27 September 2021

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: W. Byrd, J. Bull, J. S. Bach, D. Scarlatti, L. Couperin, J.-P. Rameau, P. Royer — LA JOIE DE VIVRE (Jory Vinikour, harpsichord; Capriccio Baroque, Washington, DC, USA; 18 September 2021)

IN REVIEW: harpsichordist JORY VINIKOUR in recital with Capriccio Baroque, 18 September 2021 [Photograph © by Capriccio Baroque; used with permission]WILLIAM BYRD (circa 1540 – 1623), JOHN BULL (circa 1562 – 1628), JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH (1685 – 1750), DOMENICO SCARLATTI (1685 – 1757), LOUIS COUPERIN (1626 – 1661), JEAN-PHILIPPE RAMEAU (1683 – 1764), JOSEPH-NICOLAS-PANCRACE ROYER (1703 – 1755): La joie de vivreJory Vinikour, harpsichord [Capriccio Baroque, Live! at 10th and G Street, Washington, DC, USA; Saturday, 18 September 2021]

When musical and theatrical performances in all of their incarnations were first sacrificed in the pursuit of safeguarding public health in March 2020, it is unlikely that even the starkest pessimists could have envisioned that more than eighteen months of shuttered theaters and stifled voices would ensue. Like the well-heeled Washingtonians who quit the District in July 1861 for an afternoon in the country, intending to casually observe the annihilation of the Armies of the Potomac and the Shenandoah and the quashing of secession at Bull Run, many Arts lovers logically expected the world’s war against COVID-19 to be brief and decisive, clearing the path for a rapid return to normalcy.

Eighteen long, trying months after the first closures and cancellations, glimmers of hope are brightening on the horizon despite the continued oppression of ominous clouds that refuse to dissipate. It is hardly surprising that art and artists are part of the vanguard fighting diligently to reclaim senses of healing and hopefulness. The harpsichord is perhaps not an instrument to which most listeners would ascribe a capacity for precipitating social change, but world-renowned harpsichordist Jory Vinikour’s recital for Capriccio Baroque, La joie de vivre, was a performance that incited a revolution of optimism. Exulting in the eponymous joy of living, the recital was both a splendidly fulfilling musical event and a symbolic victory over strife that has sometimes seemed unconquerable.

An alumnus of Baltimore’s Peabody Institute, Vinikour has performed often in the Capital region, recent seasons having included lauded recitals at the Library of Congress and the National Gallery of Art, the latter featuring violinist Rachel Barton Pine, with whom he frequently collaborates in performances—and an acclaimed Cedille recording—of Johann Sebastian Bach’s sonatas for violin and harpsichord. Under the leadership of founder Carolyn Winter, whose rich-timbred 1972 William Dowd harpsichord, expertly tuned for the event by Barbara Wolf, was employed for La joie de vivre, Capriccio Baroque events have deepened Vinikour’s association with the District of Columbia. Surveying a century-and-a-half of music for harpsichord with particular focus on the development of distinct national styles of writing for the keyboard, Le joie de vivre provided both a thoughtfully-conceived artistic experience and an evening of inestimably precious musical fellowship via which a present master of an instrument of the past affirmed that, come what may, music propels the future.

The English school of composition for the keyboard flourished at the courts of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, both of whom were accomplished musicians. With the advent of the viol consort and the increasing prevalence during the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries of England’s gentry owning virginals, the name by which almost all stringed keyboard instruments were called in Tudor England, English composers of the era, amongst whom William Byrd was perhaps the most renowned, adapted the complex polyphonic language of their continental counterparts to their countrymen’s tastes. One of the best-known and most dazzlingly virtuosic of Byrd’s pieces composed for the virginal, ‘The bells’ (BK38) derives initial momentum from a two-note ground bass that may represent the tolling of the eponymous bells. Essentially a series of variations of progressive difficulty, the piece served as an apt introduction to Vinikour’s capabilities. The clarity with which he sounded the ground bass throughout the work maintained a firm rhythmic foundation, upon which he built billowing cascades of sound, and accentuated the pealing of bells that ostensibly inspired the piece. The passagework was played with the dexterity expected of an acclaimed harpsichordist, but Vinikour found depths of emotion in even the most demanding bars of Byrd’s music.

