8 May 2016

Interview - Donald Nicolson

From The Sunday Feature, 1:57 pm on 8 May 2016

Donald Nicolson interviewed by James Gardner 30 April 2015.

Edited and corrected by James Gardner and Donald Nicolson 13 May 2016.

Full transcript of an interview conducted for The Fall and Rise of Harpsichord 6.

James Gardner: How did you come by the harpsichord – what’s the story behind it?

Donald Nicolson: About a week before I started my first term at university my dad had mentioned to me that he’d noticed at this old instrument had become available at Dunbar Sloane, the auctioneers. That was right next door to the Law Society where my dad worked for years. He’d occasionally pop in on his way there.

Is that because he had an interest in musical instruments?

Yeah, my dad’s an amateur viola player, and has been a classical music lover for all his life. He’d had a lot of interesting experiences with the NZSO in its early days studying under the great Vincent Aspey and such fellows. So he just used to pop in and sometimes he’d come home with a box of music or something that he bought for two dollars. 95% of it would be crap and yet suddenly there’d be, say, the Rite of Spring in the version for one piano four hands. Or some CDs or something and again, maybe one out of 200 would actually be any good. But he said “Oh yeah, there’s this harpsichord”, and I thought to myself “well, I’ve never really…it sounds exciting, dad – I don’t really know what to say, because I’ve never thought about playing harpsichord. I know of Brandenburg 5, because I just studied it in high school, but that’s all I know.”

Anyway, he decided to go for it. So on day two, day three of my first year at University suddenly I come home and there’s this harpsichord in the basement, and mum says “you should go downstairs, there’s something there”, and I was like “what is it?” Because I’d completely forgotten that this conversation about the harpsichord had even taken place. And there it was, this magnificent-looking but ultimately tired instrument in the corner, with two keyboards, seven pedals. And I went “wow – is that what a harpsichord is? These things are cool!”, you know. I had no idea, so I just sat down and pressed all the buttons. And intriguingly I’d just met [harpsichordist] Douglas [Mews] that day. I went up to him the next day and said “Now look, Douglas, I’ve got a rather interesting question for you…my dad’s just bought this harpsichord from the auction. And he immediately knew the instrument – he knew exactly what had gone on. It turned out that when it was put up for the auction at Dunbar Sloane it was at the time when Broadcasting House was being demolished to put up a concrete carrot or whatever it is that’s now in its position. So Radio New Zealand was obviously just trying to get rid of all these old unwanted pieces of – effectively – furniture. And they had originally insisted that it would be a private donation. It wasn’t meant to be known who had put this harpsichord up for auction.

But the auctioneer let slip, and he actually had to cover it up… “Radio New Zeal…erm. I mean…” And my dad put in a bid when he was there but it didn’t make the reserve. His idea was that – even though I wasn’t playing harpsichord at the time – he saw it as an instrument that he knew had been made with a passion, that there was some love that’s gone behind it. And he thought “I don’t want to see an instrument like that going into someone’s house and being admired as a piece of furniture when it should be played. So even though Donald isn’t a harpsichordist, at least he’ll use it”. BUT – that hope had been dashed, because the reserve hadn’t been made. So he decided to call his friend Ray Harris, who used to do one of the jazz sections for Radio New Zealand, and he’s had a jazz career of 30-40 years. My dad rang him up… and asked him if he knew much about this harpsichord. And he said he didn’t but he told him who to get in contact with. Of course the next guy my dad spoke to was very surprised that he knew he should be calling Radio NZ about it. And their response was “well it didn’t make the reserve but would you interested in making a private offer?” So he did, which I think was the reserve.

And there it was! So then there was this harpsichord in my place. And about two or three months later, maybe a little longer than that, Wellington had one of its incredible downpours and our basement actually got slightly flooded. Ever so slightly. I remember that the carpets were saturated and I think that there may have been maybe a centimetre or so of water. I freaked out, and dad said, “no, it’ll be fine”. But I noticed when we came down after that, it just didn’t play any longer. Some of the registers had stopped working. And I think that was just the humidity. The instrument had suddenly been surrounded by a watery environment. I mean we’d never had floods before then. We’d never ever had a problem quite like that. But it stopped it working pretty much altogether. So suddenly now I had a harpsichord that didn’t work. And I didn’t know what to do with it anyway.

