13 July 2017

CD REVIEW: Back to the Future — Journeys through the History of the Harpsichord guided by Catalina Vicens (Carpe Diem Records CD-16312) and Christopher D. Lewis (Naxos 8.559843)

CD REVIEW: Harpsichord Journeys by Catalina Vicens (Carpe Diem Records CD-16312) and Christopher D. Lewis (Naxos 8.559843)[1] ANTONIO DE CABEZÓN (circa 1510 – 1566), VINCENZO CAPIROLA (1474 – after 1548), MARCHETTO CARA (circa 1465 – 1525), MARCO ANTONIO CAVAZZONI (circa 1490 – circa 1560), JOAN AMBROSIO DALZA (fl. 1508), FABRIZIO DENTICE (circa 1539 – 1581), JOSQUIN DESPREZ (circa 1452 – 1518), JACOPO FOGLIANO (1468 – 1548), PHILIPPE DE MONTE (1521 – 1603), RANIER (fl. early 16th Century), CLAUDIN DE SERMISY (circa 1490 – 1562), BARTOLOMEO TROMBONCINO (1470 – after 1534), ANTONIO VALENTE (circa 1520 – 1580), CLAUDIO VEGGIO (circa 1510 – after 1543), and ADRIAN WILLAERT (circa 1490 – 1562): Il Cembalo di Partenope – A Renaissance musical tale featuring music in and around 16th-Century NaplesCatalina Vicens, harpsichord [Recorded in the National Music Museum, Vermillion, South Dakota, USA, during May 2015; Carpe Diem Records CD-16312; 1 CD, 66:35; Available from Carpe Diem Records, Naxos Direct, Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

[2] VINCENT PERSICHETTI (1915 – 1987): Harpsichord Sonatas and SerenadeChristopher D. Lewis, harpsichord [Recorded at Belvedere Estate, Belvedere, California, USA, 14 – 18 March 2016; Naxos 8.559843; 1 CD, 65:16; Available from Naxos Direct, Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

In some glorious hour in human history, the communications among people and their societies were magnificently altered by the harnessing of music. In the play of wind among trees, the gurgling flow of water, and the innumerable melodies of nature, the earth has always resounded with music, but with man’s contrived mimicry of nature’s voices was born a diversion so perfect that not even centuries of constant change have spoiled it. As music’s path has wound through countless cultures, an astounding diversity of styles and traditions has been accumulated—and with them an ever-expanding arsenal of instruments echoing the sounds emerging from the minds of the custodians of music’s evolution.

In 1397, a writer in Padova recorded an innovation that was destined to hew from the bedrock of musical invention a path that, 620 years after that fateful mention of the development of the ‘clavicembalum,’ continues to be extended into new artistic territory. Likely devised as an amalgamation of the organ and the Medieval psaltery, the harpsichord was by the end of the Fifteenth Century familiar in various forms throughout Western Europe. In guises that would be recognized by Twenty-First-Century observers, the harpsichord became the prevalent keyboard instrument of the Baroque, prized in both solo and continuo capacities until it was supplanted in the second half of the Eighteenth Century by prototypes of the modern piano. Biding its time in opera houses’ orchestra pits and private collections until pioneering artists like Wanda Landowska and Igor Kipnis returned it to concert halls and recording studios, the harpsichord is now espoused by some of the Twenty-First Century’s most gifted composers and musicians. Approaching the instrument from vastly different periods in its history, two of today’s most enterprising artists guide listeners through enchanting treks into neglected niches of the harpsichord’s bounteous repertory via discs as personal as they are accomplished. It is not only in All That Jazz that ‘everything old is new again’: music, too, is cyclical, and these releases reaffirm that so much of the future can be found in the past by those willing to seek it.

