article 110: G.L. LPs, part II

My recent leisurely investigation of Gustav Leonhardt’s early recordings has been focussed on finding the moment when he transitioned from a rigid virtuoso, indistinguishable from a dozen others, to the epoch-making man who broke a long-lost code: that of correct handling of the harpsichord. One Telefunken issue from 1962 (AWT 9422-C) turns out to be revelatory and frustratingly obscure at the same time.

The obscurity is in regard to exact recording dates. In most cases only release dates are available. Like mapmakers at the time, record labels held information back to avoid “dating” their products, in the sense of potentially losing business. Neither profession cared whether their customers were getting cheated by buying obsolete wares. Many is the time I have cursed the former for putting me on the wrong road, and recently I’ve been cursing the latter for masking the road that Leonhardt took. The present case is further complicated by the three labels he worked with in his early days: Bach Guild/Vanguard, Cambridge and Telefunken.

As for the minor revelation found in my old mono issue with the original Das Alte Werk green cover: it was recorded at two different times on two different instruments, both of which played major roles in my life after Leonhardt sloughed them off for better things. The A side (Böhm, Handel) and the first half of the B side (Rameau) were recorded on a copy of an instrument by C. A. Gräbner (Dresden, 1782). It was held at the time in the collection founded by Wilhelm Rück (1849-1912), which was acquired by the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg, in 1962.

The LP says the copy was by “W. Rück”, but the note mistook the commercial Pianohaus Wilhelm Rück, by that time being run by Wilhelm’s son Ulrich, for the builder. That was, in fact, the venerable Otto Marx (1871-1964), at the time the most experienced restorer of early keyboards in Europe, who built the instrument for Leonhardt in 1957.* It was the first historical copy he commissioned. Until then he had been a devotee of heavy instruments with registration pedals by Neupert and Goble, but trips in the mid-1950s to the America of Hubbard & Dowd and the Yale collection convinced him to mend his ways. I think Leonhardt chose the Gräbner because it was the closest thing available at the time to the “large veneered harpsichord” mentioned in the inventory of Bach’s possessions which was drawn up on his death.

When I arrived at the Amsterdamsch Conservatorium in 1971 at the beginning of my four years as Mr. Leonhardt’s student, this same instrument was tucked away in a tiny windowless practice room, which is now put to more appropriate use as a closet for cleaning materials. When, as was often the case, the conservatory’s main harpsichord was in use, that was where one was forced to practice. The keyboard was uneven and unresponsive, the sound was dull and nasal.

Its successor at Leonhardt’s home on the Nieuwmarkt was a copy of nothing in particular by Rainer Schütze (Heidelberg, 1961), who was of great assistance (transportation, tuning) to the new owner in his tours of Germany, Austria and Switzerland. This instrument is heard on the last four tracks of side B. After my teacher moved to the Bartolotti House on the Herengracht, it didn’t fit into the decorative scheme. Aside from that, in 1962 he had acquired the famous Skowroneck loosely based on Dulcken. So after a few months getting to know me, he offered the Schütze as a loan to the house in Amsterdam Oud-West where I was living with my future wife. This meant total freedom to practice, day and night, except for the occasional passing private student who needed to use it for preparation.

The only space available in our narrow house in a run-down neighborhood, now gentrified, was the drafty third-floor garret, directly under the old roof tiles. Worse, the two steep Dutch-style stairways, which seemed more like ladders to a raw American kid, were hard enough to negotiate without a double-manual harpsichord balancing near-vertically on one shoulder, the tail being guided into the stratosphere by my girlfriend. And the second set was at a 90 degree angle from the first. I don’t know how I managed, especially coming down without being able to see the steps, which were about five inches wide. But come down the Schütze did, every time we held a house concert. At most of those Mr. Leonhardt showed up and scrunched himself between two students on the ratty couch we had bought at the flea market. The pastries my girlfriend baked may have been the main inducement. He hounded me for years for the recipe for a chocolate cake, unfortunately lost.

To hear the familiar sounds of those two instruments after such a long time was nostalgic to a degree. Indeed, I can’t remember the last time I played the old LP, because it is largely from Mr. Leonhardt’s boring early period. But for the purpose of tracing his development it has its uses. The sections on the Marx / Rück are clearly earlier – how much earlier? – than the Schütze tracks, and not only in terms of performance; the sound quality is worse. The playing is either extremely nervous** or too slow; nothing really breathes, all is cold and sterile. The choice of two opening suites by Georg Böhm is bold; the subsequent appearance of Handel’s best suite (F-minor) seems strange in the light of Leonhardt’s disdain for the Saxon, but it would have been a selling point to balance the Böhm. Some of the six pieces by Rameau are overly virtuosic, while the slower ones are still disappointing – but there is more warmth here on the whole. Might they stem from a later session?

The picture changes radically with the four Scarlatti sonatas. Here Leonhardt is on the threshold of greatness. If he took delivery of the Schütze in 1961 and recorded on it immediately in order to fill out the disc, it happened on the eve of his magnificent Froberger for Harmonia Mundi (Ruckers / Schloss Ahaus; see Article 104) of April 1962, and around the time of his earlier Froberger LP for Cambridge Records, where he is also on the cusp of top form.

I heard Leonhardt play two of these four sonatas (K 215-6) at Sanders Hall, Harvard University, in the autumn of 1969, my first direct encounter with the man. The Telefunken recording is almost as good as my radiant recollection. He recorded them, and another one from this disc (K 52), again for Harmonia Mundi (Ten Sonatas) in 1970. That highly forgettable LP was an obvious rush job. The magnificent, almost Brahmsian Andante moderato (!) of K 52 (an early work, under the influence of his meeting with Handel?) comes off far better in the older version.

It would seem that the end of 1961 and the beginning of 1962 marks the crucial phase of Gustav Leonhardt’s evolution. Interaction with instruments was critical, both to the early bad and the later good. It’s hard to be musical on the kind of harpsichord he was forced to borrow, for his first Vanguard recordings, from the Vienna Akademie where he was a professor in the early 1950s. Increasing contact with antiques and early copies powered a gradual change. That, and source reading. In Mr. Leonhardt’s library after his death I found faded scraps of paper containing early notes from old treatises. One of them was a fragile paper napkin. I imagine him wolfing down his cheap restaurant meal somewhere in Baden-Württemberg, making uittreksels while Rainer Schütze tunes the new harpsichord before the concert, shifting the register levers’ white spherical knobs. Neither of them could have imagined that ten years later a skinny hippie would be fascinated by their bone microstructure, and annoyed at how they kept falling off.

August 26, 2023

* See (Primärdaten). The GNM holds a correspondence between Ulrich Rück and Ralph Kirkpatrick. Most of it is from after the total wartime destruction of Rück’s properties. Nuremberg, which was so proudly called itself “the city of the Reich Nazi Party conventions”, was a favorite target of the Allied air arms. In those letters Kirkpatrick shows himself at his most generous and empathetic.

** After a recital I gave in Utrecht, the last time he heard me play, Mr. Leonhardt was in a talkative mood and, out of the blue, related the following anecdote. After the Second World War, the Dutch army was sending drafted troops to Indonesia in an attempt to quash the independence movement. Young Gustav was called in for a medical examination; he was declared unusable due to “artistic nervousness”. “Nou, daar kom je bij de Amerikanen niet ver mee!”, he chuckled. “You wouldn’t get far with the Americans on those grounds.”

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