26 September 2013

CD REVIEW: Jean Françaix, Philip Glass, John Rutter – HARPSICHORD CONCERTOS (Christopher D. Lewis, harpsichord; NAXOS 8.573146)

Françaix, Glass, Rutter: HARPSICHORD CONCERTOS (NAXOS 8.573146)

JEAN FRANÇAIX (1912 – 1997): Concerto pour Clavecin et Ensemble Instrumental; PHILIP GLASS (b. 1937): Concerto for Harpsichord and Chamber Orchestra; JOHN RUTTER (b. 1945): Suite Antique—Christopher D. Lewis, harpsichord; John McMurtery, flute (Suite Antique); West Side Chamber Orchestra; Kevin Mallon [Recorded at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York, 10 – 12 September 2012; NAXOS 8.573146; 1CD, 64:02; Available from Amazon, ClassicsOnline, and all major music retailers]

Even at the time of the death of Johann Sebastian Bach in 1750, the harpsichord’s days as the keyboard instrument of choice were already numbered.  Though the instrument would retain prominence in certain musical circles and the less progressive of Europe’s aristocratic courts throughout the latter half of the 18th Century, the work of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven focused composers’ and audiences’ attentions on what were perceived as the greater expressive possibilities of the steadily-improving fortepiano.  As orchestras, concert halls, and the dimensions of the musical demands of composers’ scores grew larger, the harpsichord was consigned to the orchestra pits of the worlds opera houses and the few ensembles that quietly sought to perform Baroque repertory in a historically-appropriate manner.  In the early decades of the 20th Century, there was a revival of interest in the harpsichord, and the revival’s foremost evangelist was Wanda Landowska, whose preferred instrument was a specially-constructed Pleyel ‘Grand Modèle de Concert,’ a double-manual monstrosity fashioned after modern concert grand pianos, complete with pedals.  British musicians like Thurston Dart and George Malcolm reclaimed the lost art of continuo harpsichord playing, and the brilliant Igor Kipnis assumed the mantle of Landowska, his performances of an exceptionally extensive repertoire of music for the harpsichord doing much to close the gap between the playing styles of the glory days of the harpsichord and the 20th Century.  The instrument might be thought to have again performed a temporary disappearing act in the middle of the 20th Century, before the endeavors of scholarly-minded musicians such as Gustav Leonhardt and Bob van Asperen ushered in the Renaissance of historically-informed performance practices that continues—considerably refined—today, but the harpsichord merely went on sabbatical to pursue other musical interests.  Before his Led Zeppelin duties took him to all corners of the world, John Paul Jones was a busy studio musician whose harpsichord ‘licks’—not so different from period-appropriate continuo playing, really—contributed memorably to dozens of cuts by many of the iconic British Invasion bands, a sterling example of which is Herman’s Hermits’ 1968 single ‘Sleepy Joe.’  Hearing the works on this fascinating disc of 20th-Century Classical works for the harpsichord evokes contemplation of the full history of the instrument, from the powdered periwigs of the 17th and 18th Centuries to the present day.  Music, like Nature, is inherently cyclical, and while it would be simplistic to suggest that, as the adage goes, all that is old will be new again, the pieces on this disc and the unmistakably jubilant performances of them breathe vigorous new life into the harpsichord repertory and introduce a promising young master of the instrument, Christopher D. Lewis.

Composed in 1979 for Britain’s Cookham Festival, John Rutter’s Suite Antique was conceived by its composer as a companion to the fifth of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, which shared the programme in the concert at which the Suite was premièred.  The instrumentation complementing Bach’s in Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, the six movements of Rutter’s Suite—Prelude, Ostinato, Aria, Waltz, Chanson, and Rondeau—also explore forms familiar to Bach but from a distinctly 20th-Century perspective.  The virtuosic but infectiously exuberant flute part, occasionally reminiscent of the celebrated Minuet and Badinerie from Bach’s B-minor Orchestral Suite (BWV 1067), was played at the Suite’s première by Duke Dobing and is here played with jaunty technical brilliance by John McMurtery, whose high-profile engagements include service as the Principal Flautist of the Opera Orchestra of New York.  Born in Wales, harpsichordist Christopher D. Lewis has in his brief life already amassed an impressive array of academic and professional credentials.  University degrees are very admirable, but Mr. Lewis’s playing of Rutter’s Suite confirms that he possesses the trait that is at least as important to an effective musician as conservatory training but cannot be taught in any lecture hall or rehearsal room: charisma.  The first five movements of Suite Antique treat the harpsichord more as a continuo instrument than as a solo instrument on equal footing with the flute, but Mr. Lewis’s playing is quietly witty, engaging in dialogue with but never seeking to supplant the flute.  When, in the closing Rondeau, he has the opportunity to sally forth with spirited solo passages, Mr. Lewis rises to the occasion joyfully, playing with impeccable technique.  Granting Rutter’s Suite the same attention to detail that he would devote to the music of Bach but never taking his performance of it too seriously, Mr. Lewis plays with youthful pluckiness.  The buoyant playing of both Mr. Lewis and Mr. McMurtery sails like a jubilantly-decorated vessel on the shimmering sea of sound produced by Maestro Mallon and the West Side Chamber Orchestra.

