The Wonder of Understatement: Eva Legêne, Wieland Kuijken, and Arthur Haas

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Baroque Virtuosi at South Berkshire Concerts, Sunday, April 3, 2011

Jean-Marie Leclair, Sonata No. II in E Minor, for recorder and basso continuo
Marin Marais, Suite in E Minor from Seconde Livre de Pièces de Viole, for viola da gamba and continuo
Jean-Henry D’Anglebert, Pièces de Lully, for harpsichord solo
François Couperin Quatrième Concert from Concert Royaux, for recorder and basso continuo
Johann Sebastian Bach, Sonata in G Minor, S.1029, for viola da gamba and obbligato harpsichord
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Sonata No. 7 in A Minor, Wq132, for recorder and basso continuo
Johann Sebastian Bach, Trio Sonata in G Major, S. 1039, for recorder, viola da gamba and continuo

Wieland Kuijken, viola da gamba
Eva Legêne, recorder
Arthur Haas, harpsichord

Viola da Gambist, Wieland Kuijken

A Baroque recital in the Berkshires?  Suppressing one’s yawn might seem too much of an effort.  After all, it’s the fare that provides a steady musical backdrop to the region’s musical life before, during, and after summer festivities. Accordingly, our standards for Baroque performance rise as we demand Baroque specialists who play with great musicality and historical cognizance, and have something unique to offer. It’s a tough bill, and the amateurs of the past should remain in the private chambers.  We have been lucky, though, to have attracted some of the best Baroque specialists for Aston Magna, Berkshire Bach, Crescendo, the Boston Early Music Festival at the Mahaiwe, and, of course, Bard College at Simon’s Rock.

Nothing in recent Berkshire performance memory could have prepared me for the extraordinary elegance of today’s recital with renowned gambist Wieland Kuijken, recorder virtuoso Eva Legêne, and harpsichordist Arthur Hass.  Mr Kuijken, if you don’t know already, is a member of the renowned Belgian family of period musicians that includes violinist/conductor Sigiswald and flautist Barthold. Dutch-born Eva Legêne, a student of Frans Brüggen, was formally a professor of music at Indiana University and the Royal Danish Academy, and now lives and gives master classes in Germany. Arthur Haas, a student of Alan Curtis and Kenneth Gilbert, performs widely in Europe and teaches at Berkeley, Amherst, the Eastman School, and Stanford.

Recorder, Eva Legêne

The sheer delicacy and transparency of these performances was memorable. I was struck by the way in which this recital contrasted in style with other approaches to this genre that are perhaps more familiarly known and widely heard on media. No music seems more suitable for our century’s fickle sensibilities than that of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Every decade or two there is another iteration of a “performance revival” based on newly discovered and mysteriously conjured standards. At the same time, there are phases when historical trappings are shed. It’s very fashionable in 2011, say, to perform Bach on the piano, and to bear witness to schmaltzy Baroque string playing, e.g. as demonstrated in Eroica Trio’s recent Baroque album. Thirty years ago, a keyboardist sporting Bach on a piano (unless he was Gould or Richter) was considered to be pandering to uninformed listeners who would have preferred listening to Mozart or Schumann rather than to Bach. Yet, today we have Bach lovingly played and critically acclaimed by Simone Dinnerstein, Angela Hewitt, and Piotr Anderszewski. Recently, I heard Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s sleek Art of Fugue: a post-modern, post-neo-Baroque performance rivaling the much-beloved Helmut Walcha organ performance from the 1960s as my favorite interpretation.

Times have certainly changed. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Dutch led the way to a new approach for Baroque enthusiasts. Instruments were built to authentic historical specifications, and musicians soaking up the many historical “treatises” on performance practice put their research, well, to practice. The Dutch exemplars of the time included Frans Brüggen and Gustav Leonhardt. Following their teachings, generations of “historically informed” musicians spread the gospel of Baroque “authenticity.” The English followed suit with Christopher Hogwood and Trevor Pinnock. However, during the apparent reign of the historically-bent, other musicians were quick to point out what seemed overly parochial, stiff, and unmusical about some of the “rule-based” performances. Hence, a Reformation of sorts began to push the Baroque back into line with our nineteenth and twentieth-century ears and aesthetics.   In a final Hegelian synthesis, the masters of the first wave, as a compromise, have developed a newly spirited subjective approach that is warmer, looser, and has a greater emotional abandon.

