I came to Boston to interview the keyboardist and C. P. E. Bach scholar Miklós Spányi and to spend a few days at the 16th Biennial Boston Early Music Festival. Little did I know that our scheduled interview on Saturday would coincide with one of the largest mass gatherings in Boston’s history. The Bruins had just won the Stanley Cup, ice hockey’s Holy Grail, for the first time in 39 years and the area around our meeting place was where a celebratory gathering of fans, estimated at over a million, congregated. My knowledgeable taxi driver got me to Spányi’s hotel minutes before all the streets in the area were closed to cars.
Could there be a greater auditory contrast between the outside world and the nearly silent music that Spányi elicits from the clavichord? His closing performance the previous day at a mini-festival devoted to recitals and lectures on the three most prominent keyboard instruments of the Baroque, the harpsichord, fortepiano and clavichord, felt like being freed of manacles from the beautiful but comparatively noisy instruments that preceded this heavenly sounding device. To play virtuosically on the piano is no mean skill, but the clavichord requires fingers sensitive enough to control the most delicate sounds the instrument can produce. The audience, spread out in the First Church of Boston’s modern concert space, was asked to gather as close to the stage as possible. We were also asked to refrain from applauding, but rather to shake our programs instead. What a welcome break from badly timed and overly vociferous applause at concerts and operas that not only distracts the artists but destroys the very sound world the performer has just been spending his time creating.
Spányi began his recital with a transcription for keyboard of C. P. E. Bach’s sinfonia originally written for orchestra. The range of timbres that Spányi created were just extraordinary. The difficulty of having not only to play the right notes, but to play with the right pressure reminded me of the difficulty Baroque trumpeters have in playing valveless instruments: a slight change in embouchure and you’re in another musical staff.
The concert continued with more C. P. E. Bach, and then movements from J. S. Bach’s Art of the Fugue. One normally thinks of playing this last work of Bach on one or two harpsichords or an organ or whatever instrument(s) within its range are available. On the clavichord, this music sounded to me for the first time ever not coldly analytical — Bach’s technical guide to the possible permutations of this musical form — but rather a warm, human and expressive work of art. Spány’s recital ended with a set of variations by Beethoven on a theme as corny as the theme from the Diabelli Variations, but turned into something of actual musical interest in the hands of the great composer.
Miklós Spányi not only plays the clavichord better than anyone alive today but is a master of the harpsichord, fortepiano and tangent piano, an instrument according to Spányi that is “a member of the piano family in that its strings are struck rather than plucked as on the harpsichord. The main difference between it and the fortepiano lies in the action: the pianoforte uses pivotal hammers to strike the strings while the tangent piano instead has little slips of wood (‘tangents’) that move freely on a vertical plane.”
In addition to his skills as a keyboard player, Spányi is in the process of recording all of C. P. E. Bach’s keyboard sonatas and concerti, having to date recorded 17 volumes of keyboard concerti and 22 volumes of keyboard sonatas for the Swedish label BIS. I asked him how much more he has to record.