Since I first tried to play a harpsichord, as a student in Tromsø in the 80s, I’ve never understood why articulation is not exploited more on this keyboard instrument as a means of musical expression.

The organ impresses you so much, it is so great, that you maybe don’t feel the need for any more than what is immediately given you as you pull out the stops, or you feel perhaps that your wish to use for instance articulation to a greater proportion even here should not be…articulated. But actually, the organ also invites the variation and creativity of staccato and legato, to put it simple and even childish. 

To hear comments about the harpsichord, that it is a limited instrument, with no way of varying the tone…

It sounds almost like a jealous pianist or piano teacher who has heard almost the same about the piano. I mean, you can’t change the tone of a piano after you’ve hit the key, can you?

Anyway, in both cases it’s nonsense. Varying the music is always possible. Even if you play the same music, you should only ask the question “What Händel am I playing today?”

There is something to learn from literature, or acting, staging, theatre. It is not always necessary to go as far as the revolutionary theatre directors, maybe, but still, the text in literature is not a completely finished thing, a new reading, or interpretation, is always possible to imagine. There are always new things to say about it, because our minds keep changing as time goes by, so thereby our thoughts change, about…in principle, anything.

Even Bach and Mozart.

We play “Bach and Mozart”, and I agree that if we intend to do that we should normally not create new notes in the text or anything similar, but what those scores tell us is not quite a given fact, that’s part of why I go to concerts, to hear some new thoughts discovered.

Sometimes you can hear a string quartet go too far in dynamics, they play too loud, simply, and the sound breaks, you have the feeling that they don’t think a fiddle or a cello has a big enough sound, or the score contain so much that it fills more than a string quartet can possibly say. 

It may happen, perhaps, that thingsare badly written, and it is a little difficult to answer such a question because so many who play seem to just accept any frame for their work and concentrate on the rest. But basically, I think, if you accept the frame around your pictures, you’re left with a lot of freedom when it comes to what you do inside that frame, and how you form the frame is also not given from the fact that there is one. The question of how is still left open to a certain extent. The development of baroque interpretation should make that clear, if nothing else does. It is considered to be authentic, but it is also a new thing in the history of playing music.

The intensity of the sound does not only relate to the number of decibels or the amount of instruments on the score, but to the intensity of the emotions or the madness and sanity of the ideas you had when you wrote the music or when you played it.

So any format will possibly do, just listen to the old recordings of Frans Brüggens recorder playing, solo, and…hey, his instrument is not an obstacle, you won’t even think of an idea like that.

I can truly say that one of my favourite types of noise is a huge romantic orchestra playing Brahms or Mahler or Debussy. I threw away the Norwegian variant of the soprano recorder, tussefløyte, when I was around 12, after learning some tunes, which was actually fun, but the instrument felt too feeble, to weak for me to play on, the piano had much more sturdy, solid qualities, I felt. I could hit it and it hit back, I liked that better. Like woodwork compared to needlework. I do’n t particularly like working with fabric, but making wooden things for fun suits me.

But this is about playing music.

When it comes to listening, I enjoy almost anything, as long as the musician(s) have the ability to convince me and I agree at least partially with what they say. There is philosophy in music, and attitudes, and I don’t expect myself to enjoy everything as much as…everything else.

But anyway, the harpsichord…a lot of things possible. Every instrument has its own world, its own ways of saying things, and its limitations. To compare music played on a harpsichord and a piano is interesting.

The harpsichord went out of use for a hundred years or so, and when it came back, pianists had had the time to steal and arrange its music and make it into piano music, which is a fantastic world in itself, I find. I have always listened to Dinu Lipatti when he plays arrangements of Bach, which was of course written for a harpsichord or even a clavichord, which is even another thing. Myra Hess, and who else? Rachmaninoff himself plays really well, but maybe not exactly in a tragic way. There is a whole period in interpretation, of playing, which I love, maybe from the 1930s to the 50s, and it coincides almost with the times of Rachmaninoff, Debussy, Ravel, which are also among my favourite composers. Rachmaninoff also wrote and played arrangements, a really nice one of some movements of a partita, a violin piece, or a suite of pieces, by Bach. Here is the first of those movements, fantastically played by a French pianist who is travelling around the world today, Helène Grimaud.


So, what is also interesting is comparing the two instruments with music in hand written for the harpsichord, by Bach, for instance, and to play it on both.

One of the things with the recordings from the 30s, 40s, 50s, is the seriousness of the interpretations, the feeling of tragedy, which has always appealed to me. Mozart’s c minor concerto, played by Robert Casadesus, most of violinist Ginette Neveu’s recordings, for instance  of  Chausson’s Poème, Dinu Lipatti is mentioned, Myra Hess, I don’t know, there are a lot of others from this period. In the late fifties and the sixties many performers play much more straight, not so interesting or excting to my ears.

