Trevor Pinnock Takes His Listeners on a Remarkable Musical Journey

United KingdomUnited Kingdom   Cabezon, Byrd, Tallis, Bull, D. Scarlatti, J.S. Bach: Trevor Pinnock (harpsichord), Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 04.10.13  (GPu)
Cabezon, Differencias sobre el canto del Caballero
Byrd, the Bells
Tallis, O ye Tender Babes
Bull, The King’s Hunt
Scarlatti, Sonata in D. Major (K.490)
Sonata in D major (K.492)
Bach, French suite, No.5
Now in his mid-sixties, Trevor Pinnock has been for some decades one of our major interpreters, both as a harpsichordist and as a conductor, of the music of the Baroque and the Renaissance. Being myself of Pinnock’s generation – and his being amongst the recordings I bought as a student, I feel rather as if I have grown up alongside him. Over the years I have tried to hear as many of his recordings as I could and to hear and see him in person whenever the opportunity presented itself. Unfortunately, in the last few years I have made a habit of ‘missing’ recitals and concerts by him. Once when I was in Salzburg there was an abundance of posters advertising a Pinnock concert scheduled for two days after I was obliged to terminate my week there. Once in London I had tickets for a recital only for family illness to summon me away on the very day of the concert. I was thus delighted – and happily very far from disappointed – when I made it successfully to this fascinating and engaging recital in Cardiff. (Though even then the unexpected closure of some roads around the venue and a consequent difficulty in parking meant that I had to rush to my seat almost at the moment that Trevor Pinnock was walking onto the stage).
Pinnock has always seemed to me one of the most ‘human’ of harpsichordists. Under the fingers of a lot of modern harpsichordists the instrument can sound unduly mechanical and metallic, an effect often exacerbated by modern recording techniques. Pinnock, on the other hand, brings out (without exaggeration) the emotional as well as the intellectual significance of the music he plays and the result is warmly expressive and inviting.
Pinnock’s programme on this occasion took as its starting point the travels of Antonio de Cabezon (c.1510-1566), the great Spanish composer and organist. Born near Burgos, Cabezon was blind from childhood; getting his initial musical education in the Cathedral of Palencia, a beautiful building in a fine, if now somewhat low-profile city, which I was fortunate enough to visit earlier this year, Cabezon entered the service of the Spanish royal family in 1526. From 1539 he was responsible for the musical education of the then Prince Philip (and his sisters). Staying in the service of Philip he travelled with him to Milan, Naples, Germany and the Netherlands between 1548 and 1551 and later he travelled with his master to London, when Philip married Mary Tudor in July of 1554, spending over a year in the English capital. Trevor Pinnock’s programme was not an attempt at some kind of log of the music Cabezon would probably have heard on these travels, rather it used the travelling as a metaphor for musical reflections on the ways in which ‘national’ traditions of music interacted, sometimes at a personal level.
The recital began with one of Cabezon’s brilliant sets of variations on the popular Spanish song ‘El canto llano del caballero’. These ‘differencias’ (variations) are full of unexpected rhythms and surprising emphases;  as well as the odd unexpected harmony, the ornamentation is profuse and inventive. In the third variation the original melody is so far ‘hidden’ as effectively to disappear before a fourth variation, somewhat less complex in texture, makes life easier but no less rewarding for the listener. Throughout the contrapuntal writing is dazzling. Pinnock managed all of this splendidly in an exhilarating performance that set the bar high.
During Cabezo’s time in London he may well have met Thomas Tallis, some five years older than the Spanish composer, and by then a member of the Chapel Royal. Conceivably, the much younger William Byrd (b.1543) might have come to Cabezon’s attention – he was probably in the choir of the Chapel Royal at this time (and was composing in his teens). Cabezon could certainly not have encountered John Bull or his music, since he was pretty certainly not born until after 1560. Bull, like Cabezon travelled abroad, though for less happy reasons. King’s organist at the chapel royal under James I, Bull got himself into serious trouble – being guilty in the words of Sir William Trumbull, the English envoy at Brussels, of “incontinence, fornication, adultery, and other grievous crimes”. He fled to the Continent, having been denounced by the Archbishop of Canterbury in colourful (and presumably intentionally punning) terms: “The man hath more music than honesty and is as famous for marring of virginity as he is for fingering of organs and virginals”.
It was to these three English composers that Pinnock turned next, treating us to an exquisite and moving performance of Tallis’s ‘O Ye Tender Babes’. When one hears the compassionate power of Tallis’s music presented as persuasively as this it is hard to believe that it was originally a setting (as John Stevens believes) of an exhortation from William Lilly’s Latin Grammar: “O ye tender babes of England, shake off slothfulness, set wantonness apart. Apply your wits wholly to learning and virtue, whereby you may do your duty to God and your King. Make glad your parents, profit yourselves, And much advance the commonweal of your country” since it seems to cry out for something less schoolmasterly and more parental and loving.  Byrd’s ‘The Bells’ is, of course, one of the best of the imitative pieces produced by the early English keyboard school and Pinnock did it full justice. Bull’s ‘The King’s Hunt’ is also programmatic, a hectic, exhilarating piece of which Pinnock gave an agile performance (the agility extending to his bouncing up and down on his stool rather like a hunter on horseback), with some witty changes of pace and direction. Bull’s colourful piece aptly anticipated the next composer on Trevor Pinnock’s musical route.