So…now what happened next? I think Douglas told me to contact Peter Mirams, who was a harpsichord builder in Wellington – who’s since passed away. And his reaction towards this instrument was typical. He was very, very scathing of it. And I remember thinking “Wow – why would someone be so kind of anti– one of these instruments?” And that’s been a general attitude that I’ve found somewhat frustrating amongst people ‘in the know’ when they see a revival instrument. I mean I’m speaking partly as a preacher here, because I do know that there are a lot of instruments built in that tradition which are just rubbish. But I also can’t help but feel that most of them are bad probably because they’re maltreated.

And that’s ironic when you think about it because the whole reason why some of these instruments were built in the first place was because they looked at the original ones and said “well these things don’t make a tone – they don’t make any sound whatever” Why? Well, they’ve been sitting in someone’s attic for 150 years since the French Revolution, you know…[laughs]

So Peter Mirams said “look, pull the jacks out, do this, play around with some of these. If you can get two registers to work, consider yourself lucky, but you don’t really want to spend much time on an instrument like this”. So in the end, Douglas put me into contact with Paul Downie. And so begins chapter two!

When the harpsichord arrived you weren’t even doing a performance degree, were you? You told me you were just studying composition.

No, I never wanted to be a solo pianist. I wanted to be an accompanist, but I never wanted to play concertos, or anything like that. I started University as a composition student because I’d actually had some experience doing some of those things at high school. The Wellington Sinfonia, as it was called, [now Orchestra Wellington] had a programme for students where we got to work on a piece with Dorothy Buchanan for the space of about 6 to 8 months. And then they played it at the end of it. And mine was always the last one because it was scored for the biggest orchestra. I had everybody doubling on everything. So I thought this was the direction in which I was headed. But then…

In order to find out how to actually make this harpsichord play properly I was talking more and more to Douglas, and we tried to set up a couple of lessons during my first year, and then we had one. At which point towards the end of the year he said, “well, why don’t you actually enrol to do this in performance?” I just thought that was the most amazing idea I’d ever even thought of. And so we did an audition with Peter Walls, and Jack Body as well. They were on the panel. And yeah, they were more than happy to see me wanting to take this on. So suddenly I was a performance student for the following year which meant I could do accompanying as well. For that whole time – the remaining four years – Douglas and I really started to focus on Baroque repertoire with the intention of figuring out what to do with this instrument – which still wasn’t working.

I’d pull it out every now and then and wriggle round some of the gears and stuff inside to see if I had any understanding of exactly what they did. I learned enough so that by the time I started talking to Paul [Downie] he was pretty happy that if I did something to the instrument it wouldn’t be unfixable. He said “wriggle some screw around – those’ll do that, and those’ll do that” and I went “I don’t know what any of that means, but if I can make it work, then, you know, that’s a bit of fun”. But for the most part it was still just sitting there as a piece of pleasant-looking furniture but one that at least now had a purpose.

You got Paul Downie in pretty early, then?

Yeah, We got the Goff in early March ’98, and I think it might have been in my first year studying harpsichord, so that was 1999. That’s when I would have started to make contact with him. And he expressed very similar views to mine, which were: these sorts of harpsichords shouldn’t just be forgotten about, because they’re there. I think by then I’d established that there where many reasons for their existence in the 20th century and that they were what people knew as far as harpsichords were concerned for 50 or 60 years, And Paul was very much of the same opinion. Which was great. So eventually we got the thing shipped up to him in Auckland and he spent a good six to eight months working on it.

When was this?

This was late 2000. While the instrument was still away, Hamish McKeich asked me to play with Stroma. And we did that Ligeti Chamber Concerto. I’d explained to him that I had this amazing instrument and if it was back in time we could be using it for the Ligeti. But that didn’t work out because Paul was still working on it. But the following year Xenakis died and Hamish said “look I’ve got this amazing CD of crazy harpsichord pieces – how would you feel about looking at one of those” and so I thought well, we’ll definitely have to do it [Naama] on The Beast. But – this is when the problem started.

