Rediscovering Neglected Masters: Harpsichordist Rebecca Pechefsky Print E-mail
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Written by Christopher Brodersen   
Thursday, 06 June 2013

Rediscovering Neglected Masters: Harpsichordist Rebecca Pechefsky

In Fanfare 34:3, I interviewed Rebecca Pechefsky on the occasion of her release of no less than four titles on the Quill Classics label: Book I of Bach’s The Well Tempered Clavier , a compilation CD titled Bach and His Circle , and two volumes of the complete works of François D’Agincourt. This time around the subject is a single CD containing selected harpsichord works of Bach’s star pupil, Johann Ludwig Krebs.

Q: Today we’re talking about the harpsichord music of Johann Ludwig Krebs, who lived from 1713 to 1780, reportedly Bach’s favorite pupil.

A: One of his favorites, certainly.

Q: The organ music of Krebs hasn’t really been neglected, has it?

A: I would say that up until now, it’s mostly been organists who have kept the name of Krebs before the public. His organ music is played fairly regularly, but his harpsichord pieces are much less well known. I would say that very few people perform them at all.

Q: To be honest, I can’t remember ever having heard a harpsichord piece of his performed in recital. At the moment, I can’t think of a compilation disc, other than your CD Bach and His Circle , that contains any of his harpsichord music. [Quill Classics 1006 included a Partita in a by Krebs.]

A: I haven’t heard anyone else perform Krebs’s harpsichord pieces, either. But I have gone to many organ recitals which included the occasional organ work of Krebs, a chorale prelude, perhaps, or a toccata and fugue.

Q: Aren’t there several works by Krebs—I’m not sure of the exact designation—that feature a solo instrument with organ accompaniment? Usually performed by, say, a trumpet or oboe?

A: Yes, there are a number of pieces for organ with obbligato instrument. Dr. Felix Friedrich, who wrote the liner notes for my CD and is the leading expert on Krebs, has recorded most if not all of these pieces. The recordings were made at the castle in Altenburg, where Krebs also worked.

Q: So that would be the music that most record collectors are familiar with.

A: Right. Actually, a few oboists I’ve talked to are also familiar with Krebs, not only because of these pieces, but because of a Concerto for Harpsichord and Obbligato Oboe. It’s a rather unusual instrumentation for the period, and I’m looking forward to performing it in the fall. So it was a surprise to discover that oboists also know of Krebs through this concerto.

Q: The program you’ve chosen is quite varied. First is the Partita in E♭-Major, and reading the list of movements, darned if it doesn’t remind me of one of Bach’s partitas! Then there is the Sonata in A Minor, and Dr. Friedrich in his liner notes hints at a possible influence from Emanuel Bach.

A: He doesn’t really believe that there was a direct influence, just that the Sonata is a later work written in the prevailing galant style that we associate with C. P. E. Bach. The influence of Old Bach is certainly strongest in the Partita, but even here, if one listens with an ear toward this sort of thing, there are traces of the galant as well. But it’s definitely the most Bach-like piece on the program. The sonata was written quite a bit later, as far as we know, although the exact date is uncertain. It was certainly published much later, in 1765.

Q: It’s fun to speculate, of course, whether Krebs knew the music of Emanuel Bach and was influenced by it.

A: C. P. E. Bach was a year younger than Krebs, and Krebs was studying with the father in Leipzig while the son was still at home, so the two certainly knew each other. I don’t recall ever reading any letters between them or anything like that, but as far as the influence on each other’s style, again we can only speculate. For what it’s worth, Krebs seemed less eager to break away from his teacher’s style than Emanuel, who forged his own path into the galant . Krebs was intent on carrying on Bach’s traditions, more so than the Bach sons, and this sets him apart from them. You can speculate on the reasons for this. I like to think that because Krebs was not Bach’s actual biological offspring, he felt less compelled than the sons did to break away.

Q: Sort of a ‘reverse generational gap,’ compared with Emanuel and Friedemann.

