Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Henry Purcell’s Pedagogical Keyboard Music

from IMSLP (public domain)

A little over a week ago, the Warsaw-based DUX Recording Producers released a CD of Polish harpsichordist Ewa Rzetecka-Niewiadomska playing eight suites by Henry Purcell. One has to do a bit of digging through the accompanying booklet to learn that these suites were published in 1696 in a single volume entitled A Choice Collection of Lessons for the Harpsichord or Spinnet, along with several single-movement pieces. I make this point not to be pedantic but to emphasize that these suites were published for pedagogical purposes. In other words they were written in the same spirit that one encounters in many of the keyboard compositions written by Johann Sebastian Bach about a quarter of a century later.

I have a personal connection to this music, since I first came to know these suites while I was living in Singapore between 1991 and 1995. Since moving my nine-foot Baldwin concert grand piano from Los Angeles to Singapore was out of the question, the only instrument at my disposal during that time was a Yamaha Clavinova (which I purchased almost as soon as I had moved into my home there, meaning that it preceded all of the furniture, books, and records that were in a shipping container). Because the library of sampled sounds on this instrument included a harpsichord option, I figured I would take advantage of exploring how the change in decay time would influence how I would play these pieces.

Exploring Purcell turned out to be a real delight. Since I did not have a piano teacher, I basically worked my way through the Dover reprint of Purcell’s suites, first getting my fingers around the phrases themselves and then exploring how performance would involve more than just getting the notes right. Then, about four years ago, long after I had begun writing for Examiner.com, harmonia mundi reissued their recording of Canadian harpsichordist Kenneth Gilbert playing these suites; and it provided my “first contact” with an “authoritative source” on how Purcell’s marks on paper could be turned into music.

To this day I have not yet heard any of these suites performed in a recital setting. One reason may be that most harpsichordists regard them as far less inventive than any of the pedagogical keyboard music that Bach wrote, and I accept that as a perfectly good justification. Nevertheless, while the pieces are shorter and tend to be occupied more with “local ornamentation” (rather than more extended prolongation techniques), one can still take pleasure in how a skilled and historically-informed player can provide a listening experience that involves more than the labors of a struggling student. While I still accept Gilbert as an authority, I found Rzetecka-Niewiadomska’s approaches to these suites to be consistently engaging and even playful from time to time.

Still, I suspect that the real value of this new album is that it will encourage other well-intentioned amateurs like myself to explore the delights of playing Purcell’s music, rather than just listening to it.

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