Paul shipped it down in remarkable condition. It was incredible – the thing was actually playing properly. But what surprised me was that it still felt like it didn’t make too much tone . It didn’t feel like it had much sound. And that was because Paul, as we’d agreed, had painstakingly restored as closely as he could according to the standards of how the instrument was built in 1956. So – four rows of leather plectra, one register with Delrin, overwound 16’ strings. That sort of thing. And that was at the point when I started to learn this piece. And I said to him “look, I can’t help but feel that we could get more tone out of this”, and he said “yeah, I think you’re right”. So he came down for about a week and did an incredible job. And I remember feeling “wow, this is incredible, this thing is insane!” And then Hamish came over about two or three weeks later to listen to how the piece was going and I remember going “It’s weird – it’s not making the same sound as it was – or have I just got used to it?”. And I remember ringing Paul up again and he said “I think I know what the problem is – it’s these leather plectra”. You know you can spend hours voicing them, but within a short space of time they’ll get soft and the pluck will become weaker and eventually the plectra are just kind of stroking over the string and you just get nothing. You know the Xenakis, Jim – it’s pretty percussive, which is part of the reason he wants it to be amplified. So for the performance of it in November 2001, Paul came down and we were working at St Andrew’s until midnight the night before the concert, trying to do a last minute job again to get as much sound out of it as we could. But we noticed that this was A Problem. And now, of course, having read what you’ve found, this was obviously one of the major problems with voicing harpsichords in leather

What were the supposed advantages of leather over quill?

Well it’s from a period that’s not quite my interest, and I’ve only dabbled in it. But in the late 18th century the French were talking about voicing harpsichords in this manner – as opposed to using quill – because they believed that one had much more control over the sound and that it was much more expressive, or even vocal – words to that effect. And I mean of course one says that that takes into account the changes of taste that were going on between the 1760s and 1780s, I think, anyway. And the interest in dynamic gradations were much much more interesting at that time. BUT that’s where they got the idea in the early 20th century – from these late 18th century French harpsichords and thinking “well if they were singing the praises of them so much back then well maybe we ought to do the same thing.”

How quickly does the leather lose its quality?

Well, in the case of Xenakis it goes within a few days [laughs] so – like I said – for me, I felt like there was an extremely noticeable difference within the space of a week or two. That’s of course subjecting it to several hours of practice every day over those two weeks. But for what it’s worth, you can tell that even after a short amount of time like that, it does not take long for the quality to diminish, both in terms of tone and volume. So I think leaving it to an oboe player to take care of the harpsichord from the other side of the world…they were doomed! It’s no wonder – I read the material in the file and I mean the complaints are there and they’re obvious – when people say “this harpsichord makes no sound” – well, they were right! [laughs]

And I imagine that most of those leather plectra would have been exactly the same ones as when it first arrived from London. And given the fact that it had been in a boat, slinking around in its tin-lined case, then I can’t even imagine it would have been particularly amazing when it was first offloaded.

Maybe if Goff had the chance to come over he could have done something to it. I’m sure of it. But to what effect? None – it would have taken only another couple of weeks for it to have lost its tone.

So Paul and you decide – let’s do something different.

So this was in 2007, after I’d got back from Holland. And funnily enough, Stroma played a part in this again. They were doing a Ligeti concert and Hamish asked If I’d do Continuum and Hungarian Rock. Because I’d also learnt those…no, that’s it – I did three recitals. I did the Xenakis and then I also did a recital of 20th century repertoire on The Beast at St Andrew’s as well, which I also chose to get amplified, but that’s 2002. So a long time ago.

And that was interesting, because again Paul was over for a few days prior to the concert and this time we decided to focus on the half-hitches of the pedals, so he voiced it…

Tell us about the half-hitches, Donald…

So the half-hitches are rather exciting things. And this is one of the things that Peter Mirams pointed out to me – with derision. He said “well they have these half-hitches” Now what the half-hitch did was…it’s a way of putting a pedal half on. The idea was that you could bring the register on half-way so therefore the strings wouldn’t be fully sounding, but you’d have a bit of a shadow of them.

Effectively just the tip of the plectrum is brushing the string. And Peter said “but the biggest problem is that they never worked.” So Paul and I decided well, we can make this work. So he voiced it to work both with the half-hitch and in full hitch. And what we found is that we were able to do this George Malcolm style of playing where you can actually slowly bring in a register and create these really interesting sort of sonic wave-type crescendos and decrescendos.

