O Paradiso! Anna and Her Harpsichord
It’s not very often that a harpsichordist grabs my attention to such an extent that I pick up the booklet again just to see who this astonishing musician is and what background he or she has, but that was my reaction to the extraordinary Anna Paradiso. And what a background she has! Born in Bari, Italy, she studied both piano and harpsichord at the conservatory there, and while pursuing her solo diploma in both instruments she also studied harpsichord privately in Vienna with Gordon Murray. In the meantime (!), she also graduated at the faculty of classical studies back in Bari and received a scholarship for a Ph.D. in Latin and ancient Greek. She embarked on an academic career in Italy and at Oxford University, but returned to music after moving to Sweden to follow her husband, recorder player Dan Laurin.
In Sweden she also
classical culture at the Royal College of Technology in Stockholm, but happily for us she decided to devote her life to music. She then took further studies in harpsichord and basso continuo at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm with Mayumi Kamata and received a master’s in harpsichord. At the same time she specialized in Italian music with Enrico Baiano in Naples, and in French music with Christophe Rousset in Paris. Thus one can see that Paradiso has immersed herself very thoroughly in the era of her specialty, so much so that she has also become her own musicologist and performance practice expert as well as a researcher who, in her own words, enjoys “researching ancient sources on original fingering and basso continuo and the vast semi-unknown collection of Baroque Neapolitan manuscripts in San Pietro a Majella in Naples.”
Due to her remarkable facility in several languages and vast knowledge of Baroque performance practices, Paradiso has, as she admits, bucked the dominant trends in “authentic” playing style and fingerings. We will, of course, touch on this topic in our interview (and, I hope, several others regarding Baroque performance practice), but in a nutshell, Paradiso insists on using old fingerings because they create “an interesting
effect with off-beat accents that help delineate individual musical figures (the off-beat accents are only characteristic of some particular original fingerings, such as the one used at the time of Frescobaldi. They are not characteristic in all fingerings. In general, the reason why I use ancient fingering is because they create automatically a hierarchy of accents in every bar, by coupling the notes two by two),” even though such practices are nowadays “met either with silence or contempt.” Yet, as I’ve said many times, you can’t fool someone who has really dug deeply into old practices. They know what was done, what was accepted and what was not, and most of the time the kind of lively, emotional, and metrically irregular style employed by Paradiso is far more authentic than the straightforward, “rattle-trap” style of the majority.
I almost hate to say more about this remarkable woman because I don’t want to spoil the fun that readers will have getting to know her from the interview, but I will conclude this introductory section by adding that she and her husband have formed a Baroque chamber group named after her, “Paradiso Musicale,” and that both this group and she and her husband have also recorded for BIS. The Paradiso Musicale album is titled, humorously,
The Father, the Son, and the Godfather,
a sly reference to J. S. and C. P. E. Bach, and C. P. E.’s godfather, Georg Philipp Telemann (BIS 1895), and I was delighted to see that my colleague Jerry Dubins gave them a splendid review in
35:5. He questioned their use of a recorder instead of a transverse flute in J. S. Bach’s B-Minor sonata, since it dated from 1735, but otherwise gave the disc high marks for the group’s “gorgeous tone” and “irrepressible exuberance.”
And so, with no further ado (though much more ado could always be given of her wide range of performances across Europe), let us meet Anna Paradiso!
Q: Right off the bat, Anna, I have to say that the single greatest thing that grabbed me with your recital CD was its tremendous
I can scarcely recall even one or two other harpsichordists I’ve heard in the past decade who play with your enthusiasm. My guess is that, despite all your studies, music for you was never a mere academic exercise, but something you really loved all the way down to your toes. Is that a fair assessment?
A: Absolutely. Without music I am half myself; the urge of making music has always been there, even in periods where I had to focus more on my university career. It is an incredible, wonderful life I have today, when music “pays the bills” in the house: a brave, probably crazy choice nowadays.
Q: If you don’t mind, I’d like to fill in some of the missing biographical data that I couldn’t find on the Internet. To begin with, how old are you now and at about what age did you really decide to pursue music as one of your major academic choices?
