Hammering on

The past few months seem to have been a time for me to re-examine and, to a large extent, reject some of my long-held musical opinions and prejudices.

I’ve recently mentioned that I’ve been getting into both opera and ballet, having concluded that while I still think seeing them live is the best way to encounter them, there is plenty of enjoyment to be had from exploring them via DVD and CD.

Another opinion I have recently revised is what I think of the use of pianos for music originally written for  harpsichords or other keyboard instruments.  I have always preferred to listen to music on the “authentic” instruments it was written for, and still do to a large extent. In the case of keyboard music (for example Bach’s preludes and fugues, originally written for harpsichord) I have, until not very long ago, tended to avoid listening to them on piano.  That is to say, I haven’t gone out of my way to avoid hearing them but certainly would never have chosen the piano as a vehicle for them or wanted to get any piano versions into my own music library.

The fundamental thing that changed my opinion on this matter was actually listening more carefully to some fine piano performances of music written before pianos existed.

One of the first of these was an album of Glenn Gould playing keyboard works by William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons.  I got this, a couple of years ago, mainly because I wanted to listen to some of Gould’s work as he was a very famous pianist (and one who seemed to have a somewhat divided critical reputation).  He was particularly noted as an interpreter of Bach’s keyboard music, but I think I read somewhere that Gibbons was his own favourite composer (I’ve certainly come across that statement more recently), or perhaps I chose this album as it was the cheapest of his that I could find or because I already had quite a lot of Bach – on harpsichord, of course! – but not much Byrd or Gibbons.  In any case, I soon decided that while the sound of the piano may not have been what these composers had in mind for their music, it certainly worked well enough and I rather liked Gould’s interpretations.  I have yet to get round to listening to much of his Bach work but I would certainly like to.

The other main cause of my listening to piano versions of early keyboard music was the discovery of several online sources of free recordings of classical keyboard music, most of which was played on piano, that enabled me to explore some music that I wanted to check out without having to pay for the privilege.  I decided that, at least to start with, I’d rather listen to a free recording of, for example, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach’s keyboard sonatas on piano than pay for a version on harpsichord (aside from the fact that W. F. Bach probably would have had access to a piano, at least later in his life).

The main repositories I’ve been enjoying have been the Piano Society website (featuring recordings, mostly on piano but with a few on harpsichord or organ, by its members) and that of an Italian piano teacher called Claudio Colombo (featuring his own recordings on a digital piano).

In addition to some pieces that I’ve only been able to find (at least for free) on the piano, I’ve listened to piano versions of several pieces that I’ve also heard on the harpsichord, such as Bach’s Well-tempered Clavier” (aka “The 48”).  On balance I’ve decided that, while I’d still choose the harpsichord version if it was a straight-up choice between the two (i.e. I could only pick one of them and there were no other factors such as particularly nice album cover art to sway a decision), the piano is a perfectly good instrument for playing earlier keyboard music and it’s actually good to be able to hear the same pieces played on different instruments as the different sonorities tend to bring out different details in the music (it’s a bit like listening to two different performers/groups playing on the same kind of instruments, where you get to enjoy the nuances of their differing interpretations, only more so!).

So, once again, it appears that my (already fairly broad) musical horizons are expanding, which I think can only be to the good.  There remain a few genres of music that don’t greatly interest me (for example, hip hop, although I am a big fan of the related genre of chap hop, especially as performed by Mr. B The Gentleman Rhymer).  Of course, given my recent experiences with opera, ballet and the use of pianos for early keyboard music, I’d hesitate before claiming that I’ll never be interested in any given type of music.