One of my very first reviews for Fanfare back in 27:2 dealt with a disc of keyboard works by François Couperin, “Le grand,” performed on piano by Angela Hewitt. Now Hewitt, of course, is one of my favorite pianists, and I’ve had numerous occasions since then to praise her work, especially in Bach, but I expressed serious reservations about the wisdom of trying to transplant Couperin from harpsichord to piano. My objections had nothing to do with Hewitt’s playing, which, as always, was beyond reproach. Rather, the issue I raised had everything to do with the mechanics of Couperin’s music and the reasons it was not possible to realize its effects on piano.
I won’t belabor the subject again—you can read the original review on line, if you’re so inclined—other than to make one simple point. The late 17th- to early 18th-century French harpsichord of the type Couperin would have been familiar with would most likely have been a two-manual instrument having five octaves with a disposition of two eight-foot stops, one four-foot stop, and a buff stop (aka a lute or harp stop). That enabled the player to produce tones of distinctly different timbres simultaneously on each of the instrument’s keyboards, sometimes even alternating rapidly between the same note in the right hand on one manual and the left on the other, an effect approximating bariolage technique on a violin. Such an effect on the piano is not possible and would have to be simulated by playing one of the notes an octave higher.
The foregoing preamble is offered by way of introducing Finnish harpsichordist Assi Karttunen, who gives us the five Couperin selections on this disc played on a gorgeous sounding German-style harpsichord built in 1997 by Henk van Schevikhoven. Complementing the Couperin pieces, and reflecting Karttunen’s interest in contemporary music, are six original harpsichord works by London-born contemporary composer Graham Lynch.
Karttunen specializes in performing and researching Baroque music, but she also performs with interdisciplinary groups that work in contemporary repertoire and experimental media. As both musician and researcher, Karttunen teaches at the DocMus, Doctoral school of Sibelius Academy, and conducts classes in harpsichord playing and basso continuo at the faculty of Early Music, Sibelius-Academy, University of the Arts, Helsinki. She has recorded solo albums and played in several orchestras and ensembles. The emphasis of her 2006 thesis was on the aesthetic and philosophical background of the 18th-century French cantata.
It’s a real pleasure to hear the Couperin pieces so expertly and knowingly performed by Karttunen, but I’m guessing that readers would want me to devote more space to the less well known Graham Lynch, who holds a PhD from the Royal College of Music and studied privately with Oliver Knussen.
Two of Lynch’s pieces on the disc— Admiring Yoho Waterfall and Present-Past-Future-Present —were inspired by the haiku and travel sketches of 17th-century Japanese poet Matsuo Basho. The latter-named work was commissioned from Lynch by and for the Helsinki Music Center. In a lengthy and detailed booklet essay, harpsichordist Karttunen provides a detailed description of the piece and her impressions of the music, which she compares to the meditative sounds and silences of the early French non-mesuré préludes and the lamentations for solo harpsichord, explaining that “the rests, pauses, commas, decays, unexpected breaks, omissions, fragmentations, and interruptions are all important parts of the mechanics of the music.”
Karttunen goes on to describe what she hears as a “walking movements,” which are irregular and sound as if even more voices are heard beyond the notated ones. “These passages,” she continues, “are interrupted by episodic textures that are like inner thoughts; free and flighty impressions, they appear out of the blue. At times they are flashbacks, a memory of previously heard music.”
“It requires special skills,” Karttunen says, “to write for the instrument in a deliberately ambiguous manner that blurs the lines between the unheard and the heard. Usually one has to (paradoxically) write a group of voices that can be played like clusters, in a casual and sketch-like style. Lynch uses many ways to arpeggiate the chords, by writing both rhythmical, arpeggiating passages ( Future ) or sprayed, broken sonorities ( Past ).”
“These varied arpeggiations,” writes Karttunen, “also deliver the music into a horizontal and floating sound world. The vertical chord pillars are realized in a variety of horizontal textures, in a lute-like way; luthé . The chords played luthé become functionally more ambiguous as the voices are heard one after another and are intertwined. This musical feature is typical also for the meditative preludes of 17th and 18th century France; it’s as if the harpsichord was thinking by itself. Lynch goes even further and lets the chords flourish within bitonal colors. Pauses communicate many things; some of them occur after a slowing of the music, some after passages or motives that resemble birdcalls or wing strokes disappearing into the sky. One can experience aural spatiality between the movements and passages, inside the phrases, and in the particular place where the music is performed.”
Finally, Karttunen asks, “ What is heard when nothing is heard? Moments slow down, and our mind is at rest; the senses are aware and embrace the silence in an observant manner without the need to actually do anything, just yet. Our existence in the present is heightened, elevated, and tuned to the particular instant we are experiencing. The floating thoughts pass away without solutions.”
I’m not sure what, if anything, I could possibly add to Karttunen’s love affair with this music, other than to say I’m equally taken with it. There’s a timeless quality to Lynch’s Present-Past-Future-Present that seems to occupy a dimension of mind and being that transcends normal states of consciousness. It is as if one is held suspended in a non-corporeal, other-worldly existence. What I find equally spellbinding about this music is that it is wedded to the harpsichord in the same way that the music of the French Baroque clavecinists, personified by Couperin, was wedded to the instrument.
Lynch, himself, alludes to this in speaking of his Beyond the River God on the present CD. “Out of all the harpsichord music that I’ve written,” he states in the album note, “ Beyond the River God is the work that comes closest to having a dialogue with the French clavecinists of the 18th century, especially François Couperin.” Though the piece does not imitate the ornamental gestures of the period, it does follow the rondeau-couplet form that would have been familiar to Couperin, as it is to us from one of the French composer’s most famous works, Le Tic-Toc-Choc ou Les maillotins.
From 18th-century France, we travel to Andalucia for Lynch’s Petenera , a quartet of harpsichord pieces each titled after a poem by the great and tragically short-lived Spanish poet, Federico Garcia Lorca: “Bell,” “The Six Strings,” “Dance,” and “De Profundis.”
No reference is made to Ay! in the otherwise thorough liner note, but I did learn from Lynch’s website that Ay! is a Spanish exclamation that denotes surprise or pain heard in the cries of flamenco singers, and that the piece, which is slow and melancholic, fuses a tango rhythm with elements of modal Spanish harmony.
The disc concludes with a short piece titled Secret Prelude , which, once again, I was able to discover from Lynch’s comprehensive website, comes from a graded series of pieces for students designated Sound Sketches . There are three volumes, containing 20, 19, and 17 miniatures respectively; Secret Prelude is the very first piece in Volume 1.
Fashioning a program of works by Couperin and Lynch was a stroke of genius, I assume on the part of harpsichordist Assi Karttunen. That her playing equals her musical perspicacity, not to mention her informative and articulate album note, really pays dividends in this amazing venture to unite the voices of two composers from across a divide of three centuries. Stunning performances of stunning music, stunningly recorded. What more can I say?