Are there any particular George Malcolm recordings where you can hear him doing that?

I think he does it on everything! That was what his thing was. The best one, actually, is the recording of Bach’s Italian Concerto. That’s pretty well known. I’ve got this CD, ‘The World of The Harpsichord: George Malcolm”. An old Decca reissue where he does The Flight of the Bumblebee and Bach goes to Town and all those things. But it’s really apparent in the Italian Concerto. That’s the only piece that I listened to with much interest. I didn’t check out the Couperin and those sorts of things. But you can even tell – this is the thing – you can even tell that they found it difficult then, because there are some places where he has, say, one of the registers half-hitched and it’s not quite regular between some of the voices, so you hear this dun-gun-gun-GUN-gun-gun-gun-gun, you know. And that’s simply because one plectrum happens to be a fraction of a millimetre too long, and that’s what you get. And Malcolm was, of course, playing on a Goff as well So the technicians were doing as much as they could, but even then…

So you and Paul decided to give the half-hitching a go.

Yep. And that was cool fun. But we had the same problem. Within a week or two of course, the sound had gone; the half-hitch effect didn’t work any longer.

And then I did the Poulenc Concert Champêtre in October 2002 with the Wellington Youth Orchestra and Marc Taddei, and that was pretty much the end of it before I went overseas…and I chose not to think about it. When I got back, in 2007, Hamish asked about Hungarian Rock and Continuum

And at that point we just stuck microphones all over the harpsichord and tried to make as much sound as we could. That was after five years of not having had any real work done on it…I played round again with the insides a bit because I thought – that if I could make it sound vaguely better for five minutes – which is basically all the time you need for Hungarian Rock and Continuum – then that should be enough.

But then I started thinking there must be something that we could we do to make it better. It just seemed such a laborious waste of time for Paul to spend countless hours on it, only for it to deteriorate so quickly. And obviously I couldn’t rely on him all the time to come down from Auckland and spend time with the instrument. And I remember calling him and saying “Do you think this harpsichord would sound any better in Delrin?” And he said “It’s funny you should say that, because I’ve been thinking about this too, and I think it would.”

Delrin is basically the modern substitute for quill. It’s been used in harpsichords pretty I think much since they started building original historically-informed instruments in the ‘60s. And so quill is now, generally by default, replaced with Delrin. Some people sing the praises of one over the other, and some people talk about how this one’s better than that for this reason, but the other one is better for that for this reason. I’ve never played on a harpsichord quilled in crow. It would be fun.

So Paul and I sort of left it at that, we thought right, we’re on to a good idea now but what do we do about it? Paul gave it some thought and he decided what the best plan of attack would be. The leather plectra, when they go into the jack, have a diameter of about two or three millimetres. So they’re actually quite chunky. There’s a big hole in the jack where you poke the leather plectrum in and then you cut it down. But the Delrin is only about half a millimetre thick. So obviously when you have a big hole, it’s two or three millimetres thick – how do you make one that’s half a millimetre. So Paul decided that the best thing to do would be to glue in the leather plectrum, cut it off from one side so it just becomes a makeshift part of the jack itself, punch a new hole through the leather and stick in the Delrin plectrum. The idea being that that way you’re not making new jacks and the process would be completely reversible, should anyone decide that they want to go back to having leather plectra.

So…we jump forward a lot to 2010…because the Vector Wellington Orchestra [Now Orchestra Wellington], through Marc Taddei, had asked if I would do the Poulenc concerto with them. Marc had been wanting to do it ever since that performance with the Youth Orchestra eight years earlier. And Paul and I thought this would be the ideal opportunity to get the Beast up and running again and to test out the Delrin plectra idea, which we both felt convinced was going to work

So he came down and very painstakingly took every jack out, made sure all the other parts within it, the tongues, which are the part within the jack that move with the plectrum they go back and forth…made sure they were all running smoothly, and gave it probably the most severe spring cleaning and touch and tune up since he’d first done it ten years earlier. And then he started this process, over 305 jacks, doing this with every single one of them. And along the way, we noticed that the overwinding on a lot of the 16’ strings had begun to deteriorate. Paul had even made some overwound strings himself…he’s got his own overwinder in his incredible studio in Ponsonby. So he was making these strings – because that’s what we were doing at the time – but what happens with such fine overwindings is that they tend to break, and the result is, in effect, this rubber band, sitting on the string. And all you get, then, is this very dull kind of ‘bleurh’, which sounds hopeless and has no presence whatsoever.

