Wednesday 9 August 2023

Handel's Attick: music for solo clavichord - A subtle and revelatory disc from Julian Perkins

Handel's Attick: music for solo clavichord - Julian Perkins - Deux-Elles
Handel's Attick: Music for Clavichord; Julian Perkins; Deux Elle

A disc which explores the music Handel would have played as a student, recorded on the sort of clavichords he would have known and used at home

Considering its ubiquity in 17th and 18th century musical society, the absence of the clavichord from the recording catalogue is striking. Oh, there are clavichord discs but not in the numbers that reflect the instruments use during the 18th century. Part of this is its lack of suitability for the concert platform; the clavichord is a subtle, intimate instrument, one that composers' might use on their travels.

On his new disc, Handel's Attick on Deux-Elles, Julian Perkins presents a programme of music by Ebner, Frohberger, Weckmann, Kerll, Zachow, Handel, Domenico Scarlatti, and Arne. It is a programme that reflects the story, told in John Mainwaring's 1760 Memoirs of the Life of the Late George Frederic Handel, of the young Handel smuggling a clavichord into his father's attic so that he could play. Hence, the first half of the programme comprises pieces by some of those composers mentioned in a notebook of 1698, now lost, which Handel compiled when he was studying in Halle with Zachow, whilst the second half are pieces that the mature Handel might have played on a personal clavichord in London.

So, what is a clavichord. In the CD booklet, Julian Perkins lucidly describes the mechanism, "Mechanically, the clavichord is simplicity itself. Firstly, the strings are arranged so that they go across the instrument, at about ninety degrees to the keyboard. The keys have a brass blade at the business end, called a tangent. So, when you press a key down, the tangent strikes up against a pair of strings. Unlike on a piano, the tangent doesn’t bounce off the strings, so the player is in direct contact with the sound until they release the key. This simple mechanism requires an assured yet sensitive touch that strengthens one’s technique for playing other keyboard instruments. You can’t just hide behind the sustain pedal!"

Julian Perkins playing the clavichord at Raynham Hall (Photo Timothy Roberts)
Julian Perkins playing the clavichord at Raynham Hall (Photo Timothy Roberts)

The sound is a quiet, intimate one but subtle and full of colour. Unlike a harpsichord, the player's fingers can control the sound quality of a note. For the pieces from Handel's youth, Perkins uses a modern fretted clavichord that is small and portable, happily carried under the arm, whilst the later pieces are played on a larger, unfretted modern instrument based on a 1775 Silbermann clavichord. 

The music is rather diverse, the composers in the first half might all be loosely Germanic but the styles vary between the French and the Italian. What we have are dances, but not for dancing, instead the player is demonstrating their skill. Perkins' approach is delightful. The sound quality, as recorded here, is very direct and evocative with a distinct sense of the way the string sounds and just hints of early lute playing. Perkins does bring a lovely range of colour and expressive techniques to the music, and though the delay on the notes is quite short, he keeps the music vivid and vibrant.

The difference between the two instruments is striking, the large instrument has a more mellow, less direct sound with a more subtle sense of colouring. Perkins begins with Handel's Suite in G minor, HWV 452, which was written in 1739 for Princess Louisa, daughter of King George II, and one of Handel's pupils. It is a delightful work, and responds well to the subtleties of the clavichord and we can well imagine it being played like this in a small, intimate performance. The result is rather seductive and gently coloured. Rather than saying look at me, the music quietly seduces.

How well Handel knew his younger contemporary Thomas Arne's Sonata No. 1 we cannot be certain, but there is no reason to believe that he would not have investigated it and it is lovely lyrical and suave work. The final group of pieces, all by Handel, is intriguing. We have a version of the choral prelude Jesu meine Freude which perhaps links to Handel's own continuing religious belief, then two engaging fugues and finally one of William Babell's adaptations of arias from Handel's operas, with Babell introducing all sorts of ornamentation in emulation of the vocal acrobatics.

What this disc does is give us another perspective on Handel's keyboard music. We hear the pieces that he learned on, alongside his own mature works and music he probably played. But as important as this aspect of the disc's sound world is, the other aspect is much more important. We hear the music on the sort of instrument composers tended to use at home. Dr Burney described CPE Bach playing the clavichord after dinner and he "grew so animated and possessed", and that was a Silbermann clavichord. And Mozart, in 1791, was busy trying to finish La Clemenza di Tito on a travel clavichord.

Throughout the disc, Perkins give not hint at all of the challenges of playing the instrument and his approach to rhythm and ornamentation feels natural and absolutely of a key with the music. The disc was made in the Marble Hall at the 17th century Raynham Hall in Norfolk, an ideal period space for the project.

Handel's Attick
Wolfgang Ebner (1612-1665) - Capriccio sopra l’aria Pergamasco, WMin 731
Johann Jakob Froberger (1616-1667) - Partita no. 1 in A minor, FbWV 601
Matthias Weckmann (1616-1674) - Libro secundo: Gigue
Johann Caspar Kerll (1627-1693) - Canzona no. 4 in E minor
Johann Caspar Kerll - Canzona no. 6 in G major
Georg Frideric Handel (1685-1759) - Sonata in G minor, HWV 580: Larghetto
Georg Frideric Handel - Impertinence in G minor, HWV 494: [Bourée]
Georg Frideric Handel - Air in G minor, HWV 467: Lentement
Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow (1663-1712) - Suite in B minor
Georg Frideric Handel - Suite in G minor, HWV 452
Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757) - Sonata K 9 in D minor: Allegro
Domenico Scarlatti - Sonata K 208 in A major: Adagio e cantabile
Thomas Arne (1710-1778) - Sonata no. 1 in F major
Georg Frideric Handel - Chorale Jesu meine Freude, HWV 480
Georg Frideric Handel - Fugue in C minor, HWV 610
Georg Frideric Handel - Fugue in B flat major, HWV 607
Georg Frideric Handel - Lascia ch’io pianga from Rinaldo, HWV 7, arr. William Babell (1690-1723)
Julian Perkins (clavichord)
Recorded at Raynham Hall, Norfolk, October 15th – 17th 2021
DEUX-ELLES DXL1191 1 CD [75:33]

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