14 November 2012

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Harpsichord Recital by Jory Vinikour–Ebenezer Lutheran Church, Columbia, SC; 2 November 2012

Eric Herz Harpsichord at Ebenezer Lutheran Chapel - Columbia, SC

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750), Georg Friedrich Händel (1685 – 1759), Jean Philippe Rameau (1683 – 1764): Music for Harpsichord—Jory Vinikour, harpsichord [performed on the Eric Herz harpsichord at Ebenezer Lutheran Chapel, Columbia, SC; Friday, 2 November 2012]

One of the rarest but most thrilling occasions in Music is when a performance, by some combination of magical factors, manages to be a genuine event.  The recital on Friday, November 2, by world-renowned harpsichordist Jory Vinikour in the Chapel of Columbia’s Ebenezer Lutheran Church was such an occasion: closing a ‘Month of Harpsichord’ launched in celebration of the gift by Dick and Kathy Coolidge of a beautiful instrument by German-born harpsichord builder Eric Herz, the recital exuberantly achieved the goal of exploring all of the musical possibilities of the instrument, which was improved by renowned harpsichord maker—and South Carolina resident—Richard Kingston.  The acquisition of an instrument by an important maker, lovingly reconstituted by one of the greatest masters in his field, is a remarkable milestone in the musical life of a congregation, and a wonderful aspect of the recital was the presence of an audience filled with congregants excited about the treasure acquired by their church and eager to hear the instrument come to life at the touch of a celebrated musical magician.

Opening the recital with Bach’s Toccata in D Major (BWV 912), Mr. Vinikour quickly proved that it would indeed be a magical evening.  Probably composed in 1707 or 1708 but not published until 1843, the D-Major Toccata is typical of the music that Bach composed during his tenure as organist at Divi Blasii in Mülhausen, a time that included his marriage to his first wife and the births of several of his children.  The keyboard music of Bach invariably requires complete technical mastery and rhythmic precision, and Mr. Vinikour delivered both of these qualities with imperturbable elegance, shaping the transitions of tempo and contrapuntal elements of the music with an almost rhapsodic sense of adventure that nonetheless maintained an appropriate adherence to Bach’s complex metrical structure.  Beginning a recital with Bach can be challenging, for both the player and for his audience, but Mr. Vinikour’s choice of the D-Major Toccata was an apt introduction both to the intricacies of his artistry and to the sonic possibilities of the harpsichord, enhanced by the lovely natural acoustic of the Chapel.

Harpsichordist Jory Vinikour [Photo by Kobie van Rensburg, 2008]

Just as in his operas, Georg Friedrich Händel employed many of the musical forms known to him in his music for solo keyboard, and his G-minor Suite (HWV 432) for harpsichord exploits these forms to draw emotional contrasts through sound.  It was perhaps slightly ironic, then, that Mr. Vinikour’s appearance in Columbia came during a brief break in a Vlaamse Opera production of Händel’s Agrippina in which he was participating.  One of the most noted hallmarks of Mr. Vinikour’s playing is his ability to render the harpsichord an engaging, emotionally stimulating instrument, one which almost miraculously mirrors the warmth of the human voice.  In fact, one member of the audience remarked on her surprise at the dramatic immediacy of the sounds produced by Mr. Vinikour’s playing, which were contrary to her notion of the ‘tinny’ sounds often heard from harpsichords.  Händel’s G-minor Suite is representative of the composer’s work at its most inspired, and the composer’s inspiration drew from Mr. Vinikour inspired playing.  Mr. Vinikour’s virtuosity shone brilliantly in the Ouverture, Allegro, and closing Passacaglia, and the poise that he brought to the central Sarabande was profoundly touching.  Stylistically, Mr. Vinikour’s playing exhibited an attention to phrasing that revealed the innate eloquence of Händel’s music.

