A Close Call: Harpsichordist Yago Mahúgo
The young Spanish harpsichordist Yago Mahúgo first came to my attention when Joel Flegler sent me a CD of the music of Joseph-Nicolas Pancrace Royer earlier this year for consideration. Seldom has a debut CD grabbed my attention the way this one did. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the disc contains harpsichord playing of the highest order, the sort that one expects from the greatest masters of the keyboard, not from a relative newcomer! (See review below.)
All the more compelling, considering that a scant 14 months after the CD was recorded, Mahúgo suffered a stroke that initially left him unable to play. His prognosis at the time was guarded, but things have improved considerably since then, as you will learn from the following interview.
Q: Tell us a bit about your background.
A: I was born in Madrid in 1976. I started playing the piano when I was five. After finishing a bachelor’s degree in piano performance at age 18 with Professor Guijarro in Seville, I moved to Germany to continue my piano studies with Professor Tibor Szasz at the Hochschule für Musik in Freiburg.
Q: Is that where you were first exposed to the harpsichord?
A: Yes. I audited the harpsichord class at the Hochschule, and after one year I joined the class. I put aside the modern piano and started studying harpsichord and fortepiano seriously with the great harpsichordist Robert Hill—this was for three years. Once back home in Spain, I started teaching piano—harpsichord as a pedagogical subject is not very well established here—and got a permanent job at the Conservatory in Madrid where I still teach.
Meanwhile, I was contacted about a job at the private school Escuela Superior de Musica Reina Sofia (Queen Sofia High School). At the Escuela I prepare modern ensembles in performances of baroque music. I also function as a continuo player and accompanist, mostly baroque music with harpsichord.
Q: Tell us about the period-instrument ensembles with which you are associated.
A: I am the continuo player for the baroque orchestra Sphera Antiqua. Enrico Onofri was our conductor a while back—you may have heard of him.
In 2008 I established the baroque ensemble Impetus, a period-instrument group based in Madrid dedicated to playing baroque and classical repertoire on period instruments. I am fortunate to be surrounded by great musicians with an extensive knowledge of the music of the period. For example, one of our group is a regular with Le musiciens du Louvre and with Les talents lyriques.
Q: The Royer CD is technically not your debut disc, correct?
A: Yes—in 2004 I actually recorded some sonatas of Domenico Cimarosa on modern piano for an Italian label. The Royer CD is my first harpsichord recording. It was awarded Disc of the Month for April by the well-known Spanish music magazine
. I have to thank Alessandro Simonetto, terrific sound engineer and also a fine harpsichordist, for the opportunity to record this CD for his online label OnClassical. Dutch-based Brilliant Classics was so impressed with the recording that they wanted to make it “physical.”
The success of my CD has given me the opportunity to do more recording, and so this fall I’m hoping to record Fiocco, Balbastre, and the complete harpsichord works of Daquin, also for OnClassical. Hopefully Brilliant Classics will be interested in this as well.
Q: So tell us about your medical problems.
A: In January 2013, I suffered a severe stroke. I was in a coma for seven days, and against all odds, I came out of the coma and survived. I am very lucky because now I have very few side-effects. It was really a shock the first day after coming home from the hospital. I sat down to play the harpsichord, and I couldn’t even play a scale with two hands together! After months of hard work—rehab every day with strenuous mental and physical exercises—I can truthfully say that I feel great and have plenty of strength to keep going with my career. Now when people hear me play, they say I’m playing at the same level I was at before the stroke. I still have to work on the side-effects—I have double vision which is really a handicap when reading music—but I’m thankful to be alive and able to keep playing.
Q: Do your doctors know what caused the stroke? Usually it’s an embolism or blood clot that originates elsewhere in the body.
A: My doctors don’t know the exact reason, other than it probably was a clot. They did a lot of testing, but couldn’t find the origin of the clot.
Q: What are you doing to avoid another stroke?
A: I take a small dose of aspirin every day, and try to live a little more calmly.
Q: How did you first get exposed to the music of Royer?
A: A colleague of mine was playing the
Marche des scythes
, and I fell in love immediately. I’m a big fan of that style of virtuosic writing, and Royer certainly has it in spades.
Q: Do you know the Christophe Rousset recording?
A: Of course I do—it’s marvelous. I consider Rousset to be my most important teacher—he is the one who instilled a love for French music in me, and continues to inspire me.
Premier livre de pièces pour clavecin
Yago Mahúgo (hpd)
BRILLIANT 94479 (61:57)
The name Joseph-Nicolas Pancrace Royer (c.1705-1755) is not exactly a household one. Although Royer was fairly successful as an opera composer and enjoyed royal privilege as the
maître de musique des enfants de France
, he belonged solidly to the second tier of French
who labored under the shadow of Couperin and later Rameau. Royer published his only volume of harpsichord music in 1746. He died prematurely in 1755, leaving the vast majority of his output in manuscript form, nearly all of which has been lost.
The present CD contains the entire contents of the
, with one addition. The music is full of echoes of Couperin, but displays considerably more energy and dramatic flair, even a kind of French
Sturm und Drang
at times. To hear how far French harpsichord music had progressed—I don’t mean the word to sound judgmental—since the death of Couperin in 1733, the listener is invited to sample the dramatic “Les Matelots,” which shares many similarities with the music of Forqueray
. The triple-meter “La Remouleuse” is uniquely life-affirming, while “Le Vertigo-rondeau” contains some of the darkest, most proto-romantic music of the French Baroque. “Le Marche des Scythes,” marked
, again is reminiscent of Forqueray, with a nervous intensity and capriciousness that will take your breath away—it did mine. The disc concludes with “La Chasse de Zaïde,” drawn from Royer’s most famous opera. It was discovered in manuscript form by Christophe Rousset in the 1980s, and has since become a part of Royer’s
While Royer’s music is often included in anthologies of French harpsichord music, to the best of my knowledge there have been only three complete recordings: William Christie (Harmonia Mundi France), recorded in 1982 and rereleased on CD in 1992; Christophe Rousset (L’Oiseau-Lyre), 1993; and the present Brilliant Classics CD. Yago Mahúgo’s playing is every bit as accomplished as that of his teacher Rousset: bracing, virtuosic, full of rhythmic intensity, but also sensitive to the more tender aspects of the music. I’m tempted to utter the ultimate blasphemy and declare that Mahúgo has trumped Rousset’s recording; it is now my preferred version. Some of the credit has to go to the instrument chosen for this CD: a copy after Ruckers, 1638, by William Horn (not credited in the booklet). What a wonderful, gutsy sound—the lowest bass notes pack a real wallop. This is a disc to savor for its sheer
joie de vivre
, and it’s sobering to contemplate that the world almost lost the services of this outstanding young musician. Highest recommendation.