Before the advent of motion pictures with sound, films were often accompanied by live music, utilizing music’s power to conjure and complement visual imagery. The efficacy of verbal storytelling is challenged by the limitations of language, but music transcends the necessity of understanding words. Among today’s exponents of early repertory for the harpsichord, there is no more talented a musical raconteuse than Chilean harpsichordist Catalina Vicens, and with Il Cembalo di Partenope she not only weaves a kaleidoscopic tapestry with musical threads but creates her own context for the chosen music in an imaginatively-conceived and thoughtfully-written ‘Renaissance tale,’ both printed in the accompanying liner notes and available for download as an audio book narrated by Vicens’s own melodious voice. Masterfully recorded by Carpe Diem Records in one of America’s foremost artistic treasures, the National Music Museum on the Vermillion campus of the University of South Dakota, the vehicle for Vicens’s musical pilgrimage to Sixteenth-Century Naples is the world’s oldest known harpsichord still in playable condition. Any suspicions of pedantry roused by this fact are wholly unfounded: a wealth of scholarship contributed to the making of this disc, of course, but Vicens’s playing takes the listener on a visceral adventure that blows dusty academia aside with a gale of timeless artistic prescience.

Little is known about many of the composers whose music is included on Il Cembalo di Partenope, but the acquaintance provided by Vicens’s playing puts to rest any doubts about the skills possessed by these little-remembered names and the quality of their work. Launching her voyage with a crisply-phrased account of Antonio Valente’s Fantasia del primo tono, published in 1576, this brilliantly expressive artist exploits the unique sound of the instrument, a Neapolitan model by an unidentified maker that likely dates from the first quarter of the Sixteenth Century, to evoke aural souvenirs of late-Renaissance Naples. Vincenzo Capirola’s ‘La villanella,’ first printed in 1517, is played with the grace of a dove soaring above the Duomo di San Gennaro. Vicens revisits the music of Valente with his Gagliarda napolitana, beguilingly done, and she explores the Spanish influence in Naples, a viceroyalty of the Aragonese House of Trastámara during the first half of the Sixteenth Century, with an elegant traversal of Antonio de Cabezón’s Obra sobre cantus firmus. One of his era’s preeminent tunesmiths, Bartolomeo Tromboncino anticipated the work of Francesco Cavalli in music of melodic fecundity. Vicens delivers his ‘Amor quando fioriva’ with hypnotic charm, and she finds in the thematic material of the enigmatic Ranier’s ‘Me lassera tu mo’ an entrance into a mysterious world of complex, startlingly modern emotions. Her period-appropriate but unexaggeratedly theatrical performances mine the lodes of sentimental significance in Joan Ambrosia Dalza’s Calata ala spagnola and Tromboncino’s ‘Poi che volse,’ making each piece a thought-provoking tableau within her panorama of Neapolitan life.

Regarding Vicens’s prevailing concept as a window opened to the extraordinary vistas of an ordinary day in a vibrant city, morning gives way to afternoon in the harpsichordist’s touchingly sincere performance of Dalza’s Pavana alla ferrarese. The blazing Neapolitan sun reaches its zenith in the sonic skies of Jacopo Fogliano’s Ricerchare and Marchetto Cara’s ‘Cantai mentre nel core,’ both presented with characteristic intensity that never threatens to obstruct appreciation of the music’s historical provenance. Perhaps also by Cara, ‘Per dolor mi bagno el viso’ receives from Vicens a traversal of understated grandeur that contrasts with the almost secretive intimacy of her playing of Tromboncino’s ‘Stavasi amor’ and ‘Che farala che dirala.’ The singular sonorities of Marco Antonio Cavazzoni’s ‘Recercada di mã ca’ are spellbinding as realized by Vicens, whose articulations of rhythmic and harmonic patterns awaken in the instrument beneath her fingers the distant voices not only of Luigi Rossi, Monteverdi, and Cavalli but also those of Stravinsky, Tippett, and Glass. Though precious little information about his life exists, the importance of Josquin Desprez’s music in the ongoing maturation of Western polyphony cannot be overstated. Vicens’s playing of Cavazzoni’s treatment of Desprez’s ‘Plus ne regres’ assumes a pivotal position in the narrative of Il Cembalo di Partenope: here, the sun sets on the horizon of the musician’s Neapolitan landscape, heralding the transitions to night and new ages in musical expression.

