In all artistic experiences, audiences seek authenticity. Music is a tricky art to assess, as it evolves with every performance; the same notes may sound entirely different, depending on performer, setting, instrument, and even humidity levels. Thus, performers of Baroque music face a specialized conundrum: is it best to adhere to period instruments and interpretations, in the process constricting that essential musical evolution? Can a long-gone artist’s intentions be authentically conveyed on the modern stage? In comparing harpsichord and modern-piano performances of Bach’s second keyboard concerto, one finds musical merit in both instrumentations.
Classically-trained ears are accustomed to hearing harpsichords embedded in Baroque ensembles, seldom stealing the spotlight. Therefore, when featured in concertos, the harpsichord blends without seam into the tapestry. The modern piano, on the contrary, stands out in this context. Each rounded pearl of a note, in contrast to the crisp taps of a harpsichord, is a cool stranger to the Baroque ensemble. Also, because the sound of a piano is associated with solo performances, the ensemble sounds at times superfluous. The harpsichord converses comfortably with other period instruments, but is harder to “dig” out of the ensemble; the piano sounds pleasant, but out of place.
Both performers approach the concerto with tempos appropriate to their instruments. The harpsichord and its orchestral companion languish together in luxuriant conversation, taking time to ensure that every interval is absorbed by the listener. The pianist, on other hand, executes the concerto with Mozart-like energy, prioritizing the precision of his attacks. Not a note falls out of place, whereas the harpsichordist staggers notes slightly, yielding an unsynchronized richness.
While both performers differentiate the voices with equal care, the instruments themselves limit the performer’s ability to do so. On the harpsichord, voices ring clearest at extremes of the keyboard; high notes sing brightly, and bass notes slice through the fray. Voices occurring in the mid-range are less memorable. The harpsichord’s dynamic disability allows only for “terraced” occurrences of loud and soft. The piano’s percussive nature, however, permits inflection within each phrase, and constant character changes within one voice.
Interpretation-wise, the harpsichordist plays with forthrightness, perhaps encouraged by the unmistakable insistency of instrument. The pianist expresses as an introvert would, revealing in wisps the ability to freely glide between piano and forte. Thus, the harpsichord speaks best to the distracted ear--as any ear would be, by the polyphonic nature of Baroque music--and the piano takes advantage of its incongruity.