A: I was born in 1976 and I have been playing music since I was six. By the time I was 16 the pressure from the school I was attending (where the main focus was on the classics) and from the conservatory where I also was enrolled came to a point where I had to decide if I really wanted to dedicate so much of my daily time to both fields. After a moment of doubt, I felt I had an urge to explore more of both literature and language as well as music. So, till I completed my studies in classics as an undergraduate, as well as my piano and harpsichord studies, I was pretty much equally engaged in both fields.
Q: I’m a little in awe of your academic achievements, which seem so vast to me. How on earth did you find time for both your keyboard studies and your studies in ancient languages and culture?
A: I can promise, I had my good share of fun as well! Actually in Italy it is quite common for musicians to receive other kinds of academic education in parallel to music, if they are good at it. This happened especially before they tried to adapt the Italian conservatory system to the North European one (an ongoing process not quite perfected yet), in accordance to the new European agreements. Before that, the Italian conservatory was not considered a university but a “special” school where the main focus would be on playing an instrument and there would be some theoretical lessons as well. But if one wanted to get a broader intellectual education it was necessary to attend some university faculty as well. Many of us have done it in my generation and before. For instance, one of my gamba-playing friends is a doctor in theoretical physics, a leading young bassoon player has a bachelor’s in chemistry, another one has a degree in law, and so on. However, when one gets to work at a top professional level, it is very difficult to split one’s time, and that’s why my focus shifted a little from one side to the other during the past 10 years. Anyhow, I believe a bit more extra study in the young age doesn’t hurt and broadens the perspective. I see too many young people around me spending their time on empty things. I think they have too much time to waste, and I feel worried for them.
Q: I’d like to pursue some questions regarding Baroque performance practices and your approach to them. First of all, since it was something brought up by other critics (not by me), I’m curious as to why your husband chose to use the recorder in his performance of the Bach B-Minor sonata on your BIS album rather than transverse flute?
A: Well, I guess he loves the piece so much and he is not a transverse flute player! I also think recorder players have always “stolen” pieces from transverse players and violin players. It is a Baroque practice in itself. Besides, for this particular sonata, there is what appears to be an oboe part in G Minor...
Q: Regarding your playing style, and that of Baroque groups in general, I was absolutely stunned—and delighted—by your insistence on using the old fingerings which, as you said, create an interesting unequal or irregular effect with the off-beat figures. I think that most harpsichordists nowadays recognize this as an important element in the musical style of Buxtehude—I can’t recall hearing an organist or harpsichordist play his music otherwise—but it isn’t often used in Bach, Frescobaldi, or Telemann. Can you expand a little on this? How exactly do the fingerings differ from modern use?
A: I am very grateful for your appreciation! But I must say that, as far as my experience goes, the use of original fingerings is not common at all among harpsichordists. There are colleagues who criticize me saying that I create “strange accents.” I believe these criticisms come from the lack of familiarity with the subject. I was also told by established harpsichordists that these kinds of philological research are for intellectual nerds and don’t bring very much to the music itself. I do not agree at all! I think that the use of original fingering can influence a lot the musical result. Many others claim that original fingerings are “too difficult” in fast scales. But it is just a matter of practice! In recent years, I embarked on in-depth research on original sources and keyboard pieces with original fingerings. The result was revealing for me. We should remember that all historical sources dealing with articulation, on violin, recorder, flute, and so on, from the16th century and onwards, state that all notes should have different accents and that all notes have different “values,” depending on the location in the structure. We have strong tonguing and weak tonguing, up-bow and down-bow,
, and so on. Often the notes are coupled and in general there is always a hierarchy of accents down to the smallest subdivision of the beat. Almost all Baroque fingerings for keyboard imply the same principle of micro-articulation, with coupled notes. The common ideal is non-equality in fingers
