30 October 2013

CD REVIEW: TOCCATAS – Modern American Music for Harpsichord (Jory Vinikour, harpsichord; Sono Luminus DSL-92174)

TOCCATAS - Modern American Music for Harpsichord (Sono Luminus DSL-92174) SAMUEL ADLER (b. 1928), THOMAS BENJAMIN (b. 1940), STEPHEN BLUMBERG (b. 1962), HENRY COWELL (1897 – 1965), HAROLD MELTZER (b. 1966), PATRICIA MOREHEAD (b. 1940), ROBERT MOEVS (1920 – 2007), ROBERT MUCZYNSKI (1929 – 2010), MEL POWELL (1923 – 1998), and NED ROREM (b. 1923): Toccatas – Modern American Music for Harpsichord—Jory Vinikour, harpsichord [Recorded at Sono Luminus, Boyce, Virginia, 11 – 14 February 2013; Sono Luminus DSL-92174; 1CD + Blu-ray, 61:41; Available from Amazon, directly from Sono Luminus, and from major music retailers]

The catalyst that spurs innovation in most contemporary business methodologies is the element of discovery, and the same quality proves to be the impetus for many of the most meaningful musical experiences.  A great artist can of course lend enchantment and novelty to even the most hackneyed music, but the most memorable experiences in a music lover’s life are those rare intersections of great artists with music that demands the full deployment of their talents.  Toccatas is just such an experience: a recording of 20th- and 21st-Century music for harpsichord by American composers, this disc—another triumph of recording technology from Sono Luminus—reveals every shimmering facet of harpsichordist Jory Vinikour’s formidable technique, which is already familiar to listeners who appreciate the more frequently-encountered Baroque repertory with which the harpsichord is associated.  That any release featuring Mr. Vinikour will preserve superb musicianship is a foregone conclusion, but playing of the quality heard on Toccatas is not to be taken for granted.  Likewise, it is no surprise that Mr. Vinikour transforms the harpsichord into an instrument capable of flights of rhapsodic expressivity as impressive as the daunting feats of virtuosity that are its more typical fare.  What may well surprise many listeners is that the harpsichord has retained, not least because of the advocacy of artists of the caliber of Mr. Vinikour, to whom three of the selections recorded here are dedicated, an important presence in contemporary composers’ work for the concert hall.  Spanning nearly six decades of contemporary American music for the harpsichord, Toccatas exemplifies the harpsichord’s status not as a relic of a distant past but as a fascinatingly vital instrument of endless—and timeless—possibilities.

Likely developed in Renaissance Italy, the toccata dwells most prominently in the minds of 21st-Century listeners via the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, by whose genius the Italian models were refined into the paragons of mathematical purity that define the form in modern minds.  Those who approach Toccatas under the assumption that the disc expands Mr. Vinikour’s discography of the Baroque music of which he is a consummate master will receive a cultural jolt upon clicking or pressing Play.  Opening with Mel Powell’s 1953 Recitative and Toccata percossa, Mr. Vinikour transports both the toccata and the harpsichord from 18th-Century Europe to the gritty environs of American Music in the 20th Century.  Resounding with the din of Tin Pan Alley rather than the elegant tones of the Champs-Élysées, Powell’s music nods to a Gershwinesque integration of Jazz with the musical traditions of the mid-20th Century and is played by Mr. Vinikour with fantastic verve and rhythmic crispness, the ease of his command of Jazz stylings worthy of Herbie Hancock.  The Five Toccatas of Harold Meltzer—composed in 2005, dedicated to Mr. Vinikour, and here recorded for the first time—also benefit from the confident but never confining rhythmic vitality of Mr. Vinikour’s playing.  Building upon Bach’s distillation of the toccata form that he inherited from his south-of-the-Alps ancestors, Meltzer constructed toccatas that melded the Baroque with the Contemporary.  Entrusting these pieces to a performer as knowledgeable of the whole history of writing for the harpsichord as Mr. Vinikour ensured that the Five Toccatas would receive insightful, energetic performances, and Mr. Vinikour’s playing on this recording gloriously fulfills the composer’s objectives.

