned before that many years ago when my parents lived near Stanford, I somehow wondered into a grad. recital, which I recall was The Goldberg Variations on harpsichord. Could that be right? It was an experience in my twenties that made just a profound impression I still brings it to mind fresh and thrilling as it was then. The only version I have now is one of Glen Gould on piano humming through most of it. 🙂

    • Steve  On Sunday February 5, 2012 at 8:48 am

      MandT… now here’s an irony for you. Two days before his recital here, Richard Egarr performed the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I (presumably complete) at Stanford! I stand in amaze at anyone who can take multiple recital programs on the road simultaneously. He mentioned that he had also just done recitals in San Francisco, though he didn’t say where.

      The Goldberg Variations are a rite of passage (rite of passagework?) for all serious harpsichordists, though they are far beyond my technical means. And the Cal universities as a whole have always had active early music programs… e.g., noted harpsichordist Alan Curtis was on the Berkeley faculty for many years. Depending on who’s performing, the Goldbergs can be very moving: Glenn Gould’s recording is more or less the standard (and a high standard it is!) among piano recordings, and there are a lot of good harpsichord recordings. I am fond of my old phono disk featuring the recently deceased and much lamented Gustav Leonhardt, who was Richard Egarr’s teacher. (Leonhardt taught half the genuine harpsichordists who are out there today! What an admirable man he was!)

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