in accents, as opposed to the equalization of all fingers and notes in modern fingering. For instance, almost in all Baroque fingered scales, the thumbs and the little fingers are not used because they are considered weak and uncomfortable. In modern fingering, starting for instance in Rameau’s treatises, the crossing of the thumb makes all notes equal. The use of equalized touch and accent was established only in the 1850s. Rameau (1724) is one of the very first to introduce the thumb to create “smoothness” in playing. However, old fingerings differ from country to country, and from century to century, depending on what fingers are considered “strong” or “weak.” The scenario can get very complex, especially for German fingering. In the French fingering of D’Anglebert or F. Couperin, as well as in the Italian fingering of the important theoretician Diruta (1610), fingerings create off-beat accents, by crossing fingers: the “weak” finger crosses over the “strong” finger between the strong and the weak beat, thus creating an accent on the weak beat. For instance, in an ascending scale on the right hand, two and four are considered strong fingers and the scale goes like 234343434. For the French fingering, this corresponds exactly to what Hotteterre says about flute playing, by placing a strong tonguing on the weak beat and weak tonguing on the strong beat, thus creating an offbeat accent (
). In the Italian fingering of Diruta (very probably used by Frescobaldi), ascending scales in the right hand are played off-beat, whereas descending scales in the left hand are played 23-23-23, avoiding the finger four in this case, with an accent on the down-beat. In the numerous passages by Frescobaldi where we have this combination of patterns in the two hands, the result is a fantastic polyphonic effect, as I hope I could show in my recording (I used the same fingering for Froberger as well). I am in fact very convinced that the reason why in Baroque times we have a hierarchy of fingers—and of accents, more in general, in treatises for all instruments—is because it was supposed to
like this. We cannot escape it.
Q: And now I have a question about Baroque group or orchestral style. My own research—which, I realize, doesn’t come close to yours—has shown me that chamber groups and orchestras of the early to mid 18th century
played with a slightly irregular meter, and in fact used performance features which are now pushed aside by most historically informed performers, such as
Contemporary music critics, such as Tosi, often commented upon what he called the use of “pathetick” elements as well as the “decorative,” in other words elements of expression, as the ideal in performing music of this era. This was one reason I enjoyed your performance of the Bach F-Minor Concerto for keyboard and strings; there was a lot of rhythmic freedom in it, and a more expressive quality to everybody’s playing. Do you agree with the importance of expressive elements within Baroque performance practice?
A: I believe expressive elements are very important for Baroque music. I would say that they are a fundamental and, if you like, a “philological” part of our interpretation, as you say—especially in those pieces which exploit musical rhetoric and gestures as a means to convey well defined ‘
’ (feelings), like in the F-Minor concerto. I think the use of
in this respect can help underscore the rhetorical message, like, for example, a repetition of the same phrase. This is a typical rhetorical tool, usually used to convince the audience of a statement: one will then play the same phrase faster and faster, or louder and louder (called
by the ancient Greeks). But if the repetition aims at expressing an increasing doubt, we will play it slower and slower. Bach was well aware of his use of rhetoric in music, as some contemporary sources tell us. On the other side, nowadays there is a certain fashion with some Baroque ensembles in the use of
and of “expressive” accents all over the place, without a reason intrinsic to the musical structure. I don’t agree with this way of playing and I find it incoherent, if not vulgar.
Q: I noticed that on both your duet CD with Dan (
Songs of Yesterday,
and your new CD, you chose works by Walter Leigh. I wouldn’t have asked about this if his music hadn’t been on both discs, but in the case of your solo disc I think it was more obvious as it was the only 20th-century work on the album. How did you run across the music of Walter Leigh, and are there more works by him written for harpsichord?
A: Oh, yes, isn’t the Concertino a wonderful little piece?! Some years ago Dan and I started investigating the vast repertoire of pieces that some of the best 20th-century British composers had written for pioneer recorder-player Carl Dolmetsch and his harpsichord player Joseph Saxby. Because of their rather melodic and new-classical way of writing, they were soon overshadowed by the avant-garde serial school of Darmstadt and similar. But we believe that most of these pieces are real masterworks! It was then that I fell in love with Leigh and I got to know his concertino. In his 37 years of life he managed to write, I believe, only one other piece with the harpsichord, a chamber work, and, for a keyboard instrument, some pieces for piano solo and two marvelous pieces for piano and recorder, one of which we recorded with Dan. Some of my absolute favorite pieces ever.
