Sir Thomas Beecham described the harpsichord as “like playing a birdcage with a toasting fork”. It’s the jangling that I, too, can’t stand: a sound that comes too close, too often, to tipping over from music to noise. But my ears were opened at the Wigmore Hall in London last week where the Academy of Ancient Music played works by JS Bach’s four sons.
A string ensemble and wonderful cellist brought to life music ranging from the memorable to the slight; but it was the director and harpsichordist, Richard Egarr, who unblocked my mind to how beautiful a harpsichord can sound. All the honky tonk was gone, all the smashing, bashing monochrome: individual notes disappearing into a sort of tintinnabulant gloop.
Egarr brought a kind of playful whimsicality, a quietude: varying tempo, teasing, joking, knowing, full of light and shade. All at once the ancient keyboard caught the intimacy of a fireside guitar. For a moment I could imagine myself in an 18th-century drawing room, where player and small audience would catch each other’s eyes, wink and smile their appreciation.