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Wednesday, June 19, 2019

A Playlist for Rembrandt, Bob van Asperen

In school, when I was still (virtually) wearing a beanie-copter, I became more and more interested in synesthesia, or the convergence of senses, like that of sound and sight, or music and the visual arts. Are there periods where you can find things in common between the two? Sure, but in some interesting ways? The world intervened and I had to live my life outside of such thoughts, mostly.

But then here is an album that practically demands such a speculation, that is on A Playlist for Rembrandt, Music from the Netherlands from Rembrandt's Time (Aeolus 10164). Harpsichordist Bob van Asperen runs through some 20 works that are to the most of us quite obscure.  And he plays them beautifully on the resonant 1669 instrument, the Petrus Joannes Couchet harpsichord which is happily in Amsterdam's justly celebrated Rijksmuseum.

The sound of the instrument is perhaps very much of its time? It is deeply metallic in ways not all instruments are. An old professor dear to me once quipped that Wanda Landowska wanted her harpsichord to sound like a sewing machine. It is one of those thoughts that needs not be true to be interesting. Fact is, harpsichords of older times, some of them anyway, have a sound so far from a piano or organ as to be another thing altogether, like Gin is to Red Wine, altogether other. A glass of straight Gin, a cup of strong coffee, a bristlingly windy, rainy day, all and the sound of the Couchet harpsichord are very distinctive experiences that need to be appreciated for what they are, and in the end they are very good indeed once you get the hang of that. Not that I drink so much these days. Or indulge in exotic coffee blends. But I do listen to this CD and the harpsichord that graces all the music. The rest I can remember.

So we get on this fine recording to sample some bracing harpsichord which, as the liners state, involves, "music that could or most likely was heard by Rembrandt."  So we hear something by Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, a composer familiar to many of us, but then Gisbert Steenwick? Johann Casper Kerll?  Less familiar, surely, even downright obscure to me. But perhaps less so for the master painter. Like all proper reconstructions, it all sounds nicely memorable, characteristic. It captures a kind of period mood that I cannot put easily into words. Is it like Rembrandt's wonderful canvasses? Is there some kind of synesthesia at work and can a novice like me detect it? Brown. The music sounds brown. Of course I may feel that way only because I already know the where and what of the music, of Rembrandt's art and the local Zeitgeist. One might say it sounds green. Except it doesn't. Not at all red or orange or yellow or green. Less of that. More in the brown and darker spectrum?

It does not matter in the least because this is music in performances that jump out at you on repeat listens. It is a wondrous journey though to another time and some exceptional music, played exceptionally well, I am sure of that.

I heartily recommend this one for anyone who wants to contemplate earlier music and the life that surrounded it all. And just for the sheer enjoyment of it. Cheers to that.

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