Q: Moving on to another composer who interested me, I wanted to ask about the music of Johann Jakob Froberger. The example you chose, the Toccata, was a good piece but very brief, but—to return to my personal
of performing early music with feeling—I was intrigued by his juxtaposition, as you put it in the liner notes, of “reason (
) and passion (
).” Could, or should, one also project this juxtaposition on the music of other Baroque composers, i.e., Bach and Telemann? The reason I ask this is that so many people tend to ascribe “passion” to the works of Italian Baroque composers like Vivaldi, but often consider the Germans to be “purer” or in some respects sacrosanct.
A: You make a very good point! I believe that the ‘struggle’ between
belongs definitely to composers such as Bach, split between the new passionate Baroque style of his concertos and sonatas and the old contrapuntal one of his fugues. I know exactly what you mean by referring to the ‘pure’ character that many see in German Baroque music. Well, I don’t see any reason for this view when dealing with German pieces which are clearly inspired by the
, as in the above-mentioned examples. There are other composers split in between the past and the present, for instance, Frescobaldi, who also wrote double-sided pieces like Froberger’s toccata, and who dedicated part of his work to contrapuntal pieces entirely in the
style. It was actually thanks to the latter kind of pieces that Frescobaldi and Froberger became popular among later (German) composers. And even nowadays, many harpsichordists seem to prefer them. Personally, I am far more intrigued by their pieces in the
style. And the same is true of Bach. The cold, mathematic use of technique, even when extremely refined, bores me very quickly.
Q: Regarding Froberger specifically, are there other works of his written in a similar style, and if so, would you consider recording some of them in the future?
A: Yes, there are, and I would love to record them in the future! I also like very much the more “French” Froberger, with his partitas. What a fantastic composer with a real international style!
Q: I was especially impressed by both the musical quality and the performance quality of the two excerpts from Frescobaldi’s Il Primo Libra di Toccate d’intavolatura di Cembalo e Organo (what a title!!). Have you ever played the complete book of toccatas in public and, if so, would you consider making an album of them?
A: Thank you for your compliments! I wish I could find a promoter willing to let me play a whole concert dedicated to Frescobaldi, both the first and the second book of toccatas! The thing is that many promoters think that this kind of music is too specialized for the audience. And indeed the toccatas were not intended to be played in a sequence one after the other. The toccata (‘toccare’ in Italian means ‘to touch,’ in this case, the instrument) was a genre developed from improvisation, like a moment the player would take for warming up in the chosen
and establish a dialogue with the instrument. What stuns me the most about these pieces is how Frescobaldi creates a mosaic of contrasting ideas and yet he manages to keep a unity of thought in each piece. He composes in the same way Caravaggio paints: strong contrasts, tough emotions mixed with incredible solemn beauty. Anyone who has seen
La vocazione di San Matteo
knows what I am talking about. We shouldn’t forget that this is also an incredible source of didactic material for us that shows how they used to improvise at that time. My challenge in playing this music is to try to perform it as if I created it, as if I was in total control of the instrument. And I hope that the result gains some kind of self-evident authenticity. I would love to record more of Frescobaldi’s music, I hope this will happen soon.
Q: I find it somewhat difficult to believe, in an era when Bach’s complete
is considered a concert piece, that someone would take such a dim view of Frescobaldi. Do you think it’s simply due to lack of exposure? After all, back in the early 1940s when Wanda Landowska was playing Domenico Scarlatti’s sonatas, they were
considered “appropriate” concert pieces. Since you said they weren’t meant to all be played at once, you might only schedule say, half a concert, a good cross section of them?
A: Of course, we can hope that the audiences will become more familiar with his music, as they have become with Scarlatti! It is indeed just a matter of getting into his style. I try to play as much Frescobaldi as possible in my live concerts and to introduce his style as well as I can before playing. I use to call him the “rock star” of Baroque Rome because I think he was really considered one. I read once that when he played, women used to faint! I don’t know if this is true, but it sounds great and it expresses how incredible his music might have sounded, especially his improvisations, of course! It is lucky that he managed (not without economical problems) to publish out of his own expenses a part of his work (not everything unfortunately). There were probably a 100 organists in Rome at that time, but everybody was listening to his improvisations. But even so, he struggled all his life to get a better position than organ player of the “B” chapel in Rome’s “Cappella Giulia.”
