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20th- & 21st-century music for the clavichord

London meeting of the British Clavichord Society, Church of the Christian Community, London NW3, 31 March 2007

Paul Simmonds
Graham Lynch Admiring Yoro Waterfall*
Jurg Baur Suite (1956)
Peter Nickol (b. 1946) Night Thoughts for Clavichord*
Gary Carpenter Van Assendelft's Vermeer*

Julian Perkins
Stephen Dodgson Suite No.1 for Clavichord
Herbert Howells From Lambert's Clavichord
Simon Charles Capriccio
Stephen Dodgson Suite No.2 for Clavichord

Micaela Schmitz
Herbert Howells from Howell’s clavichord (1956)
Julia Usher Clavicle, a Touch Piece for Clavichord

The clavichords: Paul Simmonds and Julian Perkins are playing an unfretted clavichord after a C. G. Hubert instrument of 1771, made in 1986 by Karin Richter, who in the same year also made the fretted instrument after Bodechtel played by Micaela Schmitz. Both were kindly provided and prepared by Paul Simmonds.

This extraordinarily enterprising event prompts wide ranging, indeed rambling, thoughts, best perhaps conveyed in an Article.

Ever since my student days, when I bought a Hodsdon clavichord (so as to be able to play during the night without disturbing fellow-residents) I have cherished this precious instrument which has long remained at the periphery of music lovers' awareness.

Experiencing rare opportunities to hear the clavichord epitomises Musical Pointers' so-far fruitlessly sustained campaign against the crass noise pollution of the new Century's musical environment; see Why not amplify? .

I have always thought the clavichord ripe for developing a contemporary repertoire; I once recorded (on ancient acetate) some of Bartok's Mikrokosmos, which suit it perfectly, and Matyas Seiber gave me the manuscript of a piece he had composed for Susi Jeans.

In 2004 the BCS held (probably for the first time?) a competition for new clavichord compositions, judged by a panel including Paul Simmonds, who this afternoon played a pleasant Hindemithian Suite (1956) by Jurg Baur (b.1918) and some of the awarding winning pieces, including Gary Carpenter's Van Assendelft's Vermeer, which had deservedly gained first prize at the competition and will be released on a BCS sponsored CD in September.

Several composers were present in this ideal venue, amongst them the veteran Stephen Dodgson, whose two unpublished clavichord Suites were given in newly revised versions by Julian Perkins *, whose account of Herbert Howells' My Lord Sandwich's Dreame was the most beautiful moment of the whole long afternoon.

The BCS should spare no pains in trying to get Paul to record (on Karin Richter's marvellous large fret-free Hubert (1771) copy) the whole of Herbert Howells' seminal books, Lambert's Clavichord and Howell's Clavichord, which really don't sound good in John McCabe's recording on modern piano (pace Rob Barnett).

Another of this great Britain-based maker's instruments was used by Micaela Schmitz to introduce the first complete performance of another 2004 competition winner, Julia Usher's Clavicle, given by Micaela Schmitz (editor of Harpsichord and Fortepiano and no mean clavichordist !).

This required Richter's fretted instrument (after Bodechtel) for some of its special effects, and Usher has expanded the timbral possibilities and dynamic range of this most intimate of all instruments by exploring the strings as well as the keyboard.

Touching the Wall was originally shown at a video festival in Verona. A DVD, performed and illustrated by Andrea Gregori, was launched in UK during the BCS afternoon [purchase from BCS at £13]; final page of Julia Usher's score below. (A domestic recording of this afternoon's concert performance might be available through BCS on enquiry.)

A few random thoughts to conclude. The clavichord is, essentially, a domestic instrument which needs a quiet environment and is heard at its best by the player (c.p. the grand piano or the organ). Hearing three clavichordists on two very different instruments, and from three different positions in the church, I was surprised at how critical is the precise seating position; others endorsed my observations. The clavichord is best heard close to, and from the right side, with the strings over the sound-board unimpeded by anything (such as the player's body!).

The earlier problems of recording the clavichord have long been solved and it is ideal for home listening. It also will lend itself to promotion on DVD - I know none other clavichord DVD than Usher's; here it is heard but not seen! A revised version of Clavicle is in preparation, and a recording with Micaela Schmitz (who has been closely involved in its development) is highly desirable.

The afternoon spent with clavichords in a public situation made for an oasis of concentrated listening, one that everyone there will long remember.

Two anecdotes may give food for thought.

On the way to the Church of the Christian Community, I chanced upon a copy of Camden New Journal, the excellent local paper, with a letter from a resident protesting to English Heritage at the cessation of - and refusal to resume - classical concerts in Kenwood because of complaints from neighbours about excessive noise. " - - What you fail to accept or even acknowledge despite all the correspondence in the local press is that classical concerts at Kenwood do not need, and never had, amplified sound. The beauty of those concerts was the magic of the sound drifting across the lake - - etc". Living in the area in my youth, I endorse that from my own experience in a bygone age.

And last week, we had to cover our ears at South Bank, to protect ourselves from crass over-amplification of HIP recordings of Vivaldi concertos, q.v. - - this company's insensitivity towards presentation of their (often well chosen) music. Having made a big thing about Vivaldi and his concertos, a good Historically Informed recording on period instruments was pounded out of the loud speakers at such a volume that we had to listen with our ears covered and, later, move far back in the hall...

Yet amplification need not always be bad, and subtle 'enhancement' of the clavichord was achieved there in the days of Thomas Goff at Valda Aveling's clavichord recitals long ago. And to end on a positive note applauding the latest technological miracle, walking down to Swiss Cottage station after the BCS meeting, I listened with huge enjoyment to Paul Simmonds playing Müthel's Arioso with 12 Variations on my new iPod...

Peter Grahame Woolf

* Julian Perkins' excellent recording of the two Dodgson clavichord suites, premiered in the revised version at this meeting, is available on Campion Cameo 2088: Dialogues - The Music of Stephen Dodgson Vol 2 (©Campion 2009) and the score has been published in an attractive format by Cadenza Music (2008), with an illuminating note by the composer, who is happy that the pieces might be played on any keyboard instrument. PGW

Clavicle by Julia Usher
(final page of score)