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D'Anglebert on the Clavicytherium

available at Amazon
D'Anglebert, Pièces de clavecin

(re-released on December 10, 2009)
EMC CD-7759 | 110'25"

Online scores:
d'Anglebert, Pièces de clavecin
Christophe Rousset recorded all of the keyboard music of Jean-Henry d'Anglebert (1629-1691), combining pieces that were published and those drawn from manuscripts. Before and since that 2000 disc -- can we get a re-release, Decca? -- d'Anglebert has been an occasional interest among other harpsichordists, too. Recently, Canadian harpsichordist Hank Knox recorded selections -- about half of the pieces in the only published volume of d'Anglebert's music, the Pièces de clavecin, from 1689 -- a disc actually made in 2003 but which arrived on my desk only recently. The twist that makes the release slightly unusual is that Knox, the director of the early music program at McGill University in Montréal, plays these pieces on a clavicytherium (built by Yves Beaupré and modeled on an 18th-century example by Albertus Delin, a Tournai-based builder who specialized in this type of instrument). The instrument signified by that exotic term -- a combination of roots from words for keyboard and cithara -- is nothing more than an upright harpsichord, with the strings and action extending vertically upward rather than horizontally like other harpsichords, perhaps to save space in a small room.

The sound is essentially no different: to paraphrase Beecham, it is still like two skeletons copulating on a tin roof -- just while standing up. The only change, as far as I can tell without having played one of these instruments, is that the sound would be much louder in the player's ears rather than radiating outward toward one's listeners (a special action to make the plucking of the strings possible in a horizontal direction adds more noise). D'Anglebert was one of the favored keyboard composers of the 17th century, somewhere in the shadow of the Chambonnières (father and son -- the latter was possibly d'Anglebert's teacher, honored by a Tombeau among d'Anglebert's works) and the Couperins. He spent most of his career playing in court settings, at the private entertainments of Louis XIV and his guests, as well as for the king's brother, the Duc d'Orléans. The music of the publication featured here would all serve quite nicely for that purpose: three "suites" of dances (D minor, G minor, G major -- with more or less the expected order of movements, although he does not label them as suites), complemented by arrangements or adaptations of popular ballets and operas by Lully (emphasized in Knox's selection), music that had only recently been premiered and was much in vogue. The clavicytherium is tuned to A415, in an unusual temperament: as described in David Chung's much more detailed review for the Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music, the temperament of six pure thirds is based on one created by the organist Lambert Chaumont, resulting in one hair-raising wolf fifth. (Chung also notes that the oldest surviving stringed keyboard instrument is actually a clavicytherium.) Knox's playing, assured and enlivened by a knowledgeable execution of ornaments, helps make this disc worth a spin, if not a necessary purchase.

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