Q: Although I know your musical and cultural studies have all been in older music and languages, I hear in your playing a modern woman who might also appreciate good modern music. Can you tell our readers if there are any contemporary composers whose music interests you, even on piano rather than harpsichord, and if so who might they be?
A: If we talk about composers who have written for my instruments, I will mention a Swedish composer I like very much, Fredrick Österling. He has written a piece for Dan and me (with the harpsichord), complex and crystal-clear in the form, incredibly touching, inspired by classical mythology. He has promised to write more for us and I am eagerly waiting for a continuation! He is one of the major Swedish composers of these days. Another composer I appreciate a lot is the German composer Markus Zahnhausen, who has written beautiful things for the harpsichord. I also like a young Italian composer by the name of Vito Palumbo, who will hopefully write for me in the future. Outside the keyboard realm, I must mention a fantastic Dutch composer, Chiel Meijering, whose minimalistic style is very moving and engaging, including his ironic hints at rock and lounge-music (two genres that I also like a lot).
Q: Just out of curiosity, have there been any pianists or harpsichordists—other than the people you studied with—whose work has influenced your own musical thinking?
A: For sure the Italian piano player Aldo Ciccolini, with whom I attended a brief master class. His sublime artistry profoundly touched me when I was very young. In more recent years, I was very inspired by the old recordings of Herbert Tachezi, harpsichordist of Concentus Musicus. His fantastic and fanciful continuo playing was so ahead of anyone else! I also love the work Masaaki Suzuki did with my husband in a recording of early Italian music. His creativeness in melody-making is stunning. The young Russian piano player Alexander Melnikov has impressed in his recordings of Rachmaninoff and others with his extremely refined use of polyphony and perfect control. However, if there is any musician even before my teachers who has influenced me profoundly in the way of feeling the music and interpreting it, it is my husband, Dan, to whom I owe so incredibly much.
Q: I almost forgot to ask…in your liner notes you mentioned, in connection with your performance of the Leigh Concertino, that it was conceived for a modernized harpsichord of the 1930s—I would think, possibly, the Pleyel harpsichord that Wanda Landowska used—but then you chose to use an 18th-century French instrument because you liked its “neo-Baroque lightness.” But I’m curious, because I’ve heard harpsichords from the 18th century with
long and large frames, and therefore long wires or strings in the frame. It seems to me that there is a historical precedent for using a more powerful harpsichord even in the performance of some Bach and Handel pieces. What are your thoughts about this, strictly from a theoretical perspective?
A: What I meant was that those heavy instruments with heavy frames used during Landowska’s time didn’t produce much sound at all, whereas the light original Baroque instruments had much more sound produced by their lighter soundboards. I meant that I wanted a more
instrument for the concertino than the one that Leigh probably would have had at his disposal in the 1930s, when harpsichord manufacturing wasn’t so developed. Definitely composers like Handel had at their disposal big, powerful instruments, like the typical English ones of the period. The same is true of Bach, who used even 16-foot instruments. Personally, for Bach I love the sound of the original German Zell harpsichord (1741) used by Gustav Leonhardt in a recording of Bach. So brilliant and clear, a bit Italian in flavor…it makes me wonder why we play so much Bach on rounded French instruments or Flemish flat copies. A German harpsichord is next on my wish list!
Q: Do you have any current performing or recording projects in the works that you’d like to share with our readers?
A: Yes, in November I am going to record for BIS, as a continuo player, some Vivaldi recorder concertos together with Dan and the Polish orchestra Arte dei Suonatori. For the next two years, Dan and I have scheduled with BIS the whole collection of flute sonatas by Johan Helmich Roman, a fantastic, underestimated Baroque Swedish composer. For this occasion, I will use my Neapolitan instrument “Guarracino,” perfect for the Italian style of these pieces. I will play basso continuo in the typical Italian style of the period, with a lot of dissonances that I have found in the original sources on Italian continuo playing. Sometimes they are so crazy! You hardly hear them in modern performances. I am also planning my next solo CD that will include harpsichord solo works from the vast Neapolitan repertoire, with some unknown masterpieces. Naples is always very close to my heart, as a south Italian!
