14 June 2019

June 2019 RECORDING OF THE MONTH: W. Leigh, N. Rorem, V. Kalabis, & M. Nyman — 20TH CENTURY HARPSICHORD CONCERTOS (Jory Vinikour, harpsichord; Cedille Records CDR 90000 188)

IN REVIEW: Walter Leigh, Ned Rorem, Viktor Kalabis, & Michael Nyman - 20th CENTURY HARPSICHORD CONCERTOS (Cedille Records CDR 90000 188)WALTER LEIGH (1905 – 1945), NED ROREM (born 1923), VIKTOR KALABIS (1923 – 2006), and MICHAEL NYMAN (born 1944): 20th Century Harpsichord ConcertosJory Vinikour, harpsichord; Chicago Philharmonic; Scott Speck, conductor [Recorded in Wentz Hall, Naperville, Illinois, USA, on 3 November 2016 (Nyman), Feinberg Theater at Spertus Institute, Chicago, Illinois, USA, on 5 March 2018 (Leigh and Kalabis), and Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois, USA, on 8 May 2018 (Rorem); Cedille Records CDR 90000 188; 1 CD, 75:42; Available from Cedille Records and major music retailers]

Whether his musical curiosity encompasses five centuries or five months of artistic innovation, each listener develops unique sensibilities that are influenced by performances that inspire, intrigue, and educate. The jazz lover is unlikely to forget his first hearing of Dave Brubeck’s ‘Take Five.’ For the rock ’n roll enthusiast, an introduction to the pioneering recordings of Sister Rosetta Tharpe can have the impact of a spiritual awakening. Buddy Holly, Bill Monroe, Mahalia Jackson, Chuck Berry, and the Beatles all changed the ways in which music is created and heard, cutting records that altered their own and other genres. The recorded efforts of these and countless other trailblazers, some widely acclaimed and others barely remembered, form an artistic legacy that parallels and in some cases propels the evolution of human societies.

Even if only Western cultures are considered, the diversity of the vast spectrum of genres and forms that collectively constitute what has somewhat cavalierly been designated as Classical Music is astounding, and every genre, form, and individual work has performance and recording histories that shape listeners’ perceptions of the music. Recordings like Artur Schnabel’s cycle of Beethoven piano sonatas, Pau Casals’s early account of Bach’s cello suites, Bruno Walter’s 1938 performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, and Maria Callas’s first Tosca created standards by which the merits of other performances of these and similar works are measured.

Determining which performances shoulder the responsibility of primacy is anything but a perfect science, what is definitive to one pair of ears sounding disastrous to another, but there are recordings that demand that listeners discard their assumptions and prejudices. Cedille Records’s ambitious new recording of Twentieth-Century works for harpsichord and orchestra lures listeners out of Eighteenth-Century salons and transports them to an aural world in which Igor Stravinsky is closer at hand than Domenico Scarlatti. With one notable exception, the pieces on this disc are not new to recordings, but these electrifying performances inaugurate a new chapter in the harpsichord’s still-developing narrative.

There are perhaps fewer milestones in the history of recording music for the harpsichord than in other instruments’ discographies. From Wanda Landowska’s pioneering performances of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations to George Malcolm’s recording of Poulenc’s Concert champêtre with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, the first half-century of the harpsichord’s tenure before recording microphones produced many performances in which obvious good intentions were ultimately mitigated by increased awareness of stylistic anachronisms. For some listeners, the very notion of Twentieth-Century music for harpsichord might seem inherently oxymoronic, a misconception that this disc seeks to remedy. Significantly, the music on this does not approach the harpsichord as an antiquated instrument that must be adapted to modern idioms. This music exploits the modernity of which the harpsichord has been capable since its emergence in its most familiar form in the Sixteenth Century.

