musica Dei donum

CD reviews

"Grand Tour"

Korneel Bernolet, harpsichord

rec: Oct 2020, Antwerp, Museum Vleeshuis
Ramée - RAM 2009 (© 2021) (80'27")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Musicalisches Opfer (BWV 1079) (Ricercar a 3); Josse BOUTMY (1697-1779); Suite No. 3; Suite No. 5; Antoine & Jean-Baptiste FORQUERAY (1671-1745/1699-1782): Suite No. 1 in d minor; George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759): Concerto in Judas Maccabaeus (HWV 305a/b); Jean-Philippe RAMEAU (1683-1764): La Dauphine; Domenico SCARLATTI (1685-1757): Sonatas in f minor (K 238/239)

Sources: Antoine & Jean-Baptiste Forqueray, Pièces de Viole, mises en Pièces de Clavecin, 1747; Josse Boutmy, Troisième livre de pièces, 1747-50

In the early days of historical performance practice, recordings of historical instruments were pretty common. They made much sense as they represented something most people had never heard. Among such recordings were many on keyboard instruments, especially harpsichords. Today numerous copies of such instruments - or harpsichords built in the historical tradition - are around and are used for performances and recordings, both solo and in ensemble. However, it is still something special if a historical instrument is used for a recording. Most harpsichords of the 17th and 18th centuries are part of museum collections and not always available for recordings. Some are also not in playable condition. The Museum Vleeshuis in Antwerp includes a collection of historical instruments, among them harpsichords and fortepianos, which are played in concerts taking place in the museum, and for recordings. The latter are not that easy to realise, as the museum is in the heart of Antwerp, at a place "where silence could normally never be guaranteed at any time of day or night", as Korneel Bernolet writes in his liner-notes to the recording under review here. It was thanks to the peace and quiet which was the effect of the lockdown due to the COVID-19-pandemic that this recording could be made. It was just the instrument, the music and the performer - the latter also took care of the recording. And so we have here a demonstration of the qualities and features of one of the museum's most precious instruments: a harpsichord built by Joannes Daniel Dulcken in 1747.

Dulcken is a pretty well-known name in the harpsichord world. Many harpsichordists have played copies of one of his instruments and used them for recordings. Gustav Leonhardt was one of them. He used a copy of a double-manual Dulcken harpsichord of 1745, made by Martin Skowroneck, for his famous recording of Bach's complete harpsichord concertos. The harpsichord which Bernolet plays on this disc has one manual. That may seem too limited in its possibilities for the programme he has recorded, but that is not the case. That is partly due to the fact that the harpsichord has two 8' stops and one 4' stop. Its temperament is unequal, based in 1/5-comma meantone. That temperament makes itself felt at several moments during the programme.

Bernolet decided to play music that has been written in or around 1747. He opens with a piece by Handel that is seldom played, at least in its solo version, as it was conceived as a concerto for organ and orchestra, based on his oratorio Judas Maccabaeus. Here the various stops of the harpsichord and their different combinations help to create the kind of orchestral colours that do justice to the piece's origin.

The next item is a suite by Forqueray - which one is hard to tell. Scholars are still not sure whether the five harpsichord suites which Jean-Baptiste claimed to be his arrangements of suites originally written for viola da gamba and basso continuo by his father Antoine, are indeed written by the latter. They may also be written by the son, who then attributed them to his father to take profit from the latter's reputation. Whatever is the case, they are among the most brilliant pieces which were published in France in the 18th century. It is here that one may doubt whether a Dulcken, which is not specifically built in the French tradition, is the right instrument to do justice to Forqueray's music. Fear not: under the hands of Bernolet it does the job. It is useful here to mention that this instrument has a particular feature which proves itself to be useful, here but also in Handel. "[Dulcken] applied a double wall along the curved inner side of the case, a procedure he had experimented with for years and which contributed to the instrument's stability and richness of sound", according to Timothy De Paepe, curator of Museum Vleeshuis. That richness of sound manifests itself here quite clearly, and is partly responsible for Forqueray's suite sounding so well. Bernolet's performance does the rest. The suite comprises six character pieces, and the differences between them come off to full extent.

The most surprising parts of this recording are the two suites by Josse Boutmy, and those are the works I was most curious about. He was born into a family of organists in Ghent. From 1744 to 1777 he was organist at the court chapel in Brussels. He also worked as a harpsichord teacher. His oeuvre comprises one cantata and three books of harpsichord suites. The latter include both French and Italian elements. I had heard some of Boutmy's music before, but very little is available on disc. That is hard to understand, as these suites are really very fine. I liked in particular the andante from the Suite No. 3, which Bernolet plays exactly in the right tempo: modestly fast, not slow as too often is the case. Both suites end with a piece called tambourin(s), which are quite different. Both have a drone in the left hand, but the one in the Suite No. 5 is quite strong and firm, whereas the one which closes the Suite No. 3 is much more playful. That is underlined by Bernolet by using the 4' stop here.

Johann Sebastian Bach's Musicalisches Opfer is the obvious choice for this programme as it was written in 1747, and includes a number of ricercares for keyboard. The work as a whole is written in the galant idiom, in which melody is more important than counterpoint. But Bach would not be Bach if he had not included pieces in which he could indulge his love of counterpoint. The Ricercar a 3 is a perfect example, and receives an exemplary performance here. The clarity of Bernolet's playing allows the listener to follow each single line. The tempo and articulation make this a good example of musical story-telling.

Domenico Scarlatti and Rameau represent two entirely different worlds. One may connect Scarlatti''s sonatas with Italian or Spanish harpsichords, but they do well on different instruments. Moreover, the Spanish court in his time owned also harpsichords from outside Spain, for instance French instruments. Here Bernolet uses the possibilities of the Dulcken harpsichord for an eloquent performance of a pair of sonatas, and again the temperament of the harpsichord manifests itself. Rameau's La Dauphine is his last known harpsichord piece, and a very characteristic work, quite theatrical in nature. That is not lost on Bernolet, and the harpsichord is his obedient servant.

The Dulcken harpsichord is part of the collection of the Royal Conservatory of Antwerp, where Bernolet is professor for harpsichord. In this capacity he is the harpsichord's guardian. He has played it many times and knows it inside out. That shows, and that has resulted in a splendid disc, in which this precious instrument presents itself in full glory. That is reason enough to purchase this disc. The inclusion of two suites by Josse Boutmy, whose music should be much better known, is an additional reason.

This disc is a happy marriage between instrument, music and performer. Don't miss it.

Johan van Veen (© 2022)

Relevant links:

Korneel Bernolet

CD Reviews