Now, what happens if you play (if I play) Bach’s F minor concerto on a piano? It is very easy for me to fall into the same mood, the idea of tragedy, but if I take the notes over to the harpsichord and play, it comes naturally out as aggression, because of the plectrum which sort of rips the strings. It all happens at a low decibel level, but considered as a part of the package, the whole sound of the harpsichord, it is actually pretty violent, like a sharp claw.

You can take the piano sound and turn it into something else. I’ve done that a lot. In the beginning it was totally unconscious, but I loved the orchestra from the moment I heard one, or rather, I was in shock, which have luckily never left me, and to play concertos on the piano with friends was always a thrill. I had two musical friends especially when I was a teenager, one playing the trumpet and the other the French horn, two sisters.

So we played Richard Strauss and Haydn and Arutunian’s trumpet concerto, which ended up as a real favourite of mine. Actually all of those pieces.

We stayed friends, too.

Playing stuff like that is either a bother, if you’re made of soloist material, perhaps, or a fantastic way of playing, if you just love music, like I do. I can’t say that I wanted to hear oboes or be an oboist or a fiddle player sitting on the piano stool, but the mass of it all, the really great, big, sound, I enjoyed making it. And I more or less started playing anyway because I wanted to hear the music that I had heard at concerts. Some of the notes of Chopin polonaises etc were lying at home, so I found my way into it.

I always wanted things to be fun and noisy.

So you can do the same, but think of a harpsichord instead of an orchestra. To me that meant at least to create a sharper piano tone, to give it an edge which is not supposed to imitate a harpsichord directly, it’s more like translation, you go from one world into another and use similar means, maybe, but not identical, to achieve – maybe – similar effects. I later learned that you should use no pedal at all in Bach, presumably because it was written for a harpsichord, which has no sustain pedal, but this is also not quite logical, because you don’t play it on the same instrument anymore. It is in effect a transcription, not with different notes, but with a different inetrument.

Polina Osetinskaya, here playing Bach’s d minor concerto, may have had some similar ideas, at least you can say that i is played with a lot of flair and aggressivity which of couse is normal in this converto, but still. I mean, there is enough room for contemplation and other interesting stuff in this interpretation, but as a performer, you sometimes feel the need to really come through to the audience.

Using a little violence is not always wrong, because a lot of music contains violence.

Glenn Gould has of course been a great influence, not only in general when the talk is about Bach, but when it comes to articulation. There is not much soft Schumann legato in his playing, not even in Schumann.

I think it is quite useful to consider where those instruments come from too, I mean the idea of a harpsichord is so close to a lute or a guitar, it is not the same thing at all as a grand piano or an organ, soundwise or technically. To pluck a string…and to have a kind of machine pluck a string, more similar than to have a hammer strike a string, which sounds more like a glockenspiel, and the action looks more like a dulcimer, actually the sound too is maybe a mix of the two and of course new possibilities compared to both, and a new, different world too.

An organ…an orchestra, of course, but sometimes also not so far away from a harmonica, even, or an accordion, because, technically, I mean the way the sound is produced, they are similar, at least to some of the voices of the organ.

But if you listen to some harpsichordists you certainly have the feeling that they have not left Schumann (I love Schumann, but maybe not on the harpsichord), they play basically legato when it goes fast. I would begin with thinking that I played a lute, and then see where I ended up. I don’t know if guitar or lute players do a lot of musical experimenting with articulation, and I have no idea whether they have or feel the need for it, but on a keyboard, at least, it feels right to me.

So in the end maybe you have no need for changing or increasing orc decreasing the volume of the instrument, because you have found other means of changing the intensity and of saying what you have to say musically. I remember I heard Ketil Haugsand, harpsichord player, in Gamle logen, one of the concert halls in Oslo, and he, being the person he is, of course went crazy in Bach, I think maybe in the great solo in the Brandenburg no 5. To me this was then a new experience, that a harpsichord could explode musically – I had of course heard it in other connections.

Ehm…it’s stupid to add things after publishing the first time, but I can’t resist this one, sorry again.

Here is the first movement of the Bach partita, played on the violin. The violinist, Arthur Grumieaux, was born in 1921, and even if he belongs to a completely different generation than both Rachmanoff and the rest of the composers I mentioned, and the performers too, his ideas and way of playing are maybe not so far away from the Bach arrangement of the Russian romantic.

Here is a recording of Bach’s a major concerto with Gustav Leonhardt as a soloist, on harpsichord, filmed in Copenhagen in 1966. I sometimes find Leonhardt a strict fellow musically, even if he is a great musician, but this concerto has a lot of light, so all in all maybe a neat compromise between darkness and light. If such concepts apply at all…when I was a kid I didn’t need any concepts to take in the music, they just happened, whenever I listened to live music.

Yeah, I think I meant the ideas.

Also.