It is not merely by right of monopoly that Chicagoland-born harpsichordist and conductor Jory Vinikour’s survey of Twentieth-Century music for harpsichord and orchestra assumes a place of great prominence in the harpsichord’s discography. His mastery of the instrument’s typical Baroque repertoire has been manifested in performances in a plethora of critically-acclaimed performances and recordings, but Vinikour is no less committed to championing the work of contemporary composers who write for the harpsichord. With this disc, he advances the initiative exemplified by his GRAMMY®-nominated recording Toccatas [reviewed here]. The harpsichord’s basic mechanism of tonal production is unchanging, whether the music being played is by a composer born in 1650 or in 1950, but Vinikour’s immersion in the divergent styles of the music on this disc yields spellbinding performances. To some listeners, these pieces may seem like curiosities. Vinikour reveals them to be cornerstones of Twentieth-Century writing for the harpsichord.

Expertly led in these performances by conductor Scott Speck, the musicians of the Chicago Philharmonic prove to be nimbly adaptable exponents of the disparate styles of the works on this disc. Chicago is home to another, more known large-scaled instrumental ensemble, but, as the Philharmonic’s playing affirms, notoriety does not always equate with superiority. Conductor and musicians devise consistently logical solutions to the music’s problems, one of the most important of which is that of maintaining proper balances between the harpsichord and a modern orchestra. Excessive or ill-managed electronic manipulation of the harpsichord’s timbre can result in harsh, unnatural sounds, but this disc’s engineering achieves a near-ideal acoustical balance between harpsichord and orchestra, a particularly commendable accomplishment considering that the recording sessions utilized three different venues.

Speck conducts each piece with perceptible comprehension of its musical infrastructure, his commands of stylistic shifts and thematic development facilitating the Philharmonic musicians’ crisp executions of difficult ensemble passages. The works on this disc are more overtly symphonic in basic construction than earlier music for harpsichord and orchestra, requiring particularly sympathetic collaboration between harpsichordist and conductor. The efforts of Vinikour, the Chicago Philharmonic, and Speck here impart an inviolable unity of purpose, their shared dedication to elucidating the many felicities of this music manifested in performances enriched and emboldened by each musician’s contributions.

Completed in 1934, eight years before World War II claimed the thirty-six-year-old composer’s life, Walter Leigh’s Concertino for harpsichord and strings is an attractive, accessible piece with bucolic charms that never linger beyond their capacities to entice. This is not to suggest that the Concertino lacks sophistication, however. Its musical language assimilates accents from a number of influences into an identifiably individual dialect, both discernibly cosmopolitan and unmistakably English. Vinikour and his colleagues perform the Concertino’s opening Allegro movement with consummate skill, the clarity of their ensemble playing aided by Speck’s sensible, supportive pacing. The movement’s elaborate cadenza, not unlike that in the first movement of the fifth of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti, provides Vinikour with an opportunity to display his virtuosic prowess, which he wields with restraint appropriate for this unpretentious score.

Leigh’s central Andante begins with an extended unaccompanied passage for the harpsichord that is reminiscent of the sarabandes found in the music of Georg Friedrich Händel and Jean-Philippe Rameau. His expertise in playing Baroque music is especially evident here, but the fluidity of his phrasing demonstrates commensurate comprehension of the essential tenets of bel canto. Hints of Antonio Vivaldi’s concerti echo in the concluding Allegro vivace movement, enlivening the music with a rustic exuberance.​ This performance of Leigh’s Concertino concludes with a surge of controlled spontaneity, harpsichord and orchestra conversing with the familiarity of beloved friends.

Here made commercially available on disc for the first time, Ned Rorem’s Concertino da Camera dates from 1946, when the composer was only twenty-three years old. The tunefulness of the piece contrasts with a metaphysical profundity that reminds listeners that the horrors of World War II remained open wounds as the ink dried on Rorem’s score. His introductory Allegro non troppo movement is characterized by writing for the instrumental ensemble that is both energetic and subtly elegiac, the melodic momentum of the music escalated by the scintillating figurations for cornet and flute. The Chicago Philharmonic musicians play their parts with passion and precision, the transitions among instruments navigated by both composer and conductor with the organic eloquence of similar effects in Mozart’s Divertimenti and Serenades.

