Donald Nicolson plays Bach – updated

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Published: 19th August, 2017

Donald Nicolson presented a program called The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2, Part 1  at the Salon, Melbourne Recital Centre, as part of the MRC series: 48 Ways of Looking at Bach. The Recital Centre described this as “a unique project across six concerts throughout 2017, celebrating the genius of J.S. Bach” but I did wonder whether Nicolson was testing the devotion of the audience with then advertised program which I took to be an all-Bach keyboard recital. potentially 24 preludes & fugues, effectively 48 pieces of polyphony or fugality.

So it was something of a relief to hear from Nicolson  that other works would also be featured to put Bach in a historical context and/or show his influence on contemporary or later composers. The program comprised:

J.S. Bach
Prelude and Fugue No.5 in D, BWV874
Prelude and Fugue No. 3 in C-sharp, BWV872

Peter Phillips
Pavana Doloroso from Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, LXXX
Galiarda Dolorosa from Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, LXXXI

J.S. Bach
Prelude and Fugue No.7 in E-flat, BWV876
Prelude and Fugue No.2 in C minor, BWV871

Michelangelo Rossi
Settima toccata from Toccate e Correnti d’Intavolatura d’Organo e Cimbalo, 1657
Corrente seconda

J.S. Bach
Prelude and Fugue No.6 in D minor, BWV875
Prelude and Fugue No.1 in C, BWV870

Dieterich Buxtehude
Praeludium in G minor, BuxWV163

J.S. Bach
Prelude and Fugue No.4 in C-sharp minor, BWV873
Prelude and Fugue No.8 in D-sharp minor, BWV877

Louis Couperin
Prelude from MS Bauyn II f. 15v.
Grand Passacaille from MS Bauyn II f. 24v.

Not only did this introduce an welcome range of propositions into the music, it was ideal for a solo recital, in which the performer might too easily have become stereotyped. But Nicolson is a performer who defies stereotyping – as our recent profile of him (reproduced below) revealed.

This concert showed his gift for matching his performance style to the music he is playing. When performing with Anja and Zlatna,  Nicolson is very animated, even exuberant; when playing with an ensemble (no matter the size) he instinctively adjusts the dynamics so that his contribution does not overpower fellow performers.

With most of this concert, the music of Bach being central, we heard Donald Nicolson playing with his accustomed passion, but also taking a cerebral approach to the Preludes and Fugues of the Second Book. In his interview he had also mentioned that “the unmeasured preludes of Louis Couperin have challenged me greater than any other genre for harpsichord. So this was an opening to explore challenging repertoire with the objective of convincing an audience.”

As the editor of this site I have to confess that I had hoped a better qualified reviewer would be available to comment on the music (and the performance) at a higher level than I could reasonably attempt. But this is one of the drawbacks of having performers and teachers themselves reviewing their peers – they are in demand for those reasons as well. In fact, Nicolson himself is a case in point!

What I can confidently say is that the audience was delighted with the concept and the execution of this program. Through Nicolson’s scholarship and choice of works, we appreciated a new aspect of J.S.Bach’s compositions, particularly the complexity and even the variety of his polyphony. More than that, we again were drawn into the works through the performer’s enthusiasm for them. Less familiar examples of early music, such as Buxtehude’s Praeludium in G minor, were shown to be as rich in structure and exciting to hear as the music of the great master of the baroque – even if they had not shared the site credits!

About the performer:

Born in Wellington, New Zealand, and now a Melbourne-based harpsichordist, organist and pianist, Donald Nicolson is a prominent figure in performance and research of the music of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe, continuing to work on both sides of the Tasman as keyboardist for the ACO, MSO, SSO, and New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. He has directed numerous performances from the harpsichord including the Melbourne Symphony and Australian Chamber Orchestras, and teaches baroque practice at the University of Melbourne.

The congregation of the North Melbourne Uniting Church know him as a fine organist with a penchant for adding ornaments to the simplest of Wesleyan tunes!

What gave Donald the idea of being a professional harpsichordist?

 DN: Fate! I had just started my first year as a BMus Composition, and my Dad rescued an old abandoned harpsichord at an auction. It turns out it was a fairly unique instrument. There’s a full documentary put together by a colleague of mine back in NZ – James Gardner:

Donald undertook postgraduate studies at the Royal Conservatorium in The Hague, the Netherlands (NL) studying under Ton Koopman and Tini Mathot, focussing especially on the interpretation of the sixteenth-century English virginal music and the keyboard music of seventeenth-century France.

Why did he settle in Melbourne, rather than going back to NZ – or even more attractively perhaps, staying on in Europe?

 DN: I did head back to NZ initially following my studies. After four years in NL, I had learnt that the Early Music scene was already flooded, and sadly, a very unhappy environment for many earning a crust there. I had however, been introduced to many Australian colleagues – in particular both Laura (Vaughan) and Julia (Fredersdorff) who were very keen to get things started in Australia. 