Those who are acquainted with the music of Philip Glass primarily via his film scores or his mid-career operas like Einstein on the Beach, Akhnaten, and Satyagraha will meet in the Concerto for Harpsichord and Chamber Orchestra a very different composer, one whose homage to the Baroque traditions of Bach and Händel is filtered through apparent but unobtrusive avant garde sensibilities.  Completed and premièred in 2002, Glass’s Concerto is a score that bristles with energy and imagination, and, managing to be both unconventional and strangely inviting, it is a work that can appeal to those for whom Glass’s music is generally hard going.  Adopting a three-movement structure that nods to the Baroque concerti of Bach and his contemporaries, Glass balances vigorous, technically demanding passages for the harpsichord with whirlwinds of orchestral color.  Like the Baroque models that inspired Glass, his outer movements frame a lyrical second movement, and it is in this expansively-conceived inner movement that Mr. Lewis’s playing is at its most refined.  The long-sustained trills over repetitive figurations are vintage Glass but are here used to atypically expressive effect.  True melodic distinction rests with the orchestra, the strings having undulating melodic lines reminiscent of the mathematically-perfect melodies of Bach, particularly in the Concerto for Two Violins in D minor (BWV 1043), and the writing for the woodwinds gracefully scored.  The final movement makes greater technical demands on the harpsichordist, and Mr. Lewis delivers a performance of great strength that nonetheless seems to little test his capabilities.

The music of Jean Françaix has rapidly faded from memory in the years since the composer’s death in 1997, especially in English-speaking parts of the world, where it was never appreciated as widely as it deserved to be.  Though Françaix’s compositional idiom is generally less progressive than Glass’s, the Frenchman’s 1959 Concerto pour Clavecin et Ensemble Instrumental is in certain respects the work among those on this disc that is most touched by compositional techniques of the 20th Century.  Throughout the Concerto, but especially in the harmonically restless but beautiful Menuet, the woodwind writing owes much to the influence of Debussy.  Françaix’s unique Neoclassicism was obviously also influenced by Nadia Boulanger, with whom he studied and to whom the Concerto is dedicated.  Though never approaching his countryman’s skill for inventive orchestration, Françaix also evokes the sonic landscape of Ravel’s L’enfant et le sortilège in the Concerto’s Finale.  The five movements of Françaix’s Concerto—Toccata I, Toccata II, Andantino, Menuet, and Finale—correspond in structure to Bach’s familiar Suites, but the harpsichord writing compares more directly with the stilo galante of the keyboard concerti of the younger Johann Christian Bach.  As in Rutter’s Suite and Glass’s Concerto, Maestro Mallon and the West Side Chamber Orchestra are worthy collaborators for Mr. Lewis, the conductor’s considerable experience in Baroque music ideally qualifying him for mastering the challenges of the pseudo-Baroque forms employed in these works.  Of the composers featured on this disc, Françaix employed traditional structures with the greatest fidelity to Baroque models, and this interestingly highlights the modernism of the music.  Mr. Lewis plays superbly in both Toccatas, conveying the cleverness of the composer’s juxtaposition of keyboard effects with pizzicato playing in the strings.  Here, too, Mr. Lewis excels in the slow movement, his artful phrasing in the Andantino extending the melodic line with a breadth that mitigates the innate limitations of the harpsichord’s mechanism to sustain tones.  The Finale finds both Mr. Lewis and the West Side Chamber Orchestra players at their best, the interplay among instruments executed with careful balance but an abiding sense of enjoyment.

Indeed, it is an abiding sense of enjoyment that makes this disc such a sterling achievement.  The past four decades have produced an army of accomplished harpsichordists, many of whom labor in earnest without discerning the interpretive capacity of their chosen instrument.  The same might be said of composers, but the music on this disc reveals that the right circumstances can prompt contemporary composers to set aside self-conscious attempts at creating individual musical legacies and focus on allying their gifts with the examples of the past.  From a musicological perspective, Brahms did little in his music that was genuinely new: rather, he tilled the rich garden of Western music until he extracted the sturdiest seeds of Bach, Händel, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Weber, and Schumann, which he then cultivated anew in the fertile soil of his own imagination.  In short, he did not need to be radical in order to be remarkable.  None of the scores played on this disc is as radical as the notion of modern music for the harpsichord might suggest, but this is fine music that demands the best efforts of those musicians who play it.  Ably supported by John McMurtery, Kevin Mallon, and the West Side Chamber Orchestra, Christopher D. Lewis performs with unassailable technique and a pervasive spirit of adventure that makes this disc a pleasure to hear.  This is not gimmicky music for an antiquated instrument: this is wonderful, novel music for an instrument about which it seems likely that Christopher D. Lewis will teach listeners much in the years to come.