Pursued by rumbles of thunder and the laughter of black tie bedecked students rushing to Hall for dinner on Friday night, we retreated to the understated charm and elegance of the Holywell Music Room for an evening of subtle and refined clavichord and harpsichord music for a celebration of the 'Cinderella' of musical instruments, led by devotee and accomplished player, Julian Perkins. Beyond his brief introduction to the instrument and explanation of Handel’s and other great composers’ love of the clavichord, Julian let the instruments and his expert interpretation of the music played speak for themselves.
Unusually for instruments associated with seventeenth-century music and the baroque canon, both the clavichord and harpsichord played tonight were modern instruments, beautifully made by Peter Bavington and each conveying unique, precise tones. For an instrument constructed less than two years ago, the clavichord effectively evoked an almost forgotten, tranquil baroque world. The audience attentively listened as Julian Perkins explored its dulcet tones and unique, expressive vibrato through a range of early clavichord pieces from Froberger to Pachelbel. The physical limitations and restrictions of the instrument clearly inspire great ingenuity from composers and demand great precision and accuracy from the recitalist to provoke the greatest musical effect from happy courants and capriccios to the more solemn tones of Pachelbel’s Fugue. As sunlight drained from the elegant Georgian windows and the first half of the concert closed with Perkin’s demonstration of Handel’s (and his own) mastery of the instrument, you could easily imagine yourself in the intimacy of a candlelit salon recital whispering comments on the intricacies of the music behind your fan whilst the portly gentlemen to your left gently snored and the stomach of the sophisticated gentleman on the other side gently rumbled along to the music.
In the second half of the concert, after we had an interesting and enlightening chat with a fellow clavichord player from the audience, Julian Perkins concentrated on the brighter tones of the harpsichord – still echoing a quieter, less technologically advanced world but with tones predicating the introduction of the piano and lacking some of the simple guitar-like vibrato of the clavichord. I particularly enjoyed the repeated diminuendo in Arne’s Sonata No. 1 and the dramatic single bass note ending. The timbre of tapping feet and formal cotillions of Jane Austen’s eighteenth-century England clearly shone through Julian’s playing of the gavotte in an excerpt from Smith’s Six Suits of Lessons for the Harpsichord, and deft interpretation of the more familiar tones of Bach and Purcell concluded the recital.
Friday night’s accomplished performance by Julian Perkins clearly illustrated both the positives and negatives of clavichord and harpsichord music. Both of these instruments, but the clavichord in particular, are demanding of the composer due to the restrictive range of the instrument, of the player who must play with great precision and perception, and of the audience who must listen attentively to the nuances of composition and interpretation on a quiet, understated instrument. However, if you do not have the opportunity to hear the clavichord in the intimacy of an attic I found there was nowhere better than the quiet, understated elegance of the Holywell Music Rooms.