Scarlatti’s three sonatas K.490-492, all in D major (Scarlatti’s favourite key to judge by the number of sonatas written in it), were probably composed in quick succession in 1755-56. Pinnock, on this occasion, played K.490 and K.492. Given Scarlatti’s years in Spain it can probably be assumed that he knew some of Cabezon’s music; certainly what he wrote in Spain was influenced by the music he heard around him. Such influences are audible in these two sonatas, not least in the repeated evocations of the Spanish guitar in K.492. The fanfare-like opening of K.490, and the descending trills which complement it were articulated clearly and resonantly, and the almost-martial, yet festive, episode which follows was beautifully characterised. Throughout, the crispness with which Pinnock’s left hand stressed rhythmic patterns was a joy. Pinnock responded superbly to the exhilarating energy of K.492, an exuberantly joyous piece which builds up some complex textures as voice is superimposed on voice. Indeed, at one point Pinnock charmingly threw up his hands from the keyboard, declared “My mind loses track at times” and then returned his hands to the keyboard and resumed at the point he had left off – if anything revelling even more in the music’s exuberant complexity. The scalar passages which Scarlatti strews like jewels across the score were played with dash and colour without ever becoming remotely empty or heartless (as they have sometimes been made to sound).
Bach was represented on Pinnock’s route-map by one of the so-called French Suites, BWV 816. These suites don’t, of course, register any travelling to France by Bach and, indeed, were only designated as ‘French’ suites in the years after the composer’s death. As it happens four of BWV 816’s seven movements bear French titles: a Courante, a Gavotte, a Bourré, a Loure and a Gigue. The Gigue is actually a dance of English origin and the Courante in this suite is in a number of respects at least as much Italian (i.e. a ‘Corrente’) as French. In any case, it is worth noting that two of Bach’s  English Suites (BWV 806 and 807 contain Bourrés and all six of them contain ‘Courantes’. But geographical and national quibbles matter far less than the quality of the music – in which respect BWV 816 scores highly. Pinnock’s reading of the suite balanced energy and discipline, wisdom and warmth, well-nigh perfectly. The tripping Allemande and the fleetly engaging Courante, for all their liveliness, carried a weight of feeling and resonance. This was music in which, quite without undue solemnity, one could be reminded of the primal (and enduring) cosmic dance as described by the Elizabethan poet Sir John Davies in his poem Orchestra (1596)
Dancing … then began to be
When the first seeds whereof the world did spring,
The fire, air, earth and water did agree,
By Love’s persuasion, nature’s mighty king,
To leave their first disordered combating
      And in a dance such measure to observe
      As all the world their motion should preserve.
Since when they still are carried in a round,
And changing come one in another’s place,
Yet do they neither mingle nor confound,
But every one doth keep his bounded space
Wherein the dance doth bid it turn or trace.
      This wondrous miracle doth Love devise,
      For dancing is Love’s proper exercise.
The opening of the Sarabande was quite beautifully phrased, and while physical human dancing was not forgotten in the manner of the performance, there was again a strong suggestion of profounder patterns and movements, perhaps of the sort Davies alludes to in the passage above, though I was also made to think of an earlier sixteenth-century writer, Sir Thomas Elyot and his work, The Book named the Governor (1531), an early and influential work of political and moral philosophy. Elyot sees a great value in “the associating of man and woman in dancing”, which ‘signifies’ matrimony and “betokeneth concord”, not least the concord of the qualities Elyot sees as “inherent” in men and women: “in this wise fierceness joined with mildness maketh severity; audacity with timorosity maketh magnanimity … covetousness of glory adorned with benignity causeth honour; … These qualities in this wise being knit together and signified in the personages of man and woman dancing, do express or set out the figure of very nobility”. ‘The figure of very nobility’ wouldn’t be a bad description of the nature and effect of this Sarabande.
In Pinnock’s interpretation the Gavotte seemed to speak of a simpler sociability, of a network of relationships within an harmonious social order. Pinnock’s Bourré was winningly animated, but also just a little lacking in focus, at least until its singingly lyrical conclusion. In the Loure a sense of the world’s beauty, of music’s own beauty, was shot through with an element of sadness – the sadness of impermanence and insubstantiality. Any such sadness was certainly dissipated by the all-permeating joy of the Gigue, a joy which was not just a subjective and temporary state of an individual mind, but a way of experiencing and understanding the world, human and beyond. For me, as the reader will have gathered, this French Suite, like so much of Bach’s music, is a work of a great profundity which is not superficially obvious and which isn’t always captured in performance. That Pinnock articulated so much of that profundity made me very grateful for the whole ‘journey’ that this outstanding recital traced, a journey through ideas both musical and otherwise.
Glyn Pursglove