article 104: G.L. LPs

Older readers – referred to by German youth as Gruftis, the interred – may recall the Compact Disc, or CD, a now-defunct means of recording music. The very old and decrepit – get the idea – such as your humble author, may yet have vague, pre-dementia recollections of the medium that preceded it: the “LP”, short for “Long Playing”, the final developmental stage of Thomas Edison’s primitive invention, whereby (incredible as it may seem!) a needle followed narrow grooves in a rotating cylinder or disc, thereby transmitting music via electrical circuits to a so-called “loudspeaker”. This was the means of aural reception of sounds which had been fixed on a pressing matrix before transference to the retail product, and which were transmitted through the air to the listener’s ear. I know this sounds fantastical, but as Lorenzo da Ponte wrote: “Storia incredibile ma vera.” Rumor reaches me occasionally that the LP is staging a comeback, but I don’t believe it.

The first LP by Gustav Leonhardt I ever owned was purchased at Sam Goody’s in 1969. It may have been the time I met Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward there (see Article 94). I played it incessantly, to the annoyance of my roommate on Riverside Drive, on a cheap fold-down stereo with detachable speakers I had brought up to New York from the North Carolina School of the Arts in Pauline Koner’s car*. It was released by RCA on their budget Victrola label. That was a front for material they bought on license, often from overseas labels, which they thought unworthy of their own highbrow catalog. Certain that marketing under the name Johann Jacob Froberger would guarantee failure, they called it “The Sound of the Early Harpsichord”. Naxos did the same thing to me when they wanted to avoid another obscure name, Andrea Antico. Thus my world premiere first complete recording of the earliest Italian keyboard print was monikered “Italian Keyboard Favorites”.

The early harpsichord whose sound RCA thought would be a better marketing ploy than “Froberger” or “Leonhardt” was catalogued by Grant O’Brien (“Ruckers: A harpsichord and virginal building tradition”, Cambridge, 1990) as “Ioannes Ruckers 1640b”. It was built in Antwerp for Alexander, Reichsgraf von Velen, and at the time of recording it was still standing in Schloss Ahaus in Westphalia, probably its original destination, and owned by the same family. It hadn’t been altered since the original transposing keyboards had been conservatively realigned about 1690. I played it a few times in concerts at Ahaus before it was moved to another family residence, Schloss Velen. But Mr. Leonhardt told me, “It was never the same after Wittmayer restored it.” The soundboard had been unnecessarily removed and re-glued, among other things. In 2001 I recorded a half-CD of Sweelinck on it, as part of the first complete recording of the keyboard works by the “Orpheus of Amsterdam”. The memories that linger are of an unwieldy action through the coupler, more like an organ than a harpsichord; hellish tuning; and engineers who were uncooperative, arrogant nitwits, to the point that I walked out cursing them and vowing never to return. Luckily they came after me and apologized. I think it’s one of my best contributions (NM Classics 92119, 9-CD box, 15 performers).

The LP under discussion was one of the best Mr. Leonhardt ever made. The original issue, recorded April 1962, was on German Harmonia Mundi, an outfit which started making pioneer “authentic” early-music recordings around that time. They organized promotional master classes and concerts in Staufen, near their headquarters in Freiburg im Breisgau, and close enough to the French border that everyone involved would whip across of an evening to eat well. The Froberger LP marks the first high point of Leonhardt’s recording prowess. After 1970 he turned his attention to collecting antiques, and as he himself often said, thereafter concentrated on making “clean” recordings, which in many cases tend to dryness. His 1970 Telefunken Froberger is still fine, but already inferior. In any case, my teacher once confessed to me that he thought all recordings were actually waardeloos – worthless.

I cannot concur. They may lack the vibrations of a live performance, but as documents they are indispensable. Case in point: this wasn’t Leonhardt's first Froberger CD. That was recorded around 1961, one of a small series for Cambridge Records in Massachusetts, although it was only released in 1964; an unobtainable rarity which I heard on a CD copy provided me by John Koster. It marks the moment when Mr. Leonhardt can first be heard breaking the lost code of Die Wahre Art.

Mr. Leonhardt first began visiting America in 1954, where he encountered the revolutionary instruments of the Boston school, and met Ralph Kirkpatrick, to whom he later gave credit as a great early influence. He gradually unbent from the stiffness of his 1950’s Vanguard recordings, and may have been somewhat embarrassed by late release of the earlier Froberger, at that point rendered obsolete.


A couple of years ago Naoko spotted the 1979 Japanese release of the 1962 Harmonia Mundi issue online, and brought it home from Hiroshima yesterday. It has an obi wraparound (like a kimono) in Japanese, with the most important information on the front for the local buyer. The back cover is all nihongo.

The gap of 17 years between the two issues is a remarkable testimony to how advanced the performance was, and how Leonhardt’s reputation had gone international in the meantime. I may put the new acquisition on the old turntable this evening. In any case, I can finally relegate the worn, warped Victrola to the archives.

August 3, 2023

*This legendary modern dancer had studied with Mikhail Fokine, who choreographed “The Firebird”, “Petrushka” and “Daphnis et Chloé”. Her apartment was my first residence in New York while I searched for a room near Juilliard. Soon after our late-night arrival after the long drive north, Pauline proudly showed me the huge score of Schönberg’s Gurre-Lieder owned by her husband, Gustav Mahler’s cousin Fritz.

I have to add an incident from that trip: at a fuel stop, still somewhere south of the Mason-Dixon Line, a prospective hitchhiker approached Pauline and asked, “Sister, are you a Christian?” “NO!”, snapped the wiry little lady, “We’re Jewish!” For the moment I was an honorary member of The Tribe. The good ol’ boy slunk off, looking as if he had seen the devil incarnate.

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