Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Gustav Leonhardt

From Norm Lebrecht's blog today comes the news that the great harpsichordist and organist Gustav Leonhardt is retiring--at age 83!

Leonhardt is a towering figure in the Early Music movement that grew strongly starting in the 1950s and continues today. He is a spectacular harpsichordist and organist. I have to confess that I have never been a great admirer of the organ, but the harpsichord is a different story. The edginess of the sound takes some getting used to, but the clarity and the depth of the repertoire makes up for it. Here is Leonhardt playing the Goldberg Variations, one of the first pieces he made his name with in the 1950s:

He also made some wonderful recordings of Domenico Scarlatti. I think you can hear in this performance some of what makes him unique as a harpsichordist. There is an expressive intensity that one doesn't usually imagine the harpsichord capable of. After the jack plucks the string, there is really nothing more you can do, but he seems to be able to control the way the jack moves the string to get a kind of spring or crunchiness that intensifies the expression. Have a listen:

He also is known as a conductor both from the harpsichord and from the podium. Here is the big solo from the Fifth Brandenberg. I don't think that's his real hair:

And here he is conducting a Bach cantata. The three-hundred and some cantatas by Bach are probably the greatest collection of music that is not widely known to the musical public.

Here he is playing some Couperin:

Indeed, it is hard to find any music from the 16th to the 18th century that he was not master of, for harpsichord or organ, or ensembles including those instruments. Not long ago Sony released a box of his recordings in this edition of 14 discs, which I purchased and enjoy greatly, but which no longer seems to be available. However, there is this one, even bigger with 21 discs.

One of my favorite photos of a musician was one on the cover of a disc of Leonhardt playing Buxtehude. He was sitting at the harpsichord in a white room. The only other items in the room were wall to wall shelves of scores. Now that is a dedicated musician...


Mathieu said...

It is indeed not his real hair. Leonhardt played Bach in the Straub/Huillet film "Chronik der A. M. Bach", from which this excerpt is taker.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Mathieu. I was wondering why everyone was in costume. I haven't seen this film. Would you say it was a good portrayal?