Wieland Kuijken’s viola da gamba spoke with the utmost lyricism and intensity, but, above all, was utterly understated.  By playing softly (“gently,” he said) and without digging into the strings, Kuijken liberated the instrument’s vocal sheen without a hint of ugliness, noise, and scratching that can accompany more aggressive gamba players eager for a larger sound.  As well, his playing demonstrated an ample amount of vibrato considered taboo in authentic performances two decades earlier. His magical balance between a restrained bow and a limpid melodic line was demonstrated in the remarkable Suite in E Minor by Marin Marais. The work is structured like any other dance suite but is framed by two remarkable and poignant sections: a quietly mournful opening Prélude and a closing Tombeau in memory of Marais’ teacher, the mysteriously obscure “Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe.” The relationship between the flamboyant Marais and his recondite teacher was the subject of Alain Corneau’s 1991 film, Tous les matins du monde, which gave the viola da gamba some fleeting cinematic celebrity. The rhetoric of grief, embodied in Marais’ tribute, painted by Mr. Kuijken from a palate of expressive techniques, demonstrated such a palpable sense of loss as to almost bring tears to one’s eyes. Throughout, the application of notes inégales where pairs of equally metered notes are played in a slightly lop-sided way, was used so subtly as to never betray the discursive instinct of the melodic line. There were even hints of the romantic portamenti in which the finger ever-so-slightly glides up the string to a note; in other passages, sharply articulated sequences of double stops punctuated this amazing threnody. It’s a wonderful work, and played with such conviction, that one cannot but imagine it an ideal realization.

No less persuasive as masters of performance orthodoxy at the will of the human expression were Ms. Legêne and Mr. Haas. In Leclair’s Sonata No. II in E Minor for recorder, Mr. Kuijken’s warmth was matched by the full-bodied sound of the Ms. Legêne’s recorder line adorned with supple shakes and trills. Like Mr. Kuijken, Ms. Legêne sported a judicious blown vibrato. Especially attractive here, and in the Couperin later in the program, was her rich lower register. It’s a tough job to make the recorder sound round and luscious, but we heard much of that rare sonorous splendor today. Mr. Haas showed his fluid technique in D’Angelbert’s harpsichord arrangement of pieces of Lully.  Mastering French ornamentation takes years, but there is no substitute for sheer instinct in its application. Mr. Haas spins these floral adornments as to the manner born with utmost subtlety, taste, and spontaneity.

Harpsichordist Arthur Haas. Photo: Teddy Kaufman
Harpsichordist Arthur Haas. Photo: Teddy Kaufman

The first half, which featured French music, was balanced by Bach (J.S. and C.P.E.) in the second half. Two of Johann Sebastian’s gamba sonatas were featured, one in its original form, and another in an earlier version set as a true Trio Sonata. The great G Minor Sonata No. III, S.1029, performed as the late-afternoon sun poured through the stained glass windows, enticed me to scribble “God is here!” in my Moleskine notepad. In the Adagio, Mr. Kuijken’s long phrases, bowed the lightest breath of a touch, spun the most exquisite cantabile line. Carl Philipp Emanuel’s Sonata in A Minor for recorder and continuo was full of surprises in which Ms. Legêne eagerly indulged, not the least of which was a droll Vivace, a theme with two variations. The final Trio Sonata in G Major (S. 1039), originally written for two flutes and continuo, was heard today arranged for recorder, gamba, and continuo. It’s a wonderful piece, and Bach obviously enjoyed it both as an obbligato harpsichord and gamba piece, and even in a partial arrangement for organ.

However, the fragility of Baroque instruments was demonstrated both in this final work and earlier this afternoon. Baroque instruments, built according to the period specifications and material, can be high maintenance: you play, and then you pay. After the Trio’s first movement, which rests on a half cadence, one of Mr. Kuijken’s strings snapped. Luckily, it never affected the music, but we had a fifteen-minute hiatus while Mr. Kuijken repaired his instrument (he apologized for leaving us on the “dominant”). His absence from stage gave us a rare opportunity for Mr. Haas and Ms. Legêne to improvise some stand-up Baroque instrument comedy. My favorite was Mr. Haas’s story of a colleague who got frequent flyer miles for his gamba which required its own seat as “Mr. Vasco da Gamba.” Mr. Haas’s harpsichord played a prank on him earlier by falling out tune in the program’s first half, requiring a half-hour retuning during intermission.

Such is the price period performers pay in pampering these high-born dainty creatures. It was a price that all of us were willing to bear, as it gave all of us a glimpse of how emotionally satisfying this rarified music can be.

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