Obituary: Rafael Puyana, harpsichordist

Charlotte Smith13th Mar 2013
Obituary: Rafael Puyana, harpsichordistRafael Puyana next to his three-manual harpsichord of 1740 by HA Hass (photo: SanCtuS)

Characterised by his sharply defined rhythms and a flair for instrumental colour, the Columbian harpsichordist Rafael Puyana has died aged 81. Since his concert debut at the New York Town Hall in 1957, Puyana continued to be an active performer on the concert platform and in the recording studio. His repertoire ranged from 16th-century keyboard works to music specifically composed for him by contemporary composers.

Born in Bogotá, Puyuana received piano lessons from his aunt from the age of six. When he was 16, he continued his studies at the New England Conservatory in Boston and the Hartt School in Hartford, Connecticut. He studied the harpsichord under the Polish-born Wanda Landowska – who was instrumental in the development of modern harpsichord technique – from 1951 until her death in 1959.

Puyana’s playing style was never mechanical, especially with regards to his imaginative use of registration and ornamentation. Although he was familiar with period-performing conventions, his dazzling treatment of the harpsichord often took the instrument to its limits. In his recordings of music by the Spanish composer Antonio Soler, Puyana played a modern harpsichord, displaying no hesitation in using its full tonal resources even though some of the tone colours and stop changes were not available in Soler’s time. However, Puyana's recordings, which gave such colour to the music of the relatively unknown Spanish composer, caused Soler to emerge as a major personality of his era.

Puyana also excelled in working with other musicians. In 1968, he won the Grand Prix du Disque with Maxence Larrieu for their recording of the complete Bach flute sonatas. Other collaborators included the violinists Yehudi Menuhin and David Oistrakh. He also worked with the guitarist John Williams to perform works specifically composed for the duo by Stephen Dodgson. Other composers who wrote music for him include Federico Mompou and Alain Louvier.

Outside performing, Puyana was a prolific teacher. In 1961 he began teaching summer courses in Santiago de Compostela. He taught regularly at Dartington Hall and the American Conservatory at Fontainebleau and Granada. He eventually settled in Paris, and in 1973 founded the Forum International du Clavecin there.

Puyana gave up performing in 2005 and spent the following years working with the SanCtuS label on several projects: his set of Bach’s Six Partitas recorded on his three-manual harpsichord of 1740 by Hieronymus Albrecht Hass is expected for release later this year.

Hazel Rowland

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