Rafael Puyana at home in Paris with his three-manual harpsichord by Hieronymous Albrecht Hass (baptised 1 December 1689 – buried 19 June 1752) from 1740.
From his debut recital at New York Town Hall in 1957 onwards, the Colombian harpsichordist Rafael Puyana, who has died aged 81, established himself as one of the most compelling musical personalities of his generation. His virtuosity, taut sense of rhythm and flair for instrumental timbre marked him out as the heir of his teacher Wanda Landowska, the prime mover in the revival of the harpsichord at the start of the 20th century.
She had commissioned an instrument to her own specification from the Paris piano-making firm of Pleyel, with a metal frame. It was equipped with pedals for rapid changes of registration, the type and number of strings plucked each time a key is depressed. Those strings ranged from 16-foot pitch – an octave below normal, 8-foot, pitch – to 4-foot pitch, an octave above. The Pleyel's resulting variety of tone-colours was considered beneficial in presenting music that might be as unfamiliar as the instrument: take, for example, Puyana's striking vinyl recordings of two dance-based pieces, the early 16th-century My Lady Carey's Dompe and the Fandango attributed to the 18th-century Spanish composer Antonio Soler.
However, at just the time when Puyana was achieving his greatest eminence, performers such as Gustav Leonhardt and Thurston Dart were challenging the suitability of the Pleyel model. By comparison with the copies of original harpsichords now increasingly available, it was fast becoming a pariah.
Puyana's temperament did not adjust easily to what he perceived as the limitations of such "authentic" instruments, for performances of JS Bach and Domenico Scarlatti in particular, and in the 1960s he made an extraordinary find, an 18th-century three-manual harpsichord complete with 16-foot, 4-foot and even a 2-foot stop. It was made in Hamburg by Hieronymus Albrecht Hass in 1740, around the time of some of Bach's finest keyboard works.
Though in a ruinous state, once it had been restored to its original condition Puyana played it many times in public and in some distinguished venues, notably Les Invalides in Paris and the Palace of Versailles. Its range of stops enabled him to retain the colouring central to his approach, but on an instrument of impeccable provenance. From there he made the transition to other classical instruments.
Born into a music-loving family in Bogotá, Puyana had his first piano lessons from his aunt at the age of six. When he was 16, he went to the New England Conservatory, Boston, and then Hartt College in Hartford, Connecticut. The Polish-born Landowska was based at Lakeville, to the north-west, and in 1951 Puyana became her last pupil, his studies with her continuing until her death in 1959. In the summer months he went to France to study harmony and composition with Nadia Boulanger.
He eventually settled in Paris, living alone, touring the world and making a collection of outstanding recordings that included Soler sonatas (then still a rarity), works by Couperin and the Bach flute sonatas with Maxence Larrieu, for which in 1968 they won the Grand Prix du Disque. Further collaborators included the violinists Yehudi Menuhin and David Oistrakh and guitarists Segovia and John Williams; Stephen Dodgson wrote a Duo Concertante (1968) for Williams and Puyana. Among other composers to write for the harpsichordist were Alain Louvier and Federico Mompou, and he loved playing the Falla and Poulenc concertos commissioned by Landowska.
In 2005 Puyana gave up performing and sold most of his collection of instruments. The next years were spent editing and preparing two double-album CDs, one set of Bach's six Partitas and the other of Scarlatti sonatas, all played on the large Hass harpsichord.
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