A: Right. By all accounts, Bach was an excellent teacher, and this is unusual in a genius of his stature. We all know the stereotype of the brilliant genius who has trouble communicating with “ordinary” human beings. But this was not Bach; he is universally described by his contemporaries as an outstanding pedagogue. His students loved and revered him. Of course, it couldn’t have been all that easy to have J. S. Bach as your father! I always wonder if Emanuel and Friedemann Bach’s eagerness to adopt the newer galant style didn’t have something to do with their desire to get out from underneath their father, to not be a carbon copy of him. Whereas Krebs had no biological need to do this. Of course, sometimes it becomes necessary to distance yourself from your teacher, just because your teacher can be too strong of an influence. Krebs wrote pieces that were very Bachian in style, and he wrote pieces that were very galant in style, so maybe he had a problem living completely in one style or the other.

Q: That dichotomy is certainly evident in the program you’ve chosen.

A: The third piece on the CD, the French Overture , is quite interesting for a completely different reason. If you look at the score, you say, “Well, this is patterned closely after Bach’s French Overture. ” It has a big opening movement like Bach’s, followed by a string of dances, even to the point of including a passepied like Bach. But in many ways it’s much more deliberately French than Bach’s French Overture . And that brings me to a small mystery that I want to share with readers, one that Dr. Friedrich doesn’t cover in his liner notes.

There are two movements in the Krebs French Overture that are reminiscent of Rameau, specifically two movements from the Pièces de clavecin en concerts , even to the point of sounding like direct quotations. However, as far as I can tell, Rameau’s Pièces de clavecin en concerts were published only a month before Krebs’s French Overture . Could Krebs possibly have heard this work by Rameau? Did it circulate in manuscript before being published? It’s a bit of a mystery. I’ve talked to several people about this, and I’ve gotten every sort of reaction, from, “Oh yes, that sounds exactly like Rameau” to, “No, it’s just a total coincidence.” In other words, a few common musical phrases from the period that anyone might have used.

Q: Which movements are we talking about?

A: The Lentement has a passage that reminds me very much of La Cupis from the Fifth Concert. Even more striking is the following movement, the Vivement , which has passages that echo parts of La Marais , also from the Fifth Concert. I would like to find out more about the circulation of Rameau’s works during this period, because if you go by the printed versions, there’s absolutely no way that Krebs could have obtained a printed copy of the Rameau prior to writing his French Overture . But perhaps the Pièces de clavecin en concerts circulated in manuscript. Perhaps Krebs had somehow been able to play through them while still in manuscript form, and when he came to writing his own work, he just wanted to write something in the French style, not realizing that he was quoting Rameau nearly verbatim.

Anyway, I wanted to share this, because maybe there’s someone out there who can shed some light on the subject.

Q: Is it known that Krebs ever left his orbit and traveled to France?

A: There’s no evidence that he did. Although we can’t account for all his movements, it seems unlikely that he would have been traveling at this time in his life. A few years before, Krebs had landed his first job, in Zwickau, and gotten married. So it’s unlikely that he would have been able to travel. If there is a connection, it’s more likely that somebody in his circle traveled to Paris and got hold of the Rameau manuscript. Still a bit of a stretch—as I said, a complete mystery.

Q: It says in the liner notes that you used the autograph version of the Partita for your recording. Where is that kept?

A: That’s in the main library in Dresden. Isn’t the modern world wonderful? I was able to write to them and straight away they sent me a digitized version of the manuscript. The work had been published in the 19th century, in a huge collection of keyboard pieces that this pianist named Ernst Pauer had put together. It was a monumental achievement—just volumes and volumes of rather obscure 17th- and 18th-century keyboard music, some by women composers. But when I looked at the printed edition of the Partita and compared it with the manuscript, I realized that there were problems, so I decided to play from the manuscript. It was quite exciting for me to be able to do this. Performing editions such as the one by Pauer have their uses, but they can also be problematic. Pauer added dynamics and other markings that aren’t in the original, and these can be distracting.

Q: So Pauer was editing for 19th-century salon sensibilities?