The long melodic lines of the Molto moderato that momentarily still the dramatic tumult of Rorem’s Concertino da Camera like an operatic intermezzo receive intelligent handling in this performance. It can be argued that the harpsichord’s manner of tonal production is not conducive to lyricism, but an integral component of Vinikour’s artistry is an unusual ability to effectuate expressive legato playing despite the limitations of an instrument’s tonal prolongation. Vinikour plays poetically, evincing genuine emotion in the dialogue between harpsichord and orchestra. In the Presto, too, the music’s quest for resolution is driven by Rorem’s vivid writing for the cornet, which is delivered with galvanizing aplomb. The Concertino da Camera is a youthful work but in no way an immature one, and the performance of it on this disc spotlights the prodigality of invention that has distinguished Nyman’s music throughout his career.

In the final years of his life, Czech composer Viktor Kalabis and his wife, celebrated harpsichordist Zuzana Růžičková (1927 - 2017), formed a friendship with Vinikour, and, thirteen years after Kalabis’s death, the mutual respect of that relationship continues to permeate the harpsichordist’s performances of the composer’s music. Kalabis’s Harpsichord Concerto might have been written to showcase Vinikour’s singular blend of technique and heart. In the Allegro Leggiero that begins the Concerto, the rhythmic exactitude of Vinikour’s trills allies with the crystalline brilliance of his playing of bravura passages to beget stark, sometimes abrasive aural tableaux. The movement ends with a Wagnerian halo of high strings, recalling the gossamer sounds of the Vorspiel to Act One of Lohengrin. Speck’s intuitive conducting discloses the wealth of beauty in the music without dulling its jagged edges.

Launched by a mournful phrase for solo violin that grows more agitated when it recurs, the slow movement of Kalabis’s Concerto, marked Andante, is disquietingly ambiguous. Morose and menacing at once, the music is intriguingly intimate even at its most extroverted., The brusque chords with which the harpsichord makes its entrance are played with unstinting attack. Vinikour’s performance transcends the technical demands of the music, finding in its outbursts of fury and frustration a captivating emotional chronicle. There are moments in the Concerto’s Allegro vivo movement that bring the music of Samuel Barber to mind, but Kalabis’s work clings to originality, not least in the ferocious writing for the harpsichord. In the first of the movement’s oasis-like interludes, the exchanges among the strings’ pizzicati with the harpsichord’s isolated chords is given conversational immediacy: Vinikour and the Chicago Philharmonic musicians wage battle with passion and civility, ending the Concerto with an affectingly straightforward rendering of Kalabis’s ambivalent synthesis of conflict and accord.

Michael Nyman is justly esteemed as one of Britain’s most gifted contemporary composers. Like his colleagues whose music is featured on this disc, Nyman has written successful works in many genres, his ingenuity exhibited in vocal and instrumental music. The writing for the solo instrument in his through-composed Concerto for amplified harpsichord and strings occasionally suggests a vocal line, and Vinikour plays Nyman’s music with aptly ‘singing’ tone. The Concerto’s first sequence (crotchet = 120 - 144) has the complexity of a Bach toccata, and harpsichordist, orchestra, and conductor unleash a torrent of sound in the piece’s cacophonous, almost bellicose segments.

The allure of Vinikour’s lyrical phrasing lends the broad melody of the più mosso section unexpected tenderness, and the reminiscences of the keyboard works of Claude-Bénigne Balbastre in the lilting meno mosso episode of Nyman’s Concerto benefit from this harpsichordist’s acquaintance with the Baroque master’s music. Representative of Speck’s insightful negotiations of Nyman’s changes of tempo is his seamless shift into the music marked crotchet = circa 100. Ostinati emerge as the pulse of the music during the Concerto’s final minutes, and this performance triumphs as few traversals of similar music manage to do at exploring the psychological subtexts of inevitability and temporal claustrophobia that repetitive devices can convey. In Vinikour’s performance, the three-minute cadenza is a both personal examination of the Concerto’s emotional currents and a recapitulation of the musical questions for which the post-cadenza finale proposes answers.

The most consequential question asked by the music on this disc is whether, in this age of large orchestras and performance venues designed to physically and acoustically accommodate them, the harpsichord remains a viable, relevant conduit for composers’ creative impulses. With the performances on this disc, Jory Vinikour establishes that the harpsichord is not a period instrument. Rather, it is a semicolon instrument, one that, after decades of pause, rightly inspires new clauses of composition.