Talking to harpsichordists regularly, it’s easy to get the impression that issues of historical performance, musical philosophy, and even fashion weigh heavily on their minds. But how much do they really think about these big ideas while practicing and performing? I spoke with Alina Rotaru, a Romanian harpsichord soloist, continuo player, and teacher at the conservatory in Bremen, to get a more grounded view. She Skyped with me from her home in Vilnius, Lithuania and talked about her journey from the piano to the intellectual world of historical performance.
VAN: Does a harpsichordist have to maintain an anti-pianistic agenda to distinguish herself at the instrument?
Alina Rotaru: In short, no. Or, at least, I would not say that about myself. Historical performance is just the ABC’s of what we do—but everybody does that. The philosophy of historical performance only plays a small role in the day-to-day.
The harpsichord is surely different from the piano in musical approach.
I know very well, having studied the piano at a specialized music school in Bucharest. You are taught what to do, how to do it, but not why. At the harpsichord, there’s a certain freedom to engage with historical sources. You aren’t just confined to the notes on the page or to a pedagogical tradition, but have a wider set of resources from which to choose.
So harpsichordists learn to play with more freedom?
Yes, but every decision isn’t some process of emancipation. Even though you’re dealing with historical sources, it’s your own personality and religiosity that will affect how you read them.
Are you particularly religious with the sources?
Sometimes yes, sometimes no. For instance, there are times when I like to make changes to the music of Froberger.
What sorts of changes?
Certain notes, accidentals, things of that nature.
In contradiction to what Froberger actually wrote?
Well, we have several sources for Froberger’s music. For the “Tombeau fait à Paris sur la mort de Monsieur Blancrocher,” there are three. Some are missing ties, some have different notes, one has a different key signature.
Are they very different from one another?
No, but when sources diverge, you can make a decision based on how you feel. In historical performance, you don’t just look at a source and either follow it or ignore it. The more and more exposure you get to different sources, the more you start to develop textual instincts, and not just technical or performing instincts.
What would you call this instinct?
I think Jean Rondeau’s use of the word juste is appropriate. In the end, the decisions we make at the harpsichord and with texts boil down to our own common sense.
Where does this instinct come from?
For me, it began in Bucharest where I studied piano, but also choral conducting. In the choir where I studied, we had a steady diet of Josquin, Lassus, Palestrina…I fell in love with the music, but it didn’t feel quite right.
Before that, the earliest music I had studied was that of the high baroque. There was some historical information we were taught about the baroque at that time, but with Lassus and Josquin, I got the sense that there was something missing in the way we were being taught. A friend of mine and I eventually started going to the library and finding keyboard music from the Renaissance period and playing through it. From that point, we started to get a wider picture of what music of that era was about.
Did you have access to any facsimiles in Bucharest?
No. The first time I travelled to Germany from Romania for masterclasses, my friends and I spent hours at a photocopier so we could have a copy of Girolamo Diruta’s “Il Transilvano.” We thought it was incredible at the time.
Were the masterclasses themselves important to you?
Absolutely. In my first masterclass, I played continuo in the music of Bach for the first time. Performing his motets, I got a sense of the integration between the keyboard and the vocal music I loved. After that, I never looked back. I returned to Romania, and I was inspired to practice in a way that I hadn’t been at the piano. I started spending hours and hours at the shitty harpsichord at school, but I couldn’t get enough.
How do you pick your instruments now?
If I have the freedom to choose, there is nothing like playing an antique instrument. When I made my Froberger recording, I recorded on an instrument by Ruckers at the Musée d’art et d’histoire de Neuchâtel, in Switzerland. It’s an original instrument from 1623, which had been altered in a French style.
The instrument was not it its original condition?
No, the instrument had been expanded in 1745 and voiced in a manner more suited to French music. Just like composers or manuscripts, historical instruments have journeys as well. They were built, yes, but also rebuilt and expanded at times. In these cases alterations don’t detract from the instrument’s character, but make it individual and reflective of the numerous historical periods in which it was played. They can mediate different times at the same time, if that makes sense.
What does that have to do with Froberger?
Froberger had several musical periods in his life. At one point, he was living and studying in Italy, at another he was working for the Hapsburgs in Austria. Eventually, he ended up in France, where he was no longer composing toccatas and polyphonic works, but dance suites in the French style.
For a recording, it’s important to have a very clear vision about what you want to say, and I knew I wanted to record the “French” Froberger, and not so much the Italian Froberger. I will say that I got criticized for not using the “right” Ruckers for Froberger, but I knew what I wanted to achieve with my recording. When you do a project like that, it’s you who has to live with it.
How important are recordings for the exchange of ideas in the historical performance world?
The recording industry has given us a lot of fuel here in the historical performance movement. For me personally, William Christie’s recording of Charpentier’s “Te Deum” with Les Arts Florissants was incredibly important. Also stacks and stacks of Bach recordings were important when I was a student for getting “the sound” in my ears.
Does historical performance ever get stuck because of recordings, with people imitating their heroes?
I don’t think so. As performers, we all listen and learn with critical ears. I don’t always listen to recordings of music I’m working on, but I’m not averse to finding out what other people do. There’s no use in ignoring it. It’s not as if we’re all just copying each other.
So the historical performance movement continues to move forward?
Absolutely. We are different from our predecessors, in that we now have better standards of ensemble and intonation than we did early on. We also know more about history than we did then, and are continuing to learn. We can’t take the knowledge we’ve gained and simply shut it off. ¶