A: Yes, definitely. You can still learn a lot musically from his edition, but when you consider the many missing ornaments, even the notational mistakes, it was just so much easier to play directly from the manuscript, rather than trying to correct all the mistakes in the printed version.

Q: So in effect you made your own edition.

A: I didn’t actually make an edition; I just read off the manuscript.

Q: Well, that’s even harder.

A: I have to say that this is a beautiful manuscript—the opening page of the Partita is reproduced in the CD booklet. Someday I have to travel to Dresden and see the original, because my copy was a digitalized version of a photocopy of the manuscript—a copy of a copy. Even with the generational loss, it’s still very beautiful to look at. And it’s possibly his own autograph—very exciting to think that you might be playing from Krebs’s own handwriting.

Q: Or did he have a copyist who made a fair copy?

A: Well, Dr. Friedrich calls it an autograph, and that’s the way it’s listed by the Dresden library. Obviously, they’ve done a lot more research on the subject than I have.

Q: But this is exactly the sort of work that goes into making a recording, especially a recording of seldom-performed music like that of Krebs. Most record collectors aren’t aware of what it takes to bring music like this to light. That’s why I thought the question of autograph vs. fair copy was pertinent.

A: I suppose you could say that, in a sense, I’ve made my own “edition” by sending away for the electronic file and making a recording from it. I can’t say for certain that no one else has done this, but I can be fairly certain that my CD is the first recording of it.

Q: I did some checking, both on the Fanfare Archive and on, and no prior recordings turned up. That’s not to say that there might be a recording from the LP era.

A: We haven’t uncovered any previous recordings either—even though the other two, the Sonata and the Overture, have been available for some time in up-to-date printed editions by Dr. Friedrich.

Q: So most likely a world premiere recording of all three. We’ll float that trial balloon and see if anyone shoots it down!

A: That’s one of the reasons why we disseminate knowledge, either to have it corroborated or, if necessary, contradicted.

Q: In the case of Fanfare, there’s always the chance that somebody in Europe will write back and say that “so-and-so recorded the Partita in 1973, and I still have the LP.” Of course, it would have been the corrupt 19th-century edition, and not Krebs’s Urtext.

A: I would love to get that kind of response!

Q: Let’s talk for a moment about the music in general. I would have to say that the music is, for me, somewhat variable. Krebs doesn’t always hit the high spots with the same kind of consistency that the Bach boys do. There were times when he gets a bit too discursive—he seems to wander. But then he pulls himself back.

A: Well, there’s always the difficulty in comparing someone with J. S. Bach. It’s like making a comparison with Shakespeare—it’s not fair to either party, I think. As far as the sons go, though, I really feel that Krebs can hold his own with Emanuel and Friedemann. I guess it depends on your personal preference—myself, I’m not as fond of the galant style overall as I am of earlier 18th-century music. I like the way Krebs plays with the galant style, blending it with the older Bachian style.

Q: The biggest issue I had is with his fugue.

A: Which fugue are you talking about? There are actually two on this CD.

Q: The second movement of the Partita.

A: Right. Well, the Prelude contains a rather old-style fugue, and in many ways it’s even more old-fashioned than Bach’s fugues. However, the second movement, marked Fuga , is a perfect example of how Krebs blends the galant with the older contrapuntal style. There are passages where he will break away from the more formal fugal writing and venture into a piquant sort of galant writing. Elsewhere there might be a concerto-like section. It’s not wandering; to me, it all holds together. I find the way in which he blends these various elements quite fascinating.

Q: You’re right; judging his fugue from the standpoint of a Sebastian Bach fugue would be the wrong way to go about it.

A: I think that’s the beauty of it. Krebs starts out with what appears to be a typical Bach fugue, but then he breaks out of that mold in a way that impresses me as a bit playful, maybe even humorous. Another example of this playfulness is in the last movement of the Sonata. There are sections where Krebs seems to be having pure, unadulterated fun with arpeggios. The whole concept of contrapuntal writing goes straight out the window. Of course, it’s also a late work with fewer echoes of the earlier style. I just find it fascinating how near the end of the third movement he breaks into a passage that almost sounds like 19th-century guitar music. It comes off as quite witty and humorous. “I can write a Bach fugue, but I can also do this!”