The three are co-founders of Melbourne baroque trio, Latitude 37. The ensemble performs regularly at the Melbourne Recital Centre, other venues in Victoria, and undertook two Chamber Music New Zealand tours. Three CDs have been released with ABC Classics.

DN: When I moved here, I became very good friends with both Neal Peres da Costa (in Sydney) and of course, Erin Helyard, who is now based at the Uni of Melbourne. It is very comforting to know that the three of us – in a very small baroque environment – have the utmost respect for one another, and actually have a great time working together; Neal and I have both played in Pinchgut under Erin’s direction, and Erin and I put together a “duelling harpsichord” programme for the (now defunct) Hobart Baroque in 2014.

So, in terms of professional satisfaction, which does this hardworking harpsichordist prefer: solo gigs, his regular ensembles or gigs with orchestras?

DN: This is very pertinent at the moment, because it is in a lot of flux. Of  course, I love playing with Latitude 37, Anja & Zlatna and in the MSO – but for different reasons. Latitude 37 is the baroque group of choice, but Anja & Zlatna because we get to do such great folk music, and this is also especially challenging as I get to experiment with new and unusual techniques on the harpsichord. 

But I also love working in an orchestra – life is too short to miss out on the glorious colours of Ravel, the emotional drama of Schostakovich or the sheer joy in playing the accompanying soundtrack live to a screening of Back to the Future!

 Solo playing simply doesn’t get much attention from me, because there is always so much else on the agenda – but this upcoming performance of Bach has been a really solid project to sink my teeth into, and I realise now just how rewarding a solo recital can be. 

 Donald is a key member of Anja & Zlatna, an ensemble which examines the folk music of the Balkans and infuses it with the improvisational practices of the Baroque.  They have released two albums: Ruse Kose and Oj, Vesela Veselice. Some might see Anja & Zlatna as the odd one out in terms of performance style, although Anja (aka Aleksandra Acker) is Donald Nicolson’s partner in life as well as music. Anja had recently formed the group when the couple met, and both insisted Donald play a part in it. But surely the harpsichord is an odd instrument to combine with a gypsy type band?

DN: Definitely; and yet, not entirely – it is very closely related to the more conventional instruments, such as the hammered dulcimer, and the guitar. But much more Eastern instruments, such as the Turkish kaval are sound-wise very similar indeed. There is of course the pre-conceived association of the harpsichord as an instrument of aristocracy, and its sound seems very derivative of that – so that adds to the challenge. 

How much had this drawn him into Serbian culture? For example, with regular visits to Belgrade.

DN: We just got back a month ago from trip no. 3 to Belgrade!

So quite a lot – I picked up the Cyrillic alphabet fairly quickly – so I can read, but I don’t really know what I’m reading. On the other hand, Serbian culture is infused with great music, passionate people and excellent food, so it’s not really difficult to want to get involved in the culture. For me, though, Serbia does have a very fascinating (and largely unknown history); it was one of the outposts of the Western world and when it fell to the Turks in the 16th century the intermingling of traditions created an extremely unique culture – especially in the music!

As if this was not enough to occupy his time, currently Donald is completing his PhD (Musicology and Performance) at the University of Melbourne investigating societal, rhetorical and reflexive elements in the performance of the Unmeasured Preludes of Louis Couperin.

Some might think this choice of topic sounded quite dry and dusty, but not so this scholar!

DN: Haha, I think all PhD topics sound dry and dusty when one is looking from the outside in! Rhetoric these days has become associated with the concept of learning how to create a speech in high school according to ancient precepts which seem extremely irrelevant to us these days.

However, when one considers that the overriding objective of rhetoric is to persuade an audience through speaking well, I think the correlations become a bit more apparent. In the 16th & 17th centuries, music’s ability to arouse the emotions was a constant fascination for society, and the parallels to rhetoric were being drawn.

I was first attracted to the thesis based on the very basic idea of music as a speech (many previous analyses had followed this idea). And the unmeasured preludes of Louis Couperin have challenged me greater than any other genre for harpsichord. So this was an opening to explore challenging repertoire with the objective of convincing an audience.

 As it turns out, I’m now dealing with some fairly interesting concepts of self-presentation, self-identification. With a backdrop of Louis XIV, Aristotle and Descartes!

Never one to court boredom, as Donald Nicolson concentrates on intensive preparation for his Melbourne Recital Centre Salon performance on August 22, the couple (with cat) has recently moved house. How’s that going?


DN: Great! We love our place. It’s a bit hectic at the moment, while I’m finishing the thesis and Anja is mid-way through another term of university work, but at the end of the year we’re looking forward to having a bit more time to reorganise the bookshelves and re-decorate a bit. 

And the cat?

DN: Aki … although we call her Aki-Paki. I think there are definitely two ladies in charge of this place, although I’m not sure who is actual boss.  She is very affectionate, but only on her terms – approaching her for a cuddle is out of the question. Usually cuddle-time is at 2am, when she goes to sleep on my back.

She has been a great help during my thesis – often giving quiet advice to me from my lap while I’m working.