So as we were preparing The Beast for this concert, the overwinding on one of the strings broke. So Paul thought “well, you know, just while we’re working on this instrument, why don’t we just string up a baroque brass string on it because we’ve got one”. This should be fine the 16’ strings are long enough.

Just a solid brass string?

Yeah, just a solid, unwound, piece of baroque wire that you see on every baroque harpsichord since 1550 or whatever it is. And we just decided to leave that there, just for a bit of fun, while we started working on some other things. And actually the first thing that he did was to re-quill the lute stop, which was the only register in the original that used Delrin. Instead of using white Delrin he used black Delrin, which I think has a slightly darker timbre or something. And even in that short space of time it went from being a register that sounded dull, feeble and very uninteresting into one with a real solo kind of character. And what we noticed was the bass especially started to open up and it turned into this really sort of ethereal-sounding register, which completely blew us away. And we thought ‘well, that’s a good start’. And then he took to the 8’; the regular 8’ on the back manual. And I remember coming home from a day with the NZSO – we’d been recording the soundtrack that John Psathas wrote for this New Zealand Spaghetti Western film. And I remember Paul had only put about two or three registers in to it, but he’d just put in enough Delrin so that we could give it a go. And suddenly it was like this instrument had just woken up from 300 years of sleeping, or something. It really was mind-blowing, and just extraordinary how suddenly just one register had completely come alive. And it had tone and it had precision and it had volume and it had everything. And I remember – even in this very roughly-quilled state – I felt like I had so much more control over the sound itself.

And the other thing was that we’d also been listening this one-off 16’ solid brass string. And after a couple of days I said to Paul, or he said to me “This 16’ string sounds really good”. And neither of us was expecting that. So we decided well, if it works for this one, what’s going to happen if we were to completely redo the 16’, too. So we re-strung two-thirds of it in Baroque brass, leaving the lowest third in their original form.

Had they all been overwound before?

From memory, all the 16’ strings had been overwound. So we decided to just see what would happen. I mean it wasn’t going to do any harm – if they sounded better, then that’s better, and if they sounded worse, we’d just put the old ones back on again. No problem. And we continued to work on the re-plectraing. We added on the front 8’; that started to sound better, added on the 4’ and then of course the real jewel in the crown was the 16’, which had gone from being a register that you just added to get a bit more volume, to a quality that by itself was incredibly vocal and flute-like. And we both remarked that suddenly it took on this personality that was very comparable to what’s called a muselar, which is a late 16th century virginal where the keyboard is positioned on the far right-hand side. So what happens – this is exactly the reason why it works – the plucking point is basically halfway up the string, so you get a really solid second partial. And they knew that full well when they were building these things in the late 16th, early 17th century. But what you don’t expect is that a 16’ register from an aluminium-framed harpsichord of 1956 is going to take on this quality. So once we’d put them all together we started to realise that not only did all these registers have their own personalities individually, but they blended much, much better too. We actually ended up, if anything, voicing the 4’ and the 16’ more quietly than what we would have done 15 years or 10 years earlier, because you simply didn’t need so much of them because the overall chorus effect was so much more powerful.

You know, when I did the Poulenc Concerto with the Vector Wellington Orchestra, it was the same Town Hall and the same harpsichord as with the Youth Orchestra. And the orchestra as the same size, I think. But we decided to go unamplified. And it worked, you know. And I think that was really a turning point. That was something that I wanted to do because I believed that the harpsichord itself was capable of working like that. And also I felt that in Poulenc’s time, when he wrote the piece for Landowska, they wouldn’t have amplified her Pleyel. I thought this was just one of those opportunities where it was worth taking the risk. And as far as I’m concerned that risk totally paid off.

Having said that, I think people are used to the idea of hearing a keyboard instrument like a piano and it’s very easy to passively let the sound of an instrument wash over you. Obviously with harpsichords you have to think about what they’re doing. But that’s why the Poulenc works too, because every time that the orchestra is playing, the harpsichord part is just playing texture. And then as soon as he wants it to be heard, he just drops everybody out.