Q: For me, the Sonata was the most successful piece of the three, perhaps because it isn’t as derivative. There are some original touches, as you say.

A: I don’t feel that the Partita is derivative, either, because Krebs blends the old style with the galant in a completely unique way; I don’t know of anyone else who does that. If you read Dr. Friedrich’s notes—who knows more about Krebs than anyone alive and who is a fine organist in his own right—he feels that Krebs keeps the two styles separate. At the risk of contradicting him, I feel that Krebs does blend the two styles in a way that is both skillful and maybe even a little humorous.

Q: Fair enough. On a completely different topic, you have a new harpsichord. Is this the first CD you’ve recorded on it?

A: It’s the first solo CD I’ve recorded with it. There was an earlier chamber music CD where I used it on some of the pieces, but this is its first solo appearance.

Q: So you’ve had the instrument for nearly three years now.

A: That sounds about right. I took delivery of it in July of 2010.

Q: It’s a copy by Yves Beaupré after Blanchet and Hemsch, which naturally raises the question: How does it fit the music of Krebs, which is Germanic to the nth degree?

A: I knew somebody would ask me that! Although you could use a German instrument for Krebs and get a slightly different mix of sounds, I feel that this double-manual French harpsichord works surprisingly well. Chronological speaking, it’s perfect for Krebs, because the original Hemsch in Paris that Yves used as his basis is from around 1760. Also, you can make a good case for using French instruments in general, because French instruments were enormously popular during this time. The German builder Mietke, for example, was famous for his forgeries of French harpsichords. In terms of historical accuracy or justification, you have to wonder if the majority of harpsichords played in Germany during this time weren’t actually more French than German.

Q: Personally, I have no problem with it—it sounds quite lovely on this CD.

A: Of course, when you’re doing a recording, you don’t have the luxury of using a different harpsichord for every piece. You want to play an instrument that you’re familiar with. You try out the music on it, and if it works, you go with it.

Q: And because you’ve worked up the music on it, presumably it’s an instrument that you feel comfortable with.

A: Right. This particular French double has, in my opinion, a bit more contrapuntal clarity.

Q: Does that mean there’s more contrast between the registers?

A: I would say that the inner voices are more distinct on this instrument. There’s more of a sense of that than on some late French instruments, which have this beautiful wash of sound. But they’re not really contrapuntal, in the sense that you can hear the inner voices. But this particular harpsichord has that quality, that ability to speak clearly.

Q: Is it quilled in real quill, or delrin?

A: Ah! At the moment, it’s quilled in delrin. Perhaps one day I’ll get it quilled in real quill…

Q: For about a week, and then you’ll have to switch back to plastic.

A: Well, since you brought it up, I know a few other builders who are using real quill. It’s a wonderful sound, and it’s not nearly as hard to maintain as people think. But there is naturally a big difference of opinion about this among builders. These days the preferred material seems to be Canada goose.

Q: Oh, really?

A: Real bird’s quill produces a bell-like tone, with this exquisite color.

Q: The big difference, at least in my experience, is that with bird’s quill you don’t hear the obnoxious little “click” of the delrin.

A: That’s certainly true, but it wasn’t the first thing that jumped out at me. It’s more the clarity of the sound. In terms of counterpoint, real quill is preferable. But the instrument is quilled with delrin right now, and it sounds fine.

Q: Yup, it sounds great. The issue with real quill, as I understand it, is that unless you do the quilling yourself, or have a harpsichord technician on call 24/7, you have to learn to live with a certain degree of unreliability.

A: Again, this is a bone of contention among builders, but real quill, from what I’ve been told, just needs to be kept from drying out. You oil it periodically, and it will last for a very long time. When a plectrum made of real quill wears out, it doesn’t break like delrin, it just gets dull sounding. You can still use it, whereas when a delrin plectrum breaks, the sound stops completely.

Q: But if you get to that point, then it’s probably time to re-quill the entire instrument. That’s a big job that requires a skilled harpsichord technician, not just a piano tuner. Since you live in New York, you can probably go to the Yellow Pages and choose from dozens of listings, right?