The selections from Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Pièces de clavecin seemed tailor-made to highlight the possibilities of the harpsichord at hand.  Mr. Vinikour charmingly evoked birdsong in ‘Le Rappel des Oiseaux’ and the Arcadian ambiance of ‘Musette en rondeau.’  ‘Rigaudons,’ ‘Tambourin,’ ‘L’Entretien des Muses,’ and ‘Les Tourbillons’ received from Mr. Vinikour performances that fully realized the individual characters of each movement but integrated each piece into a satisfying musical whole.  Most delightful for the audience was Mr. Vinikour’s performance of ‘Les Cyclopes,’ a dazzling display of easy virtuosity that filled the chapel with cascades of sound and provoked expressions of awe.

The enthusiasm of the audience was rewarded with two encores, the first of which was Domenico Scarlatti’s Sonata in D Major (K. 96), a bracingly martial piece that received a performance fantastically attuned to its implicit drumbeats.  The second encore was François Couperin’s intriguing ‘Les Barricades mistérieuses’ from the VIth Ordre de Clavecin.  Music historians have not yet determined to which ‘mysterious barricades’ the title refers, with theories ranging from musical barriers to more salacious impediments, but there was no questioning the relish with which Mr. Vinikour played the piece.  It was a fittingly barnstorming finale to a tremendously impressive recital.

Few things in music are more refreshing than attending a performance that entertains and enlightens the audience in equal measures, and Jory Vinikour’s performance in Columbia was just such a performance.  Hearing a well-built, wonderfully-improved harpsichord played by a true master of the instrument was an additional gift to the congregation of Ebenezer Lutheran Church, one which was not taken for granted by those who were fortunate enough to enjoy it.  Hearing Mr. Vinikour’s vibrant, exhilarating playing brought to mind the recollection that many of the Rock ‘n Roll artists of the 1960s and 1970s employed harpsichords on their studio albums.  This perhaps seems a bizarre juxtaposition with a recital of music by Bach, Händel, Rameau, Scarlatti, and Couperin, but it is likely that anyone who attended this performance would agree that it was a recital that rocked.

Ebenezer Lutheran Chapel [Photo by Bill Fitzpatrick, 2012]

The author’s heartfelt gratitude is extended to the Ebenezer Lutheran congregation, and especially to Cantor Thomas White, for their incredible kindness and hospitality.

02 November 2012

CD REVIEW: Johannes Brahms—SERENADES (Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, N. McGegan; PBP-05)

Johannes Brahms: SERENADES (Philharmonia Baroque, Nicholas McGegan; PBP-05)
JOHANNES BRAHMS (1833 – 1897): Serenade No. 1 in D Major, Op. 11 & Serenade No. 2 in A Major, Op. 16; Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra; Nicholas McGegan [recorded ‘live’ in First Congregational Church, Berkeley, California, 13 – 14 February 2010 (Serenade No. 1) and 10 – 11 March 2012 (Serenade No. 2); PBP-05]

With a discography containing performances conducted by such baton-wielding luminaries as Sir Adrian Boult, István Kertész, Sir Charles Mackerras, and Kurt Masur, Johannes Brahms’s beautiful but seldom-heard Serenades have been fortunate on records.  Perhaps this good fortune can be attributed at least in part to the curiosity which naturally extends to lesser-known works of great composers.  Sadly, this curiosity leads to disappointment in many cases, as the attentive listener finds that oblivion is merited.  That emphatically is not true of Brahms’s Serenades, which are works of considerable accomplishment that reveal their composer on superb form.  There is evidence in both Serenades of the combination of majesty and wistfulness that is unique to Brahms, and a listener expecting ‘Brahms in miniature’ will be surprised by these pieces.  The Serenades also are not studies in symphonic form, of which Brahms was a celebrated master: harkening back to the sterling examples of Mozart’s Serenades, these are works that are remarkably well-crafted, significant products of a master composer in the ascendant.  Given a recording of great sound quality despite ‘live’ recording conditions—solely in terms of avoidance of noises off, this disc is an incredible achievement—by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra’s house label, this is a very important contribution to the Brahms catalogue.

