I WAS IMMENSELY pleased to attend the College of Charleston’s most recent Monday Evening Concert Series event at the Simons Center Recital Hall, featuring a pleasant hour of harpsichord music winningly performed by Adam Jaffe. A former piano student of CofC Artist-in-Residence, Enrique Graf, at Carnegie Mellon University (where Graf also teaches), Mr. Jaffe currently resides in the Netherlands, where he is in his second year of harpsichord study on a Fulbright Scholarship.
His well-chosen program offered a comprehensive survey of harpsichord music from the early Baroque era through the dawning of the Classical period, with emphasis placed on the music of the great French masters. While the music was not played in chronological order, the earliest of the composers heard was the Englishman Peter Philips, a Catholic exile to continental Europe during his native country’s period of Reformation turmoil. His Pavan and Gaillard Dolorosa—allegedly written during a period of imprisonment—certainly reflected his despondent state of mind at the time. I was struck by the piece’s profuse chromatic progressions.
The French composers represented were among the best-known musicians of their eras, beginning with the two most famous members of the Couperin musical dynasty (like the Bach family in Germany, the Couperins were prominent musicians in France for centuries). We heard the brief and rather aimless-sounding (but very nice) Unmeasured Prelude in C major by Louis Couperin, the first of the family to achieve lasting fame. Later in the program came four delightful preludes from L’Art de Toucher le Clavecin, an important treatise on harpsichord technique by François Couperin, called “the Great” owing to his status as the family’s most illustrious member.
I particularly appreciated the canonic interplay between our artist’s hands in an extended piece known as Chaconne, by Jacques Duphly—as well as the dynamic contrasts produced by his frequent use of the instrument’s upper, softer-sounding manual throughout the piece. The final Frenchman represented was Jean-Philippe Rameau, whose music presaged the coming Classical era. The soft delicacy of his Les Tendres Plaintes was offset by his bolder, more animated Les Niais de Sologne.
As much as I enjoyed the above-described works, the recital’s highlight for me came with Jaffe’s two selections from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier—probably because I was far more familiar with them than the rest of the evening’s fare. We heard the Prelude and Fugue in C major (book two) and the Prelude and Fugue in A minor (book one): both paragons of Bach’s supreme musical imagination and dizzying contrapuntal wizardry. I was particularly moved by the longer second piece’s somber mood and poignant emotion.
Jaffe’s instrument—a modern replica of an original double-manual harpsichord of Franco-Flemish design from the late 1700s—offered sweet sound, of sufficient volume to be clearly heard anywhere in the hall. As I am hardly an expert when it comes to the harpsichord, I was careful to select a seat that would enable me to observe Jaffe’s hands, and perhaps learn a bit more about the characteristics of the instrument and the techniques required to play it properly. And sure enough, my observations—confirmed by a chat with the artist following the concert—provided new personal insights into harpsichord technique and how it produces very different sorts of musical flow and phrasing than are possible with a modern piano.
For one, I was struck by the radically different sorts of fingering employed; primarily the dependence on the three middle fingers of each hand, with no “thumb-crossing” in the execution of scale passages. This necessitated a kind of three- fingered “hopping” technique that (along with the lack of a modern piano’s pedals) prevented the kinds of seamless legato phrasing that pianists can produce. I was further interested to observe the use of organ-style “replacement” fingering, which is apparently the only way to sustain a single note on a harpsichord while the other fingers are busy.
In all, this was a fascinating, educational and musically rewarding evening—one that I won’t soon forget. Along with his previous mentor Enrique Graf and the many other musicians who were there for this occasion, I warmly wish Mr. Jaffe the best of luck and good fortune as he continues his early music studies in Holland. As he told me, he will soon begin learning how to handle the fortepiano: the keyboard instrument that succeeded the harpsichord in the evolution of the modern grand piano. Given his objectives there—and the fact that the Netherlands is one of today’s true hotbeds of period performance practice—he could hardly be in a better place.