A: Not at all! There’s a real dearth of harpsichord technicians right now in New York—it’s a serious problem. I’m not sure why. Some of the people who used to do this work have unfortunately either passed away or are too busy and just not interested in repair work. So I actually don’t have anyone in New York who comes regularly to work on my instrument.

Q: So you do the work yourself?

A: I take care of the minor, day-to-day stuff, and eventually it gets to the point where I have to bring somebody in from far away, say Boston or Connecticut, to give it a “once over.” Yves even came down once from Montreal to work on one of my other instruments.

Q: That’s commendable. It’s not always the norm, at least around here.

A: Most of the harpsichordists I know in this area do it out of necessity. You have to be able to deal with the little, day-to-day problems, like replacing a string or a plectrum. You have to be able to deal with the basics. I have a feeling that the younger generation is becoming more adept at this, more “hands-on.” I know a number of young harpsichordists who know a lot more about re-quilling than I do.

Q: Do you have students?

A: I have a couple of private students, although I’m not currently on the faculty of any institution.

Q: Do you think there’s a growing interest in learning the harpsichord?

A: Yes. For example, Arthur Haas teaches at a couple of schools in the area, and he has many young students. There’s a competition for young harpsichordists every five years that just took place. There are lots of very talented harpsichordists studying in conservatories all around the world. If anything, there’s more talent than the market can really bear.

Q: That’s probably true all across the board, in all instrumental fields.

A: I’m not sure of the percentages, but I’d love to find out sometime how many harpsichordists these days actually start out on the harpsichord. In my case I started out on the piano and later switched to harpsichord, and I’m sure that’s true for most people of my generation. So I don’t know how many students these days still start out on piano and switch, and how many start off right away on the harpsichord.

Q: That’s why I asked about your students—if, for example, you might have any beginning students.

A: I do! I have a beginning student—she’s an adult who wanted to learn an instrument but didn’t want to start out on the piano. She hasn’t been studying that long, still basically a beginner, but never studied the piano, never had any interest in the piano.

Q: Great. Now I’m going to ask you a question that’s straight out of left field, but it’s one that I’ve wanted to ask since our first interview. How is it that you and your husband Erik Ryding came to be experts on the subject of Bruno Walter, to the point of writing the article on Bruno Walter in New Grove and authoring a book?

A: Like so many people, we listened to Walter’s recordings and liked what we heard. We looked into his life and discovered that no one had written a full-length biography in English.We discovered that many of his papers and personal effects were stored at the New York Public Library, so it seemed like a project just waiting to happen.

Q: So the first step was to write the article in New Grove.

A: I’m trying to remember the exact chronology—I think it was in the middle of our research that we were invited to write the article. I can’t remember which appeared first: the article or the book.

Q: It would have to have been the article, because in the bibliography, your book is listed as ‘forthcoming.’ Is it safe to assume that you never met Bruno Walter?

A: Correct—Erik was very young when he passed away, and I wasn’t even born yet.

Q: Like you, I listened to his recordings as a teenager and young man—mostly the later stereo recordings—and I was hooked. I just thought that was a rather nifty coincidence, because he was one of my heroes too.

A: There’s no question—he was great. You know, I started my life as more of a 19th-century person. I played the piano, and my ultimate goal was to study musicology. I was convinced that I was going to become a 19th-century-ist. Then I switched to harpsichord and everything changed. But I retained a strong interest in orchestral music, Brahms and so on.

Q: Did you have a chance to interview any of his surviving family members—his daughters, for example?

A: No. His younger daughter, you know, was murdered by her husband in 1939. His older daughter passed away in 1971, I think. They didn’t leave any children, so there weren’t any descendants that we could interview. We did talk to a few musicians who had worked with Walter.

Q: In New York, Los Angeles?

A: Mostly in New York. We did talk to a few in Europe. There were many, many in the New York area, but a few of them have passed away since the book was published.

Q: I have yet to acquire a copy. When did it come out?

