CD Review : "A Playlist for Rembrandt"

(Music from the Netherlands from Rembrandt’s time)

Bob van Asperen, harpsichord


If Rembrandt lived today, would he use an iPhone or Android phone? A pointless question, prehaps; but Bob van Asperen (BvA), a pupil of Gustav Leonhardt, has asked a better one: “IF Rembrandt had had a smart phone, what music might he have listened to on it?” This CD is his answer.

This is not just any old rag bag of music from the period of Rembrandt, comprised of the usual suspects. The repertoire has been carefully chosen, researched, ordered and played (I believe the modern term is curated) by BvA. The programme lasts over 66 minutes and is supported by 10 pages of extensive notes, also in Dutch and German, with additional details and references, mostly in Dutch, together with a list of Rembrandt paintings that depict musical instruments. (As is typical of CD booklets you may, like me, need reading glasses to decrypt the 1pt type.) These notes include full details of the harpsichord played and its history. It was made by Petrus Iohannes Couchet in Antwerp in 1669 (the year in which Rembrandt died) and is now in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. 350 years on it still sounds superb, much changed and restored, sadly now with delrin plectra. (Am I alone in thinking that plastic plectra impart a more uniform tone over the whole compass, which is unattainable with feather quills?)

More details of the instrument here: Harpsichord, Petrus Johannes Couchet, 1669 - Rijksmuseum

Unlike BvA, not every player gets to record on an original Couchet in the Rijksmuseum, and not every player takes such trouble over what he presents on CD and how he does so.

The recital of 27 pieces is arranged in an order that keeps the interest throughout, including transcriptions and reconstructions by BvA. There are some well known works by Sweelinck, van Noordt, Scheidemann, Reincken and Froberger, together with many interesting works by others, chosen because of their connection with Holland in the late 17th century and because BvA thinks that Rembrant very likely had the oportunity to hear them. His thesis is strengthened by the fact that there is good reason to believe that Rembrant played the recorder and other instruments. In common with Leonardt, and many from that school, BvA is well aware of and actively makes connections between music and the other arts, particulary the important Netherlands school of painting, and in particular Rembrandt, of course.

The most extended work is Froberger’s Suite in G minor with the Lamentation sur ce que j’ay été volé. Froberger’s style magically transforms the sound of the instrument. In my experience, no other composer does quite this, simply by the combination of the notes he uses and the meantone tuning. That this effect is not the same with every contemplative piece played on the back 8, is demonstrated by the opening unmeasured prelude of a suite in F minor, made up from compositions of members of the De la Barre and Huygens families, intelligently assembled from different sources. This is not to suggest that only Froberger sounds excellent on this CD – just that the timbre froberger promotes is somehow different and special.

The stereo recording is excellent and it and the choice of pieces demonstrate the variety of colours and the sounds of the different ranks to be heard from the instrument. Registrations include all possible combinations of the two 8ft and 4ft registers. Three short pieces are played on the buff, and three use the 4ft alone. Where appropriate, BvA employs tasteful and restrained rubato and additional ornaments. I do not usually find battle pieces very interesting, but that here by Kerll is particularly stirring and musical at the same time. I found all the pieces well played and captivating.

BvA has already made distinguished recordings for Aeolus, including the complete keyboard music of Froberger, also on original and appropriate instruments, and with similarly fascinating documentation and discriminating taste. Those recordings, and the Louis Couperin series he is still working on, are on SACDs, with optional surround sound. So why, I wonder, is this just a stereo CD? Nevertheless, it is an excellent CD and I recommend it highly.

David Pickett

A sample can be heard and seen here: Bob van Asperen plays C.T. Padbrué: "O Kersnacht" - Couchet harpsichord, Rijksmuseum - YouTube

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