It was fitting that Rafael Puyana, the Colombian harpsichordist who died on March 1st in Paris at the age of 81, should have made his debut — on piano — in 1945 at the Teatro de Cristóbal Colón (Christopher Columbus Theatre) in Bogotá. Columbia’s national theatre, the neoclassical building had been dedicated in October of 1892 on the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s “discovery” of the Americas.
Puyana’s own path of adventure would lead in the opposite direction, first to study in North America, where he became enamored with the harpsichord and decided to dedicate his life to its music, and then across the Atlantic back to Europe, settling in Paris, where he often bucked the trends of the last half century in Early Music performance as players and scholars (often united in a single person) strove to recreate the sounds and playing practices of what the title of one of Puyana’s most popular LPs called “The Golden Age of Harpsichord Music.” Puyana’s geographic movement from the New World to the Old paralleled the path of the most majestic and flamboyant musical genres brought back to Europe by the colonizers: the sarabande, the folia, and fandango. These forms brimmed with the sensuality that was thought to be the hallmark of the savages, noble or otherwise, and Puyana was a key figure in bringing them back to a wider modern public.
At sixteen Puyana went to study at the New England Conservatory in Boston, then moved to the Hartt School in Connecticut and came into the ambit of the greatest champion of the harpsichord in the first half of the 20th century, Wanda Landowska. Landowska had left Paris in 1949 to settle in Lakeville, Connecticut, where Puyana studied with her from 1951 until her death in 1959. Although Landowska collected old harpsichords, she played and recorded on a 20th-century instrument made to her specifications by the Pleyel company, the leading French piano manufacturer. Her two-manual instrument was equipped with a thunderous set of strings at 16-foot (sounding an octave below notated pitch) and foot pedals that allowed quick changes between the various registers, so that dynamic changes both gradual and surprising could be made quickly and easily with the feet while the hands were busy at the keyboards above. The steel-frame instrument looked more like a piano than an old harpsichord. The frequent changes in sonority made it clear that the Pleyel was striving for pianistic dynamics rather than remain content with the inherent beauty of a single set — or combination — of strings.
Puyana also chose a Pleyel harpsichord to make his name with, and his 1957 debut concert at Town Hall in New York and four years later in Boston were greeted with near rapture, Jules Wolffers raving in the Boston Herald that Puyana’s performance “was the greatest harpsichord program I have ever heard.” Even while William Dowd and Frank Hubbard in Boston were making harpsichords increasingly oriented towards the ideals of an earlier, pre-industrial age, Puyana remained loyal to his mighty Pleyel. On the cover of his 1962 “Golden Age” LP he is seen playing the instrument next to the pond of an estate garden, his hands at the large keyboards, his feet tapping at the pedals as if they belonged to a Hammond organ. The contents of the disc range from Elizabethan composers to J.S. Bach, with a stop on the Iberian peninsula, before ending in Paris with Couperin and contemporaries. The breadth of the repertoire played at a single modern instrument alone reveals that Puyana’s mission was not one of historical accuracy, something he mistakenly resisted as a restriction rather than viewing it as an invitation to new possibilities. The Pleyel must have weighed at least 20 times as much as the English virginal on which the opening track, the anonymous My Lady Carey’s Dompe, would likely have been played on in the early16th-century: on the Pleyel the lute stop plucks away in the hypnotic left hand while the sinuous, serpentine melody keens above it, forsaking the fundamental for the eerie, disembodied sonority made up of overtones. One is struck out how very Sixties it all sounds, and the result is so wonderfully dated that it paradoxically seems to escape its time.
It is easy to pass judgment on the false sureties and arrogant follies of dead musicians, just as it is easy to claim — falsely, of course — that our own broader and more nuanced historical sensitivity produces better performances of music of the past. Nonetheless, it is clear now, as I suspect it was becoming clear to Puyana himself in the 1960s, that the Pleyel was becoming a historical curiosity rather than continue to serve as a viable tool of discovery.
Then in 1968 Puyana found a historic harpsichord that seemed to answer all of his expressive needs: a massive instrument that boasted an unexampled three manuals with sets of strings ranging from 16’ to an unheard of 2’ (two octaves above notated pitch). Built in 1740 by the celebrated Hamburg maker H.A. Hass, it had been made during the lifetimes of the two mainstays of Puyana’s repertoire, J.S. Bach and Domenico Scarlatti. Even though lacking the Pleyel’s quick-change pedals, this behemoth allowed Puyana to continue to explore constantly shifting tonal color on an historic instrument, one with a richer, more singing tone; indeed, its extra keyboard provided an even more suitable medium for his vaunted acrobatics, as in his unfailingly accurate and energetic performances of Scarlatti’s sonatas.
The Hass harpsichord is also heard on Puyana’s Fandango from 1990. The cover image of that CD shows a detail of the painting that adorns the Hass’s lid, one that depicts the builder and his son, flanked by musicians and allegorical figures, presenting the very harpsichord the image decorated to an enthroned queen. So proud was the builder of his own work that he could bestow mythic status on his magnum opus. Among the eight Spanish composers represented on the disc, only Scarlatti had an international reputation during his lifetime. This might make some wonder about the appropriateness of using this giant northern harpsichord for southern repertoire. (Puyana does record one piece heard on the disc on an 18th-century Spanish harpsichord in his own collection.) Puyana remained true to his creed of expressivity over “authenticity” and one hears this in the fantastical, idiosyncractic orchestration that make the Andalusian dissonances and castanet rhythms shout from the Hass’s German interior.
The potential energy stored in the Hass is fully realized in the title track, the Fandango by Antonio Soler. This New World dance imported back to Spain was about sight as much as about sound, as Casanova reported in 1767 after witnessing a Fandango in Madrid (as Puyana reports in his lively liner notes):
“It is almost beyond description. Each couple, a man and a woman, takes only three steps at a time, clicking castanets to the rhythm of the orchestra, and making gestures or striking attitudes of an unparalleled lasciviousness. The whole expression of love is displayed from beginning to end, from the sigh of desire to the height of ecstasy. It seemed to me impossible that after such a dance the woman could refuse her partner anything, for the fandango inflames the senses with every stimulus of desire. The pleasure I experienced in watching this bacchanal brought me to the point of screaming.”
Puyana’s exactitude prevents him from evoking such erotic excess: his Fandango impresses more than it excites. A lifelong bachelor with the time and energy to practice endless hours exercising his outsized technical skill and feeding his obsession for the miniscule detail, he pursued perfectionism until the end. But the impressiveness of his Scarlatti and Soler doesn’t mean that his playing is cold: amidst the technical feats of the fandangos and sonatas, the Hass occasionally kicks and screams in delight, even if not in delirium.
In his last years, Puyana had been attending to the editing of his last recordings: one of Bach’s Partitas, the other from the nearly endless store of his beloved Scarlatti sonatas; both are due out this year. Although Puyana sold most of his collection of instruments some years before his death, one imagines him still in his Parisian apartment, his Landowskian lamps behind him, fancy cuffs flapping as his hands leap over one another and between his huge harpsichord’s three manuals, this extraordinary player not concerned with past or present, but with the thrill of the now.
David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.