The harpsichord is an “old school” instrument, and it’s usually played for music composed during the period of Western classical music known as Baroque. (That’s how [in]accurate my terminology is going to be.) Like the piano, it uses a keyboard, but there is no pedal and no matter how hard you press a key the loudness will be the same. Therefore, the harpsichord sounds distinctly mechanical and one might even say dull.
The piece I’m writing about is called “Harpsichord Concerto No.1 in D Minor BWV 1052” by Bach, and specifically the first movement because that’s my favorite. It’s performed with an orchestra. I first heard this performed live with piano, even though it’s written for the harpsichord. The modern piano didn’t exist during Bach’s time, and he wasn’t fond of its predecessor at the time, the fortepiano. The question therefore arises, does the piece sound better on the modern piano or harpsichord? (Would Bach have approved of the modern piano?)
I’ve listened to both versions, and while both fascinate me, I have to say that the harpsichord version sounds so right. How can this dull and lifeless sounding instrument beat the sweet and subtle expressiveness of the piano? I’ll explain my impressions from both performances.
Piano and harpsichord have distinctly different sounds, so the orchestra plays differently to achieve a different balance. With the piano concerto, the piano is the clear star of the show. It’s the loudest and dictates everything: the slower tempo (for the performance I’ve selected) and the whole mood. The orchestra is just there for support, and the entire piece would still sound pretty coherent without the orchestra parts. The strings do not sound beautiful, but subdued and uneasy. The harpsichord on the other hand requires the orchestra to help vocalize the melody, set the mood, and make sense of the whole thing. (Funnily enough, this might be explained by the fact that this harpsichord concerto is believed to be Bach’s transcription of a lost violin concerto.) For example, in some parts you can barely hear the left hand part of the harpsichord because of the limited volume and high clang-to-note ratio (sorry, I studied engineering). In the unison parts (where the orchestra and harpsichord are playing the same melody), the orchestra carries the sound while the harpsichord creates the somber nature to it. Despite the limited expressiveness of the harpsichord, stylistic phrasing and stress on certain notes is done through nuanced variations in the rhythm such as short delays between notes and holding a note for slightly longer or shorter. It’s subtle, but it makes for precious moments when you notice it.
I realize that Baroque music in general is not accessible to all listeners, so I’ll introduce it briefly too. Baroque music is bizarre. It’s characterized by rules and conventions. There’s a lot of repeated themes and variations (e.g., same rhythm and shape is being repeated over and over but with slightly different notes), decorations (flashy notes), counterpoint (simultaneous musical lines that constantly fight for attention), and syncopation (irregular or unexpected emphasis in terms of beat). Baroque music is often very recognizable and “all sounds like variations of the same thing” because of the confining rules. One might find it boring, repetitive, and predictable. So with these potential limitations, what makes great Baroque music? Baroque music is defined by rules, but the flip side is that the whole artistry is in when to break the rules and how. In oversimplified terms, if you have enjoyable themes with a nice flow to the predictable parts, and really exciting and delicious transitions when breaking the rules, then what you have is something potentially very addictive. Each movement should also form a cohesive sequence of moods, usually emphasizing one mood.
I’ll further elaborate the feeling of listening to great Baroque music with the specific example of the piano concerto performance. Just watch the pianist in the video. (Not now; after reading everything.) Her body language says it all. She is dancing inside and out. Trust me, this is a difficult piece. It’s not easy to dance while playing (unless you’re Lang Lang in which case you’re playing while dancing?). But she is, because the beat is irresistible. The piano is more expressive so you can do much more with dynamics and shaping, and arguably it takes a lot more skill than playing the harpsichord. Somehow she makes it seem effortless.
So how do I feel when listening to the harpsichord version? Why do I prefer it? The beginning theme, which is repeated a few times later, is epic. It’s heavy and solemn and charged with something dark. It’s almost satisfyingly depressing. The harpsichord solo sections are lively, yet chilling, and are gently urged on by support from the strings, shaping the pace. The sections played in a major key (sounding perhaps not cheerful, but hopeful or promising) are very pleasant melodically but the passages feel like they just keep flowing on without breaks due to the off-beat emphasis of the orchestral parts. The first long solo, while repetitive and possibly predictable, it’s kind of creepy enough to not be boring. Rather, one asks “What’s going on? Where is this leading to?” Some of the intermediate parts I’ll simply describe as suspenseful and uncertain. The solo in the middle is purely eccentric. The second long solo sounds relatively simple. It doesn’t make you guess, but it keeps you waiting and the beat offers no break. And then the metal goes crazy.
From start to finish, underlying the whole piece is the feeling of unrest. Every section moves forward and makes you feel uneasy. This is why I love this piece played with harpsichord. No, you can’t have a toilet break because you’ll miss the transition to the next part, and the next. The tension is maintained so well, and there’s an excellent balance between predictable following of the rules and breaking them for effect. The harpsichord version is less dance-like than the piano one but a lot more suspenseful. This piece was intended for harpsichord (at least this transcription by Bach, anyhow) and it conveys the mood more intensely and consistently despite (or even because of) the fundamental limitations of the instrument.
Note: the first video contains all three movements.