A: In 2001. The paperback version came out in 2006, and that has a revised introduction that contains some additional interesting “stuff.” You may want to go for that version.

Q: Good enough. I should ask, are there any immediate plans for new recordings? What’s coming down the pike?

A: I don’t have any immediate plans, but there are plans for a number of concerts this year, mostly centered on Krebs, since 2013 is the tercentenary of his birth. In the fall, I’ll be doing a concert in Altenburg, where Krebs worked and where Dr. Friedrich now works. There’s also one planned for Zwickau, another place where Krebs worked, and a chamber concert in New York. So that’s going to keep me quite busy for a while.

Q: What’s the exact date of the Altenburg concert?

A: Krebs’s baptismal date is October 12, and so on that date, in Altenburg at the castle, they will be putting on a huge Krebs celebration. There’s a conservatory in the town called the Johann-Ludwig-Krebs-Schule, and a couple of students from the conservatory have been invited to perform, along with me and Dr. Friedrich. It should be a lot of fun.

Q: Sounds great—wish I could be there.

A: If you can arrange for a Krebs concert in your area, I’d be glad to come and play.

Q: Well, there’s always the Detroit Chamber Music Society. They have yet to include a harpsichordist on one of their seasons.

A: Really!

Q: I’ll have to get to work on that.

KREBS Partita No. 6 in E♭, Krebs-WV 827. Sonata in a, Krebs-VW 838. Overture in g in the French Manner, Krebs-WV 820 Rebecca Pechefsky (hpd) QUILL 1011 (73:32)

Johann Ludwig Krebs (1713-1780—the last name rhymes with “grapes”) had the good fortune to enroll in the St. Thomas School in Leipzig at age 13, where he came under the tutelage of J. S. Bach. Like several other budding musicians of the period who can claim Bach as their primary teacher, among them Carl Friedrich Abel, Johann Christian Kittel, Johann Christoph Altnickol, and of course Bach’s own sons Emanuel, Friedemann, and Christian, the trajectory of Krebs’s career undoubtedly would not have been as stellar had it not been for Bach’s influence. By all accounts Krebs was a highly capable organist and better than average composer; Sebastian Bach recognized this in his pupil and entrusted him with the important job of copyist. Several works of Bach only survive in Krebs’s hand—for example the Fantasia and Fugue in C Minor for organ, BWV 537. If there were no other reason to remember Krebs than this, it would still be sufficient to secure him an honored place in the annals of musical history.

But what about his music? Krebs wrote during a time of tremendous transition and flux, when the fresh breezes of Empfindsamkeit and pre-classicism were blowing through Europe. Krebs embraced this new style with some reservation—he clearly felt a need to preserve and promote the contrapuntal style of his beloved teacher as well. One gets the sense that Krebs wanted to reconcile the two styles, but didn’t know quite how to go about it. When he attempted a synthesis in a single work, the effect was often unsettled or incomplete. The three works on this CD display this dichotomy in varying degrees and run the gamut from unalloyed Bachian rhetoric and counterpoint (the Partita), to an accomplished essay in the older French style (the French Overture ), to the light-hearted galant (the Sonata). It’s a fascinating program that reveals a free-ranging and original musical mind, one whose music merits further exploration given the large number of keyboard pieces that are almost never performed these days.

Harpsichordist Rebecca Pechefsky is the ideal interpreter to bring this music to light. She plays with assurance and authority, as if she has lived with this music all her life. She generates excitement where necessary, as in the nervous opening movement of the Sonata or the grand first movement of the French Overture , but is capable of “dialing it down” in the tender Sarabanda of the Partita. Her harpsichord, a French double after Hemsch and Blanchet by Yves Beaupré of Montréal, has a clear, commanding sound. I particularly like how well the four-foot register is integrated in the total sound, for example in the concluding Gigue of the Partita. The recorded sound is first-rate: a real-sounding harpsichord in a believable acoustical setting. In short, this CD left me wanting more of Krebs’s harpsichord music. Could there be a sequel in the offing? Christopher Brodersen

Last Updated ( Friday, 24 May 2013 )
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