Obituary: Lucy Carolan, harpsichordist

Lucy Carolan, accomplished harpsichordist famed for her performances of Bach's Six Partitas. Picture: Contributed.
Lucy Carolan, accomplished harpsichordist famed for her performances of Bach's Six Partitas. Picture: Contributed.
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Born: 5 October, 1953, in Edinburgh. Died: 4 September, 2015, in Leith, aged 62.

Lucy Carolan performed throughout Britain and Europe as both soloist and continuo player on virginals, harpsichord, clavichord and fortepiano. Her intense understanding of early music, in fact, meant she could play music that ranged from the Dublin Virginal Manuscript to Michael Tippett. She was a frequent solo recitalist and gave acclaimed recitals and recorded the works of JS Bach. Her recording of Bach’s Six Partitas in 1998 was hailed by the critics as, “in the top flight… Her rhythm is lively and energetic, without being overly fast, and her tone and phrasing easily adopt the wide variety of forms and styles that make up these suites”.

Carolan was brought up in Edinburgh and studied the piano under Mary Moore. She demonstrated a formidable talent performing in public many demanding piano works and entered – usually winning with merit – piano competitions in the capital. She continued her music studies at Edinburgh University and became fascinated by the harpsichord and its extraordinary range as an instrument. It was a passion that was central to Carolan for the rest of her life. Such was her command of the harpsichord she was awarded a scholarship to study under Gustav Leonhardt in Amsterdam. He greatly influenced Carolan’s playing and encouraged her own individuality as a soloist.

In 1973 she carried out postgraduate studies at Clare College, Cambridge, and stayed on teaching and doing research. By the 1970s Carolan had become a harpsichordist of great distinction and gave many memorable concerts, both solo and ensemble, as well as making a number of fine recordings. In the following decade Carolan played with the group L’Ecole d’Orphée and she became an authority on early music, appearing at concerts with the Glasgow-based Scottish Early Music Consort – particularly memorable were the Glasgow performances in 1990 of a little known 17th century opera, La Vita Humana, by Marco Marazzoli. Carolan and John Kitchen were magnificent playing the harpsichord continuo under the conductor Warwick Edwards. The Glasgow performance was the first time the opera had been performed since the Rome premiere in 1656.

Carolan also continued her career as a teacher and in 1991 was appointed harpsichord tutor at the Birmingham Conservatoire and undertook undergraduate supervision work at Cambridge.

Kitchen and Carolan were closely involved with the Georgian Concert Society based at the St Cecilia’s Hall in Edinburgh. The group play both well-known and less familiar early music often performed at St Cecilia’s. With her commitment to early music Carolan was heard with the group in concerts and became a member of the committee. A memorable concert was with the Consort of Musicke in 1996 in which Carolan played the harpsichord with Nancy Hadden.

In 1986 Carolan gave two concerts at the Edinburgh Festival under the title Orpheus Caledonius. It was Music of the Enlightenment and Carolan accompanied the soprano Lorna Anderson on the harpsichord. The Scotsman critic wrote of Carolan’s “sensitive playing”. On the Fringe in 2002 she gave a concert – Harpsichords at St Cecilia’s Hall – and before playing a Mozart sonata Carolan said a few words on the complexities of pedalling while playing the harpsichord. One critic called her playing, “serene and bright”.

She took a great interest in the preservation and maintenance of The Russell and Mirrey Collections of Early Keyboard Instruments which are housed at St Cecilia’s. The collection includes keyboard instruments from the 16th century and on occasions Carolan played harpsichord on one of these historic instruments. In recent years her concert performances became limited with the onset of arthritis. She gave occasional recitals for friends, for example, at the house of Grant O’Brien and Johnny Bell.

Her recordings for the Signum label display her mastery and complete command of her instrument. She combined a lightness of touch with a strong sense of understanding of the music. The Six Partitas of JS Bach established her as a specialist in Bach as did her disc of the composer’s Italian Concerto. In 2012 she appeared on a disc titled The Early Music Collection which marked the 15th anniversary of the Signum label and Carolan appeared with other noted Early Music specialists such as Orchestra Of The Age Of Enlightenment. She also recorded with Kitchen for Delphian Records in 2003 the music by François Couperin on two of the harpsichords in the Russell Collection. One reviewer wrote the performers were “in total unity.”

Carolan returned to live in Edinburgh permanently but remained a private person. She gave private lessons and promoted early music throughout Scotland. Carolan attended the Sacred Heart Church and her eminence as a musician was much admired and respected by her colleagues. Apart from early music. Carolan had a passion for curry – and as hot as possible.