Perhaps surprisingly, this is not the first recording of the Brahms Serenades to employ ‘period’ instruments: Capella Augustina recorded the Serenades several years ago with Andreas Spering conducting.  That was an admirable performance, but the present recording is superior in every way, not least in the immediacy of the sound.  Church sanctuaries can be tremendously difficult recording venues, but every challenge is met and conquered in this recording.  The Philharmonia Baroque are renowned among lovers of Baroque music for their en masse virtuosity and the refined elegance of their ensemble playing.  Under Nicholas McGegan’s direction, the orchestra have thrilled audiences throughout the world and have made fantastic recordings, especially of Händel repertory, featuring some of America’s finest singers, perhaps most memorably the late mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, an impeccable artist whose recorded legacy would likely otherwise be much less.  Not unlike Andreas Spering and Marc Minkowski, Maestro McGegan has taken his orchestra into later repertory than is common territory for ‘period’ instrument bands.  There are ample precedents for this in the concert hall, as well as on records, where there are enjoyable ‘period’ performances of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor (conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras), Verdi’s Falstaff (conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner), and even Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer (conducted by Bruno Weil), but in the music of Brahms one expects the bigger-boned sounds of a Berliner Philharmoniker or Gewandhausorchester.  The players of the Philharmonia Baroque offer evidence on this recording that ‘period’ instruments are in no way inhibited in terms of tonal amplitude and beauty.  These are, in fact, exceptionally beautifully-played performances, particularly in the most grandiose moments of both Serenades, when the honed ensemble playing of the orchestra is on full display.  Every section of the orchestra plays fantastically, but words of special praise are due to the woodwind players, who produce consistently beguiling sounds.

As in many of Brahms’s best works, there are moments of whimsy among the deeper sentiments in the Serenades, and Maestro McGegan succeeds in bringing an appropriate sparkle to these moments.  Brisk tempi are taken quickly, as is generally the case in period-appropriate performances of earlier repertory, in which it is presumed that tempi were generally faster than became traditional—which is not necessarily to say pedantic—after the development of the modern, mechanical metronome in 1814, and this highlights the humor in the high-spirited movements of the Serenades.  It is in the slower movements, however, that Maestro McGegan’s conducting is most revelatory.  Much has been written on the supposition that composers of the Baroque and Classical eras did not intend for slow tempo markings—those like adagio, grave, and largo—to be played in the dirge-like manners that became accepted practice in the 19th and early 20th Centuries, as orchestras grew in size.  A veritable host of factors contributed to this shift in interpretation of tempo markings: larger concert venues inevitably produced vastly different acoustics from those familiar to composers of earlier generations, there was a gradually increased use of metal strings, metal flutes supplanted the softer wooden instruments, and so on.  Arguably, one of the most significant sources for a re-evaluation of tempi was the decreased articulation of tone possible in the broader acoustics of larger opera houses and concert halls, resulting in slower tempi that allowed greater shaping of tone in expanded soundspaces.  The most insightful conductors of modern ‘period’ instrument ensembles have shown that phrasing is the most important consideration in filling a space with sound, however, and Maestro McGegan’s performances have confirmed that he is among these finest conductors with specialties in period-appropriate practice.  A truly arresting aspect of this recording is the way in which an attention to proper tempi and tonal blending born of intimate work with the music of Händel brings to Brahms’s Serenades performances that make the pieces sound new and, most significantly, larger rather than smaller than a listener might have thought them to be.  Maestro McGegan presides over performances that dispel any notions that the Serenades are mere curiosities: these pieces are vintage Brahms and are played as such.

Brahms was branded a traditionalist because of his strict adherence to the musical forms that he inherited from his cultural ancestors.  Utilizing techniques like sonata form, he was to many musical minds of the 19th Century the anti-Wagner.  It is apparent from his music that Brahms found convention liberating, though: freed from the necessity of trailblazing, he applied his imagination to musical development within his chosen forms.  The Serenades are not groundbreaking pieces, but they are exciting, beautiful pieces that nod to the past of Haydn and Mozart and anticipate the rise of Mahler on a distant horizon.  Nicholas McGegan and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra gave performances of the Serenades that crackle with the excitement of great music of any era and that genuinely deserved to be recorded for posterity.  Of how many performances—of any orchestral repertory—during the past thirty years can that honestly be said?