Anna Paradiso (hpd); Josef Cabrales (vn);
Jonas Lindgård (vn);
Henrik Frendin (va);
Mats Olofsson (vc) ;
Tomas Gertonsson (db);
BARN COTTAGE RECORDS BCR 007 (67:35)
Sonata in d,
Concertino for Harpsichord & Strings.
Toccata per Cembalo d’ottava Stesa:
Toccata VII – Primo Tono.
Il Primo Libro di Toccate d’intavolatura:
Toccata II; Toccata VIII.
Concerto for Harpsichord, Strings & Continuo in f,
Pièces de clavecin:
Suite No. 3.
I listened to this CD immediately after
Telemann: Time: Travel
by Passacaglia (reviewed elsewhere in this issue), and I’ll be darned if this isn’t as cheerful a disc as that one! But of course, this CD starts out with one of Domenico Scarlatti’s sonatas, and I can’t recall ever having heard a single one of those amazing pieces that wasn’t upbeat and told a little story through music. Granted, Anna Paradiso is somewhat more straightforward in her tempos, not using any rubato, as Wanda Landowska did, but she still brings out the wry humor of the piece.
Then one is immediately pulled from the 18th century to the 20th in Walter Leigh’s remarkable Concertino for Harpsichord and Strings, written in 1934 at the encouragement of Carl Dolmetsch who wanted new music for the “old” instruments that he and his circle of friends played. It’s a delightful piece, somewhat bitonal but not so modern as to skewer the harpsichord into an entirely foreign musical realm. The central
, in fact, has a strong resemblance to Villa-Lobos’s music, while the last movement—with its strong forward momentum and motor rhythms—sounds the most modern of all to me, particularly in the harpsichord part which is a sort of free-form fantasia that doesn’t use the strings.
Johann Froberger’s Toccata is an unusually configured piece, full of unexpected pauses, stops, and changes of musical mind, far ahead of its time for a 17th-century composer. Pop Scarlatti (Alessandro) contributes yet another Toccata, this one the last movement of his longer work
Toccata VII, Primo Tono. Toccata per Cembalo d’ottava Stesa,
is a set of variations on the popular “Follia la Spagna” melody. There are, again, a great many little surprises in here, particularly the rapid downward triplets in the right hand, which are first played in a fairly regular rhythm but then truncated and followed by single notes. Paradiso explains that she has embellished this work a bit by adding a few passing dissonances in the chords. There is one particularly dazzling variation in which the two hands of the keyboardist interlock in a sort of hocket style, which Paradiso plays with tremendous aplomb.
The little two-movement sonata by Pier Domenico Paradies (1707-1791) uses a similar style of irregular meter (or, more accurately, uneven rhythm) to display an almost endless flow of ideas that follow one upon the other like water tumbling down a waterfall. The brief second movement (
) is built around unusual, upward-moving chromatic cells. Frescobaldi’s music, generally better known, is equally light in mood, though this Toccata also contains a number of shifting tempos and moods within its nearly five minutes’ length. Paradiso makes an interesting comment in the booklet that she uses an old style of fingering, described in Girolamo Diruta’s book
in which one uses different fingerings depending on the direction of the scales being played, which helps create the offbeat accents heard here.
Bach’s famed F-Minor Concerto is given a somewhat low-key but smoldering interpretation by Paradiso and the string ensemble. Perhaps because she only uses a string quintet rather than a full string ensemble, Paradiso is able to create an even greater feeling of intimacy in this work, but I also ascribe it to her remarkably well-phrased and colorful performance. Listen, particularly to the last movement, which has tremendous feeling but is somewhat subdued, like capping a geyser.
Jean-Henri d’Anglebert’s Suite No. 3 is in that refined, restrained French style which preceded Couperin, and to which the later composer was heir. Here there are fewer surprises, and those that exist are subtler. Paradiso shows that she understands and appreciates this style, too, and this is also evident in the last piece she performs, which is by Joseph-Nicolas Royer (1705-1755). In between we are treated to yet another of Frescobaldi’s very imaginative pieces, in this case another Toccata.
My lone complaint about this disc was that there is absolutely no biographical information on Paradiso, even though she wrote the liner notes. Great disc – great music through and through – great performances. This one rates a 10.
Lynn René Bayley