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Johann Jakob Froberger
Clavichord Fantasias


F10184   [8595017418426]   released 6/2011

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Jaroslav Tůma - clavichords by Martin Kather, Hamburg
(photo from a recording session at monasterial wine cellars in Borovany)

For many musical “epicures”, the clavichord is the ideal keyboard instrument, whether in terms of the distant past, or in our ultra modern age. Every key stroke effortlessly sets in motion a pair of strings tuned in hushed unison. At the ends of the keys, acting as simple levers, we will find small metal blades, or tangents, standing erect, which mediate the most effective contact between finger and string ever devised on a keyboard instrument. The briefly reverberating tone is controlled by the player’s sensitive hand, not only to achieve the desired dynamics, but the fingers can even introduce a slight pitch-bending or vibrato, in the same way a violinist creates a vibrato on his instrument. The tuning of all chords can also be adjusted with pressure applied by individual fingers. If the acoustic conditions are favourable, for instance in a room or small hall, music performed on a clavichord can be exquisite to the ears of an audience of several dozen or so, seated round the instrument. However, things have to be quiet outside as well – no disturbance from cars, no din from pneumatic drills, no pounding of horses’ hooves or rattling of carriage wheels as they roll over uneven cobblestones. In the seclusion of an unnamed monastery somewhere in mediaeval Europe, it was recommended that the monks close the lid of their clavichord while practising in their cells, so as not to disturb their brothers in prayer. Would this have been the reason the metal tangents in certain clavichords were covered in leather? Whatever the case may be, these instruments had their own special, unique resonant sound.
     Contrary to our customary notions of St Cecilia depicted sitting at a positive organ, many surviving images or sculptures present the patron saint of music with her slender fingers immersed in the keys of a clavichord. This was the standard practice keyboard instrument from way back, up until the 19th century; during this century it was toppled from its position by the piano which, in turn, is now being superseded by electronic instruments. I am convinced, however, that, in the future, the circle will close once again in favour of the clavichord. Electronic equipment is tedious, and clavichords don’t upset people in their vicinity, which is the chief disadvantage of the piano. Although, nowadays, unlike the monks in their cloisters, one’s neighbours aren’t in the habit of praying; they are more likely to be watching television or sitting at their computers with headphones on.
     All sorts of different types of clavichord existed but, essentially, they can be divided chiefly into two groups, fretted and unfretted. The second group, whose golden age wasn’t to arrive until the 18th century, includes instruments which feature a pair of strings for each note. In contrast, there are more types of fretted clavichords, their shared trait being the higher or lower incidence of paired strings with more than one tangent, hence one note. A typical variant sees a division whereby the notes d and a are independent, whereas the notes c – c sharp, e flat – e, f – f sharp, g – g sharp, and b flat – b always share a string pair.
     Today one has a sense of the pressing requirement to interpret music from previous eras in a historically enlightened manner, or, to use an outdated term, “authentically”. I have always been plagued by the idea as to how one should respond to this. Too many of these artistic creations always seemed to me, in theory, to be an end in themselves, and – why beat about the bush? – also downright irritating. You won’t often hear anyone admit something like this in public; generally, someone will make a discreet remark to the effect that it’s all a question of taste. On the other hand, from an early age, I marvelled at how wonderful historical music could sound when performed on period instruments or their replicas; I was impressed by the sound of the organ, the harpsichord and, later, the clavichord and piano as well. Naturally, I was also amazed by the superb performers themselves. It holds true that if two people are doing the same thing, it’s not the same thing at all.
     Professionals, amateurs and especially students frequently ask how a given work should be played. I appreciate their curiosity and efforts. Everyone wants to do well in international competitions, and I realise that fear of criticism from “people in the know” does have its justification. Perhaps the criticism expressed in specialist reviews is feared to a lesser extent today; everyone probably knows that they’re a dying breed. Newspapers and magazines print other things, and professional music critics are more inclined to spend their time writing announcements or publicity pieces, or purely promotional articles.
     This stubborn endeavour to acquire an informed and accurate view of musical conception moreover gives rise to a process of unification: everyone now virtually plays in exactly the same way. The more flawlessly they perform, paradoxically, the smaller the audience turn-out. There is so much of everything on offer, supply exceeds demand, whether on the concert platform or on the CD market. It almost seems as if the artists who will shortly be getting most of the attention are those who, on the contrary, are accustomed to violating any number of norms.
     This said, I’m not setting out deliberately to make trouble. If I know in myself that a given work, or a passage within it, requires a specific, logical solution, I keep to it, unless, of course, I feel the compulsion to do everything a little differently. It is not my wish to shock or provoke the audience; on the other hand, I don’t want to be restricted in advance by any rules which might inhibit my imagination. Nevertheless, it is, of course, very difficult to be stylistically aware and conscientious in every detail and not feel hemmed in among all the strings, keys and notes.
     Johann Jakob Froberger is a composer with whom I have an affinity, and whom I find inspirational since, in many respects, he oscillates between two extremes. His compositional structures are governed by strict rules – in fact, he codified them himself – yet he could be utterly free in his approach. His notation offers the performer a wonderful sense of exhilaration. His music is uninhibited and imaginative, and many of his works – such as his canzonas, fantasias and suites – have encoded within them the need for free improvisation. Not only the melodic ornamentation, but also the precisely notated melodic-rhythmical figures ask to be expressed with refinement, at the same time distinctly and, on occasion, with surprising urgency.
     As an organist and keyboard player Froberger was active in many of the major cities of 17th century Europe and he also travelled a great deal, as was the custom at that time. He was one of the first musicians whom we might describe as a modern concert artist. A fair number of his works could conceivably have been written down only after the composer had performed repeated improvisations in public on a similar theme or themes. Creating music without any preparation was common in earlier times, in fact, the improviser was even inspired by his listeners in shaping the definitive musical form. Even today, centuries later, it is still possible to create improvised music based on interaction such as this. If, at any given moment, the audience is focused and listening carefully, the improvisation can continue. But if people start shuffling their feet, it’s probably time to think about bringing the improvisation to a close. If someone starts coughing, one either has to opt for a quick cadence, or perhaps bridge over any unpleasantness with a less important linking section, and then at a convenient moment try to engage the audience once more and start preparing for the grand finale.
     This is said in jest, of course, but one could imagine that, when Froberger improvised at some point, let’s say, on the motif “Ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la”, everyone understood this simple sequence of notes as a witticism on the part of the performer, and they would have listened with curiosity and fascination. What else will he concoct and demonstrate on the basis of such a triviality? Perhaps this is also the reason that the notated work is fairly long. The playful and charming themes of some of the Canzonas, on the other hand, inspired the composer to produce only short pieces which do not diverge to any great extent.
     We decided to do this recording in the former monasterial wine cellars in Borovany in South Bohemia not to ensure the proximity of liquid stimulus or inspiration, but because the underground space provided an atmosphere of perfect silence which, for a recording of the clavichord sound, is absolutely essential. Only once was our concentration disturbed by the bells of the local church.
     The improvisations which weave their way through Froberger’s music, also as a form of commentary, are not my attempts to foist my ideas onto his period and style; they linger more in the present. They were not prepared in advance; the aim was to allow myself to be borne along by the instrument and the simple musical theme. I was provoked into devising this kind of programme chiefly by the maker of all the clavichords presented here, Martin Kather from Hamburg. Alternating Froberger’s works with improvisation pieces was his wish, providing me with the opportunity to let these beautiful instruments work their magic on me and, at the same time, to allow my imagination free reign.

Jaroslav Tůma

Further recording by Jaroslav Tůma on clavichords:

© Studio Svengali, February 2018
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