Plectra, Plectra: Harpsichord Festival at Simon’s Rock, September 26, 2009

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Harpsichordists: (counter-clockwise from upper left) Christine Gevert, Larry Wallach, William Carragan, Mariken Palmboom
Harpsichordists: (counter-clockwise from upper left) Christine Gevert, Larry Wallach, William Carragan, Mariken Palmboom

Concertos for multiple harpsichords, strings, and solo harpsichord works by
J. S. Bach, Christian Erbach, Johann Jakob Froberger, Georg Böhm, and Dietrich Buxtehude

Soloists: William Carragan, Christine Gevert, Mariken Palmboom, Larry Wallach

Ensemble: Lisa Brooke, Karen Burciaga, violins; Yi-Ping Yang, viola; Anne Legêne, cello; Jane Hershey, violone; Dan Foster, organ

Concertos for Four Harpsichords and Strings: J.S. Bach, Concerto in A-Minor, S.1065 (after Vivaldi opus 3 no. 10); Antonio Vivaldi, Concerto in D-Major (opus 3 no. 1), arranged by William Carragan.

Concertos for Two Harpsichords and Strings: J.S. Bach Concerto in C-Major S.1061; Antonio Vivaldi, Concerto in G-Minor (opus 3, no. 8), arranged by William Carragan

Works for Solo Harpsichord: Christan Erbach, Toccata primo tuono; Johann Jakob Froberger, Toccata XII; Georg Böhm, Capriccio in D-Major; Dietrich Buxtehude, Chorale Partita, “Auf meinem lieben Gott” BuxWV 179.

This year, the fiftieth anniversary of Wanda Landowska’s death, and the one hundred thirtieth anniversary of her birth, while celebrated with some new recordings of her uniquely affecting keyboard playing, has passed by the attention of most music lovers. In Lakeville, Connecticut, though, where Landowska spent the last years of her life, 1949 and 1950, harpsichordist/organist/choral director Christine Gevert has insured that her musical legacy should receive ample notice. From May through October, Gevert’s Crescendo Ensemble has offered concerts, film, and lectures celebrating Landowska’s achievements. As part of this commemorative festival comes this remarkable celebration of the harpsichord, in singular and in plural. It is largely Landowska’s due that the harpsichord was revivified in the twentieth century for early music performance; as well, its reappearance, and Landowska’s championing recitals, offered modern composers inspiration for a wave of newly composed works for this ancient instrument. The careers of artists like Ralph Kirkpatrick, Sylvia Marlowe, and Fernando Valenti would have been impossible without the earlier groundwork laid by Landowska. Even when latter day harpsichordists differ from Landowska’s approach, they have listened closely to her recorded oeuvre. Today, while harpsichords regularly appear in continuo ensembles accompanying Baroque music, it is still uncommon to see solo recitals programmed, let alone concerts featuring two, three, and four harpsichords. The sensational four-harpsichord concerto by Bach, S.1065, based on one of Antonio Vivaldi’s concertos from L’estro Armonico, was, until recently a genre of one. Scholar and harpsichordist William Carragan, who balances such seemingly unlikely interests as baroque keyboard music and Anton Bruckner, has given us a companion to the Bach foursome concerto. A companion it is, in more ways than one. Carragan, following Bach’s rubric, started with a Vivaldi four-violin concerto from the same collection (opus 3 no. 1), assigned a violin part to each keyboard, and provided freshly composed harmonic, melodic, and textual support. Carragan also supplied a two-harpsichord arrangement from the same collection (opus 3 no. 8). A model for this arrangement already exists by Bach, in a transcription for organ solo (S.593). Bach’s own original concerto (S.1061) was added to the mix: one of three such specimens for two harpsichords and strings – a fascinating work that is, inexplicably, the least known of the set.

