Musician of the Month: Nathaniel Mander
What made you want to learn to play the harpsichord? When did you first start playing?
I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently. If you’d asked me at the time, I’d have told that you that I was struck by a musical lightning bolt. The reality is I was probably about 12 when I first heard the harpsichord, from a recording. The desire to play one was so overwhelming that I used to spend hours trawling the internet in search of an instrument for sale. Finding one wasn’t a problem but getting my parents to buy me one was! I had started on the piano as a child and was always drawn to the repertoire of the great harpsichord masters. I found the entire baroque period so appealing and as a strange twist of fate, after a couple of years of obsessively talking of nothing else, my first teacher Richard Lester was putting up an advertisement for the Cirencester Early Music Festival in a book shop where my Aunt was working at the time. My Mum arranged for me to have a harpsichord lesson with him for my birthday and the passion for the instrument has stayed with me ever since. I moved to London when I was 18 having been offered a place at the Royal Academy of Music to study with Carole Cerasi. She was and still remains the greatest musical influence in my life – she is the perfect combination of truth, modesty and utter mastery of her craft.
Do you find it difficult to create extreme emotion because of the limited range of dynamics on the harpsichord? How do you compensate?
All instruments have their limitations, but these are soon overcome through sensitivity to exploring the refinements and the extensive sonic possibilities which are naturally available. True also is that most modern ears aren’t used to appreciating the exquisite dynamic nuances of the harpsichord. These days though, well suited concert venues, expertly made historically based instruments and an ever deeper understanding of an authentic touch allows for the true soul of these beautiful instruments to be set free.
What Baroque repertoire do you enjoy playing the most?
I have always felt a real natural affinity for the French harpsichord repertoire; Music that is so beautifully refined and effortlessly crafted that it has the power to move the listener so profoundly. Francois Couperin is a real master at this – He manages to translate the purest depiction of melancholy into to the simplest of keyboard figurations. As so often is the case with Couperin whilst there appears to be nothing on the page, the end result however is a work of unmatched beauty. At the other end of the spectrum there is nothing more exhilarating than unleashing the fiery intoxication of one of Domenico Scarlatti’s most daring and electrifying sonatas.
How do you feel when you hear harpsichord music being played on piano?
Truly great artistry can never be confined to an instrument so if I hear a sensitive performance of a harpsichord work on a piano, I think it would be a travesty for it not to be appreciated. This should always be approached as a transcription though; then the best artistic results are possible. There’s nothing worse than a pianist trying to play the piano like a harpsichord. I personally think the French repertoire that I mentioned earlier can sound beautiful on the piano. Bach too.
Why do you think Handel House is such an enjoyable space in which to perform?
It is absolutely the perfect space for a harpsichord recital. Not a single subtlety is lost even in the most intimate works. I always find there is a special connection between the artist and the audience when performing here. It’s so enjoyable to share my favourite harpsichord repertoire with just a handful of people. It really is a joint effort!