Friday, June 11, 2010

Unhistorical performance practices

One of the returning subjects of this weblog is the way the historical performance practice is compromised by artists in the early music scene. A recent example is a Naxos-recording of harpsichord works by the French composer Claude-BĂ©nigne Balbastre (1727-1799), in which the American harpsichordist Elizabeth Farr plays a harpsichord with a 16' stop.

Balbastre's keyboard works have been recorded before, but this disc is welcome as Elizabeth Farr has made an ample choice from his output which is enough to fill two discs. If I am not mistaken Balbastre's music doesn't meet universal approval. He is often associated with the decline of the French harpsichord school which had its origins in the 17th century. It cannot be denied that sometimes he goes for superficial effects at the cost of depth. The reports of Balbastre's own playing as an organist don't help to improve his reputation. The English music writer Charles Burney heard him play in 1770, and reported: "He performed in all styles in accompanying the choir. When the Magnificat was sung, he played likewise between each verse several minuets, fugues, imitations, and every species of music, even to hunting pieces and jigs, without surprising or offending the congregation, as far as I was able to discover."

According to Charles Burney Balbastre had a Ruckers harpsichord which was "more delicate than powerful". Elizabeth Farr plays a copy of a Ruckers harpsichord, but here the tone is just the opposite. The main reason is that the builder, Keith Hill, has added a 16' stop. In the booklet he argues: "Certain composers of harpsichord music wrote pieces that beg to be played on harpsichords sporting a 16' stop. (...) Claude Balbastre also happens to be just such a composer". I have heard other recordings with music by Balbastre, and I have never had the idea that something was missing without a 16' stop.

Hill admits that this view is not supported by the facts as "no French harpsichords with 16' stops remain from his time". But "I wanted to hear what the acoustic effect would be if a Ruckers type of harpsichord were extended in size by adding a 16' stop, with its own soundboard in the manner of the Hass family of harpsichord makers". This combination of Flemish-French (Ruckers) and German (Hass) elements results in an instrument which is the product of fantasy, can't be considered a 'copy' and therefore has nothing to do with historical performance practice.

In fact, the use of the 16' stop is not just without any historical foundation, but - in contrast to Keith Hill's views - it doesn't do Balbastre's music any good. Sure, some pieces are definitely written for the gallery. But there is no reason to even reinforce the effects Balbastre had in mind. It is precisely the task of the historical performance practice to perform any composer's music with the means he had at his disposal. This is the only way to do his music justice and to communicate its features to a modern audience.

It is not the first time Elizabeth Farr uses the wrong instrument in a recording. Some years ago she recorded the complete harpsichord oeuvre of Jean-Henry d'Anglebert. Here she plays two instruments, a harpsichord and a lute-harpsichord. As I have argued in my review there is no real historical foundation for the use of this kind of instrument in French music.

In both cases I find Elizabeth Farr's choice of instrument ill-judged, not only from a historical perspective but also from a strictly musical angle. The use of these instruments - and in the case of the Ruckers-copy even the very building of the instrument - compromise the principles of the historical performance practice. Here the personal preferences of the harpsichord maker and the interpreter override historical evidence. But that is exactly what the pioneers of the historical performance practice wanted to get rid of, is it not?