Rafael Puyana, harpsichordist (1931-2013, Columbian)

Although the harpsichord had been “reinvented” by Wanda Landowska in the early years of the 20th-century, you might think that 1962 would be a little early in the “period-performance” movement and its attempts at rediscovering (or reinventing) “authentic” period performance practices, and expect harpsichord playing back then to be a tad stiff, sparsely ornamented, and on loud and banging instruments.

Rafael Puyana’s 1962 and 1964 recordings for Mercury, now collated on two CDs, The Golden Age of Harpsichord Music”, Mercury Living Presence 434 364-2 (1995) and Rafael Puyana Baroque Masterpieces for the Harpsichord, Mercury Living Presence 462 959-2 (1999), are exactly the opposite. The instrument is sonorous, recorded from close up, but never banging and clanging either. And listening to these pieces by Picchi, Frescobaldi,  Johann Caspar Ferdinand Fischer and the likes, with the (often very bare) scores (available on the International Music Scores Library Project, again gratitude to all those who uploaded them), one marvels at Puyana’s kaleidoscopic coloring and registrational and ornamentational imagination and freedom.

Let me quote the liner notes, contributed by the harpsichordist himself; the comment pertains to one of the pieces (Picchi’s) but can be applied to all: “Any musician wishing to accomplish a satisfactory interpretation of a work like the Balli d’Arpicordo must be able to put factual knowledge in the setting of the composer’s era and environment. A precise transcription of a tablature is but the basis of such an undertaking. Whatever pertinent information the interpreter can gather should be used with conviction, even if it means drastic changes in conception and technique to the service of an idea. Authenticity must then be sought to enhance the revival of a musical masterpiece, but never at the price of its life. Happily, Renaissance and Baroque music are generous towards the imagination of today’s performer: the texts are so bare that he must investigate, judge, and decide about their many aspects before he can bring true life to them. Baroque music affords and demands great freedom of expression and an attitude of inventiveness, both practicable within a large historical and aesthetical frame. Today’s interpreter can, by this very reason, enjoy a high level of creativity.

Program accomplished, to the hilt.