article 111: G.L. LP 3

In part 2 of this little series I zeroed in on the years 1961-2 as the turning point for Gustav Leonhardt’s performing style. I mentioned improved instruments and source reading as major influences in his increasing flexibility, but going even farther back in his discography I realized I had forgotten another factor. His first recordings for The Bach Guild / Vanguard were Die Kunst der Fuge and the “Goldberg Variations”, both issued in 1953 when the artist was 25 years old and had already published his groundbreaking study of the former work. He recorded a couple of solos in a Purcell disc starring Alfred Deller (recorded in Vienna, May 1954, released 1955), whom Leonhardt always cited as a major early influence. The next release with Leonhardt as harpsichord soloist came in 1957 and was a bold choice of repertoire: “The Art of Frescobaldi”. The A side was on organ (the small Italian-style instrument of 1614 in the Silver Chapel at the Innsbruck Hofkirche), the B side on harpsichord. The performer’s biography states: “Mr. Leonhardt uses a Neupert harpsichord.”

Not for long. Knowing what came later, this is a painful but instructive listen. The instrument’s glossy sound and leaden action don’t make for flexibility, and Leonhardt was still not liberated from the performance practice of the time. But in the first track, the Toccata nona from book I, we hear him attempting to put Frescobaldi’s famous preface, which ordains certain rhythmic freedoms, into action. The resulting interpretation is impressively virtuosic, but ignores the preface’s further cautions regarding clarity. It’s the work of a nervous young firebrand.

His next recorded toccata by the Ferrarese master was an insert into another Deller anthology which came out in 1961, but judging by the keyboard solos, must have been recorded no later than 1960. Two organ voluntaries by Matthew Locke on the A side are clear and nicely balanced. The B side offers two harpsichord toccatas. No. 3 from Frescobaldi’s first book is a major advance on the previous disc. It sounds like the Gräbner copy mentioned in Article 109. This work is clearly later than the one chosen in 1957; the latter is the only toccata in the canon conceived in the older, broader style of the 16th century with a central ricercar, which Leonhardt rushed through in his 1957 recording.* All the other Libro Primo toccatas are in the fully developed, fragmentary style which made Frescobaldi’s reputation. At this later point in his development I think Leonhardt was coming to grips with this more advanced type of work, and the process forced him to re-assess the whole question of timing. The ultimate goal along that road to controlled freedom was the prélude non mesuré, but he never confused such special genres with pieces in strict tempo – an error which is nowadays so distressingly prevalent. According to Eta Harich-Schneider’s Kunst des Cembalo-Spiels, the problem was already on the rise in 1937.

The fusion of a degree of freedom with strict meter, achieved 1961-2, was Mr. Leonhardt’s greatest accomplishment. There was a great Dutch cabaretier named Wim Kan, still active when I first came to Holland, about whom was said, “Hij weet precies hoe ver hij te ver kan gaan.” – “He knows exactly how far he can go too far”. This knowledge similarly applies to the harpsichord. How does one space good and bad beats within the bar? How does one, within that essential framework, make the figuration breathe without distortion? It’s a task of high-wire balance so challenging that, as far as I can tell, nobody is rising to it at the present time. (Balance of any kind is now off the world’s cultural agenda.) Few enough sought it in direct succession to the code-breaker. Moving towards the target from both directions – stiffness and anarchy – Leonhardt eventually scored a bullseye.

This same 1961 release marks my teacher’s first foray into recording Froberger. His Toccata terza, Libro primo is, not to put too fine a point on it, a disaster; muddled and rushed, slamming on the brakes for the chromatic finale. Was this a result of initial enthusiasm? How could he transform this mess into the masterful 1961-2 Froberger recordings for Cambridge and Harmonia Mundi? Why did his recordings of the Stuttgarter deteriorate later? These are mysteries of a complex personality.**

(Another tangential mystery concerns Leonhardt’s persistence – not to say stubbornness – regarding once-formed opinions. Frecobaldi’s Cento Partite appears as track 2 on the 1957 LP. The opening is taken very slowly; beautiful in its way, but in stark contradiction to Frescobaldi’s own instructions, which state that the initial 6/4 is the fastest triple time signature. It would also be natural for a set of passacagli to begin in their original lively tempo, before lapsing into languor. But neither argument could convince my teacher when I brought the piece to him at a lesson. Chromaticism, such as found in the first partite, always struck a suppressed Romantic chord in the man.)

August 28, 2023

*This toccata was the first to fascinate me as well. It’s on a recording of my North Carolina School of the Arts high school graduation recital (May 1969). There is much craziness there, excusable in a kid just turned 17, but I have to say: I nailed the ricercar section. This was an early herald of my fascination with the form.

** After hearing Leonhardt and Brüggen for the first time at Harvard in 1969 (see Article 110), I found myself, thanks to a former mistress of the recorder star, invited to the post-concert party. Somehow I was placed next to Leonhardt in the back seat of the host’s car. To break a longish silence I told him I was as student of John S. Mueller at NCSA. His face went from grim reserve to a smile of genuine approval, like the sun breaking through clouds. I said that Dr. Mueller had told me Froberger was his great favorite, and what pieces should I study? One word, delivered with a dramatic stroke of an arm, gave the only correct answer to the fatuous question: “Everything!”

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