If I were to do it again now, maybe I’d think about doing it amplified, just for fun. but that said, maybe not that concerto. Other repertoire, certainly. The biggest problem is that most of the repertoire from the 20th century was written for instruments that have a lot of attack, because that was generally the only way they could get them to speak – to give them lots of attack. And that’s what we were doing. We were creating, instead of these leather wedges, we were almost creating little slabs of plectra that would just kind of pull the string, you know, in a very violent manner, simply to get it vibrating as much as we could.

Were the leather plectra lacquered, or plain leather?

As far as I know, it was just leather, but you couldn’t taper it off too much, because otherwise it would slide over the string. When you hear a lot of those old recordings it really does sound like the strings are being attacked rather aggressively, and I think this is to convey the impression of there being volume. And close microphones, of course, helped a lot in the 1940s. So most of that repertoire is for instruments that work on that basis.

But this instrument is now a bit of a problem, because in effect it’s less of a modern instrument and that repertoire doesn’t work very well anyway. But it also doesn’t work particularly well playing Baroque repertoire either because it’s too resonant, because it’s got an aluminium frame. If I play just a single A, it usually lasts about three or four times, maybe longer, than if you just press one A on a Baroque instrument because of the frame. And that completely re-opens the question of, say, ornamentation. I’ve have tried playing a lot of Bach and François or Louis Couperin and those sorts of things on it. And you end up having to take away most of the ornamentation, because there’s no need to do it. You can make the sound last, simply by playing it as it is. Which is both interesting, and it’s lovely to just play an unadorned part. But then it’s also very non-Baroque!

Because it’s unadorned?

Well yeah, exactly. So it just becomes a very beautiful melody with very nice arpeggiated figures in the background, but…so far, I’ve found that French organ repertoire from the Baroque period works particularly well on it! [laughs]

So in a way you’re searching for repertoire that sits well with this instrument as it is now?

Yeah, that’s really what I’ve been trying to do now for some time.

Actually, as it happens, without doing too much of a plug, I have found that the Balkan stuff that we’re getting into with Anja & Zlatna is especially fun on The Beast, because I get the chance to play it very rhythmically, obviously, and also to do some cimbalom- and accordion-type things. Having the colour options available does make it really interesting. I’d love to record on this instrument, I have to say. But it’s difficult too, because it costs $600 or $400 every time I want to move it!

How difficult was it to move the Goff from New Zealand to Australia?

Well, it’s funny – I was just talking to Anja about this yesterday. When I first approached Allied Pickfords, and I told them ‘look, I’ve got two harpsichords to ship to Australia” and they said “that’s fine we’ll box them up, and we’ve carried instruments like that before.” No problem. And they even called back and said “we have a little bit of space left over in one of our crates leaving Auckland that’ll be ready to go in a week.” And I thought, “oh this is too good to be true.” And then I started thinking about it – I think I spoke to my dad – and we realised that there might be a problem exporting the ivory – the solid ivory keys. So we thought we’d better declare that. And we had some delays with whichever body it is that deals with ivory trade in terms of rare material control or whatever it is. I forget what the term is now. But we also ended up having to get permission from one of the departments of the Government to move it. Even though the harpsichord had been purchased by the Government back in 1956 and it had been sold privately, we still needed to get their permission, to agree that it wasn’t a piece of National Heritage of New Zealand. And we didn’t get any response from them for about three or four weeks. I think it may have even taken over a month. By which time, of course, said crate had long been sealed up and made its way over!

But it was interesting because when I first started having to collect the details about all this, I remember receiving an e-mail from the Department about the ivory. And they were saying well, you know you have this harpsichord and you want to send it over, but can you tell us where the ivory was from. And it’s like this instrument is from 1956. And I remember texting Paul and he was like “I have no idea, probably pre-war, and most likely pre-First World War”, because where does one get ivory from in the ‘40s or the 1950s in London? So… I did the best I could, I researched where piano ivory came from and thought well, at least I can tell them that piano ivory came from elephants from West Africa, most likely Kenya, and I said Thomas Goff wouldn’t have been dealing directly with the ivory trade, I imagine. He probably bought them from some company somewhere in London, I think. There were a lot of ‘maybes’ and a lot of ‘I thinks’.