With her playing of ‘Vi’ recercada,’ attributed to Claudio Veggio, Vicens affectionately guides her tale towards its conclusion, caressing the music with a mother’s tenderness. Emotional honesty is also at the core of her account of Cavazzoni’s ‘Madame vous aves,’ her focus on elucidating the composer’s ingenuity enhanced by the lightness of her touch. Veggio’s own Recercada per b quadro and his setting of Claudin de Sermisy’s ‘Tant que vivray’ draw from Vicens tempests of artistic temperament that metamorphose the harpsichord into a vessel that whisks the listener to destinations beyond the physical senses’ perceptive capabilities. What she achieves within the scope of historical accuracy with Fabrizio Dentice’s Volta de spagna and Valente’s retooling of Philippe de Monte’s ‘Sortemplus disminuita’ is remarkable, this centuries-old music sounding as though it were being created anew as Vicens performs it. Returning to Valente first with his adaptation of Adrian Willaert’s ‘Chi la dirra’ and then with his Recercata del primo tono, Il Cembalo di Partenope’s expedition, like a party descending from the summit of Everest, retraces familiar ground but with new awareness of its originality.

In opera, it has often been said that there are no small rôles, only singers of diminutive artistic stature who fail to take advantage of the opportunities that composers offer them. Vicens asserts with her playing on this disc that there is in the harpsichord repertory no ‘old music’; no music, that is, that cannot be reinvented and rejuvenated by an artist attuned to the veins of unchanging humanity in even the most archaic pieces. When the music on Il Cembalo di Partenope was new, Naples was a bustling metropolis, the second largest city in Europe and a cosmopolitan crossroads of art and trade rivaled only by Paris. Vicens’s playing reverberates with the authentic voices of Sixteenth-Century Naples, and how current they sound!

Born in Philadelphia in 1915, American composer and pedagogue Vincent Persichetti exerted an influence on the music of his native country that now, thirty years after his death in 1987, remains insufficiently appreciated. Not least in his tenure on the Juilliard faculty, during which his students included Leonardo Balada, Richard Danielpour, Philip Glass, Lowell Liebermann, Einojuhani Rautavaara, and Peter Schickele, Persichetti’s teaching furthered the legacy of his own studies with Fritz Reiner and Olga Samaroff, fusing a thorough grounding in European traditions with strikingly original elements of American modernism. The advancement of the composer’s individual compositional idiom during the 1950s coincided with his burgeoning acquaintance with the harpsichord, and his compositions for the instrument—ten sonatas, the fifteenth of his Serenades, the twenty-fourth of his Parables, and his Little Harpsichord Book—chart the course of Persichetti’s stylistic progress. Three decades separated the completions of his first and second Harpsichord Sonatas, bridging a period in his career during which some of his most memorable music was created. In addition to his symphonies, chamber music, and piano sonatas, all of which merit places in the repertories of talented ensembles and soloists, Persichetti’s insightful and approachable tome on Twentieth-Century harmony should be required reading for every student of music of that period.

Starting his public career as a pianist and composer whilst still an adolescent, Persichetti was a precocious artist, and the spirit of his youthful mastery electrifies the performances of his music on this handsomely-recorded Naxos disc by Welsh harpsichordist Christopher D. Lewis. As in his previous recordings for Naxos, the eloquence of Lewis’s playing of Persichetti’s music belies his youth. The notion of a young musician having an ‘old soul’ is silly if rather poetic, but Lewis is an artist whose sensibilities encompass a near-boundless array of musical styles. Playing the first three Sonatas on this disc on a resplendent Pleyel concert harpsichord of the type preferred by Wanda Landowska and employing an instrument completed in 1997 by San Francisco-based maker Kevin Fryer after a Seventeenth-Century Flemish model by Ioannes Rucker for the remaining Sonatas and Serenade, Lewis perpetuates the initiative begun by Vicens, broadening listeners’ experiences with the harpsichord by venturing further into the immense trove of music composed for the instrument.

