Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Howells' and Lambert's Clavichord

Another wonderful recommendation of a super-budget priced re-issue. Herbert Howells wrote his three books of clavichord pieces between 1927 and 1971.They recreate the dancelike spirit of Tudor keyboard music while paying homage to many well known English musical figures of the 20th century.

Although written for clavichord they are thankfully played by John McCabe on the piano, and avoid the almost insoluble problems of reproducing the sound of a clavichord. The concept of the works is rather similar to Elgar's Enigma Variations with its 'friends pictured within'. Although this is not profound music it is beautifully turned, evokes the style of the great Tudor composers beautifully, and has great fun gently parodying fellow musicians including Ralph Vaughan Williams, Malcom Arnold, Julian Bream, Edmund Rubbra, Gerald Finzi and William Walton.

Howells' and Lambert's Clavichord is perfect late night listening, and is a must both for fans of the great Tudor composers and of 20th century English music. I bought it when it was first released on Hyperion, and it has now been re-issued on their super-budget Helios label (catalogue number CDH55152) for round £5 ($9 US) - unmissable. Audio samples can be found on Hyperion's website.

If you enjoyed this post take An Overgrown Path to Elgar's other enigma
Image credit - Double-Fretted clavichord, anonymous.Germany, c.1770 from Russell Collection of EarlyKeyboard Instruments. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

8 comments:

Scott Belyea said...

An intriguing recording ... thanks for pointing it out.

"...thankfully played by John McCabe on the piano, and avoid the almost insoluble problems of reproducing the sound of a clavichord. "

I'm not at all sure about this. For example, the beginning of the Pavane posted seems to me to cry out for the sound of a clavichord, particularly for the vibrato effect that can be achieved. If that's representative at all, then it seems as though the composer had the specific sound of the clavichord in his mind's ear as he wrote.

I'd be curious to know what's "insoluble" about recording a clavichord, in your mind. I have a few recordings of clavichord, and while I like the sound on some better than others, none are what I'd call a disaster. The recorded sound can of course get ugly if you crank up the volume too much, but that's not a fault of the recording.

Pliable said...

Scott, thanks for your useful comments.

Producers have an annoying habit of mixing clavichord and harpsichord on the same CD, I find this always results in the clavichord sounding the aural poor relation.

But if we leave that on one side I have spent a fair amount of time recently listening to Chistopher Hogwood's 'Secret Bach' played on clavichord on the Metronome label.It is not just the lower sound levels, the tonal range sounds compressed as well as the dynamics. Maybe this is just an unfortunate example, maybe it's because the works on the CD are familiar from harpsichord originals, but I have yet to listen to the disc with pleasure as opposed to interest.

Other reader comments are welcome, nominations please for examples of good recordings of clavichords.

Guthry Trojan said...

The Clavichord is a difficult instrument to record: not so much technically, (though it's an extraordinarily soft sounding instrument and a suitably silent venue is all but impossible to find), but subjectively. It almost doesn't fit the accepted classical recording methodology or trying to imitate a live performance. In order to hear the instrument clearly, one has to be so close as to exclude the acoustic. This is equally true of the microphones in recording.

To explain the problem another way - where most classical recordings might use half the available dynamic range of the recording medium at average volume levels. The clavichord will barely register at all unless its natural dynamic is substantially augmented artificially.

I don't know who made Chris Hogwood's Metronome recording (though I was originally asked to do it} but I can imagine that this unnatural emphasis of the naturally poor dynamic range of the instrument is what toubles you.

Pliable said...

Guthry, production credits for The Secret Bach (Metronome CD 1056) are:

Producer - Tim Smithies
Engineer - Leigh Jemison
Recording venue - Newnham College, Cambridge and Challow Park, Berkshire

I guess the recording venues didn't help, but aren't clavichords (even historic ones) portable?

Guthry Trojan said...

Whilst the instruments are portable there are often restrictions on moving them. The main criteria for selecting a recording venue is that it must be really, really silent - which is all but impossible to find in the UK. However, I imagine that Challow Park (wherever that is) was chosen for its silence.
Although I agree that the sound is not spectacularly flattering [there's always a danger of the clavichord sounding like a duff harpsichord] the acoustic is probably of little consequence. The instrument is SO soft that any acoustic exitation is minimal. The acoustic resonance that you hear on the recording probably emanates from within the instrument itself - or is artificially enhanced.
If the recording were made at a more natural dynamic [the same as the harpsichord recording for example], one would have to turn up the replay volume ridiculously high to hear it, with the result that ambient room noise, of which we are not normally aware, would become intrusive.
It's a difficult concept to intuit. There're a couple of excerpts on Chris Hogwood's site here
should anyone like to hear it for themselves.

Scott Belyea said...

Pliable said ...

"Producers have an annoying habit of mixing clavichord and harpsichord on the same CD, I find this always results in the clavichord sounding the aural poor relation."

Ah, now you'll get no argument from me on this point. Examples would be a couple of cd's in the Hanssler Bach series.

I haven't heard Hogwood's recording. My favourite clavichord **sound** of the few I have is on a L'Oiseau-Lyre LP (big black round thing with a small hole in the middle) of Froberger with Thurston Dart. The overall sound strikes my ear as being (for lack of a better word) unforced. Dart makes effective use of vibrato, which is a very interesting effect, and almost startling when you first hear it.

I suppose that one root cause could be lack of recording experience. Has any producer ever sighed, "Not **another** clavichord recording..."?

Scott Belyea said...

Re the Froberger I mentioned - Amazon has no mention of it, but a bunch of Dart (and other) clavichord recordings are distributed or reissued by the British ... don't get ahead of me here ... by the British Clavichord Society. See http://www.bcs.nildram.co.uk/bcsbooks.htm

Scott Belyea said...

Well, I had to order the recording after the enthusiastic recommendation. It arrived yesterday, and it's a gem.

I do have to admit that I'd like to hear many of the pieces on a clavichord, however ... it sounds to me as though Howells was being quite instrument-specific in many cases.