Funnily enough I didn’t hear anything from them after that. Because they probably realised well it’s protocol, but it’s at least 60 years since this ivory, and I said it may be close to 100 years old now, so what do you want me to do? [laughs]. Didn’t hear anything from them as a result. That was the main problem, you know. And once we finally got the go-ahead, that the instrument wasn’t a piece od New Zealand Heritage…and funnily enough, of course, the three people they consulted were Douglas [Mews], Paul [Downie], and Erin Helyard, who’s a Melburnian harpsichordist. Erin took over Douglas’s job in Wellington at the same time as I moved over to Australia – so you had this kind of Trans-Tasman exchange of harpsichordists. And he’d also been asked about it, and he said, yeah Donald’ll be fine with it – we don’t need it, or words to that effect. And Paul was basically saying well, look – the only person who’s in any way interested in an instrument like this is Donald, so why shouldn’t it be with him? At which point we realised that this was the first time this harpsichord had even left Wellington since it arrived in 1956!

How do you think Goff, and other revival instruments are viewed now.

There is a lot of disdain for them….It’s actually really hard to put a finger on why. I think, maybe, it’s because a lot of them failed to do what they were meant to do – they were meant to be improving on the old originals, and they were also trying to make the instrument work in an environment, of course, for which it simply was never intended: a concert chamber of 3000 or more people and…it’s physics. You can’t pluck a string in a decent manner – a string of a particular gauge and diameter – and expect that it’s going to make that much sound, and fill the room and have people go “wow!’” And maybe it’s just simply because a lot of the instruments of that type that people get exposed to are in very bad condition. So of course they’re not going to sound good. And I…even myself, I look at some of them and I think why persist? because there is still a tradition of building them this way in some parts of the world.

Do you mean building revival harpsichords?

Yes, I mean I think Neupert have re-released their ‘Bach’ revival model, so you can actually buy brand new old-style early 20th century harpsichords. But exactly why there’s so much hatred for them…my view is that we wouldn’t even have the harpsichord now were it not for these instruments in the first place, you know? The whole movement was brought about by Landowska doing what she was doing with her Pleyel ‘Grand modèle de concert’. And that’s in a way how the instruments got back into the ears of people. Sure, it was a step sideways, but the fact of the matter is that these instruments ran for 60 or 70 years, which is actually quite a long time as far as the lifespan of an instrument is concerned. And of course in the 18th century the old Baroque instruments were constantly being readjusted to fit current tastes, the French style especially. I mean, they had no problems at all with taking an instrument that was 100 years old, pretty much gutting it and then putting a second keyboard on it and making it do things that it was never designed to do. So the revival instruments have already had a fairly long lifespan – one that has almost outlived the lifespan of most other harpsichords in history

Yes, they’re fussy instruments and they need to be constantly looked after. But I mean if you want to spend absolutely hours working on a Baroque instrument you’re going to have exactly the same problems. The fact of the matter is that if you fiddle with one long enough but you keep playing it it’s going to settle its way down. I mean, I usually use The Beast whenever we have Anja & Zlatna rehearsals. And they can go on for 2, 2½ hours and I’m always amazed at how the sound, and the action of the keyboard, opens up after an hour or two, you know. Now this is a modern instrument that I’m sure has been played on probably more in the last five years, and certainly in the last 15 than it had been in its entire life before that.

So you think that part of the problem was simply its neglect?

Yes, I really think so. And when you have an instrument that is neglected it’s going to take a lot more to get it into a playing condition because you can spend hours doing whatever you need to get it playing, to get it up and running but very quickly it’s going to fall back out. You know, instruments have memories – this is the funny thing. We look at them as being just a collection of…this piece of wood and that string, and that, but they have their own internal memory. And that’s what wood does, more than anything else. Wood remembers what it’s doing. So in order to wake it up it takes a lot more than just spending an hour a week tuning it and going “oh that should be enough.” You do actually have to remain convinced. But I think you have to be convinced in the instrument itself. The Beast, for example – you only have to look at it to know that Tom Goff and Cobby…they meant that instrument to be. And that’s been the driving force, I think, especially for me about this one, because I always felt that there was a voice within it that was waiting to get out.

Back to The Fall and Rise of Harpsichord 6