Each harpsichord on stage was a single-manual instrument, built by Karl Dudash of Norfolk, Connecticut. His instruments have a miraculous clarity and warmth with a minimum of plucking noise. Small in size, they can be heard without acoustic amplification in a large hall. Tone color is varied by a “flared-register” construction, in which strings in different registers have differing “plucking points.”

It’s difficult to describe the effervescence of Bach’s four-harpsichord concerto when heard live. If heard at all, it’s on CD, since the practicality of corralling four harpsichords on stage is daunting. While these instruments are not capable of dynamics to the touch, one would imagine that the terracing of dynamics from four such simultaneous instruments would have a dramatic “loud” effect. Acoustically, though, it doesn’t happen. Bach understood this, and allowed the aural space to be filled with the florid glitter of plucked strings, shifting roles, and trading themes. The sense of mechanism is never far away; brisk melodies rise and fall from the undulating thrum of hundreds of plectra: the correlative of Baroque decoration and divine filigree realized as music. To counterbalance, unabashed sequences of fifths and dominant sevenths impart a febrile sensuality at odds with the seeming immutability of the instruments’ restrictions. It was a treat to sit in the balcony, admiring the hand-decorated soundboards, and imagining how the flowers and birds were somehow insinuated with the brocades of music heard this evening.

However decorative the two four-harpsichord concertos were, it was in the solo works that we heard the passionate voice of these instruments. Unlike the way classical forms would bulge and splinter from Romanticism’s florescence, the harpsichord literature seemed to go the other way. Works from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries could seem boundless in form, lavish in virtuosic figuration, and stunningly piquant harmonically. Only later would the harpsichord stray from this early Romanticism, and, in doing so, acquire its refined and dainty stereotype. Each artist this evening gave us a look at the harpsichord’s more provocative side. First, Christine Gevert performed a work by an obscure thirteen-year-old late Renaissance composer, Christian Erbach. With rhetorical splashes of broken chords, arpeggios, lingering dissonances, and an improvisational flow, works like those of Erbach lend the harpsichord a very Dionysian aspect. While I’m sure Erbach’s music was virtually unknown to much of the audience, I’m sure many are now Googling for recordings, given Ms Gevert’s convincing and emotive performance. Mariken Palmboom, an internationally acclaimed harpsichordist, performed a Toccata by Johann Jakob Froberger – a work I first heard performed by Gustav Leonhardt in the 1970s. Palmboom, whose training is linked to the great Netherlands harpsichordists of the past few decades, gave us an introspective and colorful reading. The next two solos featured composers who strongly influenced the young J.S. Bach: Georg Böhm and Dietrich Buxtehude. Larry Wallach delighted us with a performance of Böhm’s Capriccio in D-major, a set of fugal variations on a jovial folk-like melody. While some might argue that German Baroque humor is at best oxymoronic, Böhm tosses in a brilliant and witty triplet-laden fugue after an apparent final cadence. As a final solo offering, Mr Carragan performed a chorale partita by Dietrich Buxtehude, Auf meinem lieben Gott – a set of five variations which presents a Lutheran chorale as the melodic basis of a Baroque dance suite (allemande, double, sarabande, courante, and a final gigue). It’s a brief but graceful work, heard more commonly on the organ, but far more convincingly, in Mr Carragan’s hands, on the harpsichord. Bach was to use this hymn, also known as Wo soll ich fliehen hin, in several of his cantatas, and as the second number of the famous Schübler chorales.

The four harpsichord works notwithstanding, perhaps the most eloquent work of the evening was the Bach double concerto. The strings take a rest during the Adagio ovvero Largo, and Bach spins one of his most eloquent keyboard duets, as tender and affecting as any in his concertos. A bouyant fuga follows without pause. Sly Bach keeps the strings tacit, letting us believe, for sixteen measures, that we’re still listening to an intimate duet. Of course, scholars remind us that this concerto was originally conceived as a two-harpsichord duet. But one is willing to accept Bach as Puck, even if a German Baroque one.

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