Completed in 1951, Persichetti’s first Sonata (Opus 52) is in many ways a transitional work in which the composer’s avant garde proclivities are tempered by increasing lyricism. The Sonata’s first movement, itself a transition from Andante sostenuto to Allegro, is played by Lewis with an outpouring of energy that ignites the sparks that crackle in the music. The subsequent Adagio movement is a sort of tonal oasis and is handled in this performance with well-considered sensitivity that deprives the piece of none of its potency. The following Vivace is dispatched with the sizzle of summer lightning, its technical demands effortlessly met by Lewis. The artistic growth exhibited by Sonata No. 3 (Opus 149), written in 1983, is unmistakable, Persichetti’s voice now more confident. Lewis’s performance highlights the assurance of the composer’s work. As played here, it is not the bracing harmonic complexities of the opening Allegro moderato that compel admiration but the intuition with which they are executed, revealing the organic logic with which the music was constructed. Lewis’s tempo for the Adagietto revels in the music’s inherent expressivity without impeding its momentum, and the bravado with which he plays the Allegro molto, again successfully targeting the soul of Persichetti’s score, is both exciting and enlightening.

A product of 1984, Sonata No. 5 (Opus 152) also reflects the shifting priorities not only of Persichetti’s mode of composition but also of writing for the keyboard in general. Here and in the subsequent Sonatas on this disc, thematic development exerts greater emotional force, exemplified by the Fifth Sonata’s slyly stirring Moderato. Lewis maintains precisely the attitude of informed ambivalence that lures the listener into the intricacies of the music. There is nothing ambivalent about his sensual, seductive playing of the Andante or the rousing ebullience with which he traverses the Allegro, however. Another three years passed before the completion of Sonata No. 8 (Opus 158) in 1987, the final year of his life, and in that interim Persichetti further refined his command of writing for the harpsichord. The depth of Lewis’s response to Persichetti’s music is apparent in the immediacy with which his playing exposes the continuous transmutations of the composer’s artistry. Both the Andante sostenuto and Allegro ma grazioso movements are presented with complete comprehension of the manner in which the composer manipulated thematic material to achieve intriguing and sometimes deceptive continuity. The buoyancy of the rhythmic figurations of the concluding Allegro con moto is ideally conveyed by Lewis’s effervescent performance.

Sonata No. 9 (Opus 163) followed the Eighth Sonata in 1987, but the atmosphere that it inhabits scarcely resembles that of the earlier work. In the Moderato first movement, the pace of Lewis’s playing manifests the sobriety of Persichetti’s writing with surprisingly moving simplicity. There is a formality in the Andantino that the harpsichordist here translates into clear-eyed emotional honesty, extracting from the music the essence of the composer’s inspiration. The surging Allegro erupts from Lewis’s fingers. Also dating from 1987, the fifteenth of Persichetti’s Serenades for various instruments (Opus 161) is the most ostensibly Baroque of Persichetti’s works for harpsichord, but its Prelude introduces this as a piece that looks to the future more palpably than it looks to the past. In the Prelude and the Episode that follows, Lewis emphasizes the music’s tunefulness, and his performance of the Bagatelle combines playfulness with technical prowess. His account of the Arioso truly sings. The inviolable concentration with which Lewis rips through the Capriccio meaningfully fulfills Persichetti’s goal of reawakening the demonstrative potential of the harpsichord.

When Wanda Landowska recorded Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations for the first time in 1933, the harpsichord was little more than an entry in musical encyclopedias. The small portion of its music that clung to familiarity was appropriated by pianists, few of whom were concerned with preserving the specific technique that the harpsichord’s mechanism necessitated. Nearly a century later, perhaps even Landowska would be astonished by the harpsichord’s near-miraculous return to prominence. Miracles are not wrought by men, but the harpsichord’s comeback has been catapulted into reality by artists of virtuosity and vision like Catalina Vicens and Christopher D. Lewis. Like Norma Desmond, Landowska would likely not have been comfortable with the term ‘comeback,’ not for her beloved harpsichord: ‘it’s a return,’ and, with discs like these two to its credit, an abundantly welcome one.