Also receiving world première recordings on Toccatas are Ned Rorem’s 1968 Spiders, Robert Muczynski’s 1982 Profiles, Robert Moevs’s 1986 Saraband, Thomas Benjamin’s 1988 Three Movements (‘Semi-Suite’), Stephen Blumberg’s 1991 Gyre (dedicated to Mr. Vinikour), and Patricia Morehead’s 2012 Tourbillon Galaxy (also dedicated to Mr. Vinikour).  Rorem, one of the great sages of contemporary American Classical Music, composed Spiders for Igor Kipnis, a pioneer of returning the harpsichord to prominence in the 20th Century.  A more worthy successor to Kipnis, in general and in the specific context of the tightly-wound music of Spiders, than Mr. Vinikour cannot be imagined.  Muczynski’s urbane musicality shines in his Profiles, and Mr. Vinikour plays the carefully-contrasted movements—Moderato and Allegro—with equal brilliance, drawing out the cleverness of the composer’s manipulations of both Jazz and Classical idioms.  Moevs’s Saraband utilizes another typical Baroque form, frequently employed by Händel in both instrumental and vocal works, but adapts it with thoroughly 20th-Century sensibilities.  Mr. Vinikour conjures a beautiful, ‘singing’ tone in the music’s lyrical passages and whirls through the formidable chromatic writing in a storm of unchallenged virtuosity.  Benjamin cites Bach, Händel, Hindemith, and Scott Joplin as the stylistic influences on his Semi-Suite—as unlikely a quartet as a composer might invoke.  In Mr. Vinikour’s performance, hints of the styles of Bach, Händel, Hindemith, and Joplin are evident, as is Benjamin’s unique voice.  Blumberg’s Gyre is, like many of Bach’s works for keyboard, an exercise in the mathematical workings of music, and Mr. Vinikour plays the piece with the glee of an expert mathematician sorting out a Fibonacci sequence.  The most recent piece featured on Toccatas, Morehead’s Tourbillon Galaxy is also one of the most technically daunting pieces that Mr. Vinikour plays in this recital, but his stylishness embraces both the underlying influence of the harpsichord music of Jean-Philippe Rameau and the starkly modern idiom of Morehead’s writing, the punishingly complex contrapuntal passages, their subjects contrasted at intervals of semiquavers, drawing from Mr. Vinikour wonderfully athletic playing.

The ‘Ostinato’ from Henry Cowell’s 1960 Set of Four receives a powerful performance from Mr. Vinikour, but it is Samuel Adler’s 1982 Sonata that is, in many ways, the most substantial piece on the disc.  Conceived as an homage to the keyboard masterworks of Bach and Domenico Scarlatti and a somewhat whimsical treatment of the sonorities of B♭and B♮, the German notations for which—B and H, respectively—form the initials of the musician for whom the Sonata was composed, the Sonata’s three movements (‘Fast, very rhythmic,’ ‘Slowly and expressively,’ and ‘Very fast’) engagingly fuse elements of Baroque music with discernibly 20th-Century tonalities.  The opening movement provides Mr. Vinikour with opportunities for the sort of barnstorming virtuosity at which he excels, and the energy of his playing compels surprisingly robust sounds from the harpsichord at his disposal, a superbly-crafted double-manual instrument in the French style by Thomas and Barbara Wolf.  The final movement is ‘very fast’ indeed, and Mr. Vinikour supplies a quicksilver performance.  ‘Expressively’ is an atypical description of music for the harpsichord but a very apt one for Mr. Vinikour’s playing.  18th-Century composers who preferred the greater expressive potential of the sustained tones of the piano never had the joy of hearing the songful expansiveness that Mr. Vinikour can coax from the harpsichord.  In the inner movement of Adler’s Sonata, the gorgeous, never exaggerated lyricism of which Mr. Vinikour is capable is displayed in its most eloquent incarnation, the subdued voices in the music revealed without any sacrifices of phrasing or rhythmic precision.

The pieces recorded on Toccatas offer a comprehensive view of the important if largely unheralded place of the harpsichord in contemporary Classical Music.  None of the other emblematic instruments of the Baroque has retained a foothold beyond the Early Music revival.  There are many reasons for the continuing presence of the harpsichord, not least among which is its greater suitability for the acoustical atmospheres of modern concert halls than instruments like the theorbo or viola da gamba, but there is also the fact that none of the other instruments of the High Baroque enjoys the charismatic advocacy of Jory Vinikour.  Contemporary composers rarely benefit from the quality of playing that virtuosi lavish on the music of the past: in that regard, the keyboard music of the 20th and 21st Centuries is no less a ‘specialist’ repertory than that of the Baroque.  The harpsichord music of Bach, Couperin, Händel, and Rameau has received many wonderful recordings, including standard-setting performances by Mr. Vinikour.  The vigor with which he plays the pieces on Toccatas dispels the notion that a concert harpsichordist is as much an archivist and musical archeologist as a performer, however.  Toccatas is a voyage of discovery, one which introduces heartening vistas of tonal worlds so close and yet so unfamiliar to many 21st-Century listeners, and Jory Vinikour proves the ideal guide along these craggy, captivating musical paths.