Rafael Puyana, acclaimed Colombian harpsichordist

Mr. Puyana attended New England Conservatory in Boston.
New York Times
Mr. Puyana attended New England Conservatory in Boston.

NEW YORK — Rafael Puyana, an internationally acclaimed Colombian harpsichordist who was among the last disciples of Wanda Landowska, died March 1 in Paris. He was 81.

Mr. Puyana, who made his home in Paris for many years, was praised by critics for his fleet fingers, propulsive rhythmic energy, innovative programming, and mastery of a vast swath of repertory spanning the 16th to the 20th centuries.

Above all, he was renowned for the range of tonal colors he could coax from his instrument — no mean feat considering that in the wrong hands, the harpsichord can sound like rain on a tin roof and not much else. (Unlike piano strings, which are struck by felt-covered hammers, the strings of a harpsichord are plucked by means of hooks.)


Mr. Puyana made his New York debut at Town Hall in 1957, in a program of Bach, Scarlatti, and the early English composers Martin Peerson, William Byrd, and John Bull.

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Reviewing the recital in The New York Times, Ross Parmenter praised Mr. Puyana’s ‘‘technical skill’’ and ‘‘wealth of poetic insights.’’

Rafael Antonio Lazaro Puyana Michelsen was born in Bogota. He began piano lessons at 6 and debuted in Bogota at 13.

About that time, he stumbled onto a bootleg recording of Landowska, the harpsichord’s great 20th-century emissary, and was besotted.

Mr. Puyana entered the New England Conservatory in Boston at 16 and later studied at the Hartt School of Music in Hartford. During this period, he gained access to a real harpsichord and his conversion was complete.


From 1951 until Landowska’s death in 1959, Mr. Puyana studied at her home in Lakeville, Conn. He later studied composition and harmony with Nadia Boulanger in Paris.

Mr. Puyana began his career as a harpsichordist playing on an immense, powerful instrument built in the 20th century to Landowska’s specifications, hauling it in a Buick station wagon to concert halls across North America.

Though Mr. Puyana considered the sound of most period harpsichords too effete for his purposes, he did eventually acquire and perform on a remarkable German instrument from the 18th century.

Made in 1740 by Hieronymus Albrecht Hass, it has three keyboards, each with a different timbre, giving it tonal possibilities afforded by few other antique harpsichords.

Mr. Puyana was well known for performances of contemporary music.


Twentieth-century composers who wrote for him included Stephen Dodgson, Alain Louvier, and Federico Mompou.

He leaves many recordings, which include works by Bach, Byrd, Scarlatti, Pachelbel, and Manuel de Falla. A new recording by Mr. Puyana of Bach’s six keyboard partitas is scheduled to be released this year by the Sanctus label.