Like his near-contemporary Byrd, John Bull is extensively represented in the seminal collection of Sixteenth- and early-Seventeenth-Century manuscripts now celebrated as the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. Among the most familiar pieces in the book, Bull’s ‘The Kynges Hunt’ is a​n early example of vivid tone painting. As with Byrd’s music, the paucity of verifiable documentation reduces analysis of the gestation of ‘The Kynges Hunt’ to conjecture. Whether the music represents a specific event or type of royal chase cannot now be definitively ascertained, but Vinikour’s performance of the piece was unquestionably an event worthy of regal occasions. The call-and-response effects characteristic of many musical depictions of hunts were limned with interpretive cunning, suggesting that the quarry of this finger-testing pursuit was amorous rather than bestial. The nimbleness of Vinikour’s playing ignited the music’s inner fire, illuminating the inventiveness with which Bull utilized the musical language of his time to create sonic tableaux of surprising modernity.

Almost certainly dating from the first decade of the Eighteenth Century, before the composer reached the age of twenty-five, Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 912 Toccata in D major is an imaginative piece in hexapartite form, virtually a miniature prototype for his later suites and partita for harpsichord. It is difficult to make a successful career as a harpsichordist without attaining proficiency in performing music by Bach, but Vinikour’s performance of the BWV 912 Toccata confirmed that his affinity for breathing new life into Bach’s widely-performed works for harpsichord is extraordinary. The galvanizing Presto that launches the Toccata received from Vinikour a reading that awed not merely with technical deftness but also with unerring precision in articulating ornaments.

The contrast with the subsequent Toccata’s Allegro was unusually apparent, Vinikour emphasizing this section’s more relaxed atmosphere without sacrificing momentum or brilliance. Lackluster in too many harpsichordists’ performances, slow movements are often pinnacles of Vinikour’s recitals, and Bach’s Adagio was here played with yearning lyricism, the handling of the melodic line expansive but unaffected. The composer indicated no tempo marking for the Toccata’s fourth part, allowing the performer a measure of exegetic freedom. Honoring the tradition of dance suites from which the Toccata emerged, Vinikour chose a pace that combined elegance with energy, transitioning hypnotically into the penultimate segment, which Bach instructed should be played ‘con discrezione,’ a somewhat cryptic dictate that in this performance was followed with expressive panache. The Toccata’s closing Fuga was played rousingly, the harpsichordist’s elucidation of the fugue’s principal subject paralleling his rendering of the ground bass in Byrd’s ‘The bells.’

Born in the same year in which both Händel and Bach were welcomed to the world, Domenico Scarlatti also shared with Bach the distinction of being a scion of a renowned musical family. Whereas his father Alessandro’s career was largely centered in the opera house, Domenico dedicated his creative endeavors to supplying the Spanish and Portuguese royal courts with instrumental music and sacred works in the Italian style learned from his father and his contemporaries. Of his 555 extant keyboard sonatas, Vinikour offered two of the most popular, both of them in the binary form that Scarlatti espoused throughout his creative journey. In this performance, the sonatas fashioned a pairing that was not unlike an operatic aria and cabaletta. The poetic B-minor Sonata (K 87) was played with mesmerizing concentration on the melodic line, Vinikour’s phrasing accentuating the latent Classicism in the music. The dizzingly decorative figurations of the D-major Sonata (K 535) were delivered with electrifying fervor, but here, too, pointed attention to thematic evolution yielded a performance in which the Italianate tunefulness of Scarlatti’s music was as evident as its technical ingenuity.

Having traversed music from England, Germany, and Italy before the interval, the latter half of the programme explored the wealth of music for harpsichord from Vinikour’s adopted homeland, France. The sonorities of the Dowd instrument were ideally suited to this repertoire, the differentiations among registers enabling Vinikour to exhibit the innovation with which French composers treated exchanges of subjects and countersubjects. Vinikour’s powerful performance of the twenty-seventh entry in the Pièces de clavecin catalogued by Bruce Gustafson in the Twentieth Century, Louis Couperin’s Passacaille in C major, sometimes called the ‘Versailles’ Passacaille, luxuriated in the grandeur of the piece, the richness of the writing drawing from instrument and musician an unexpected breadth of sounds. Too often, the harpsichord is perceived to have limited expressive capacity owing to its singular method of tonal production. Vinikour’s playing of Couperin’s Passacaille wholly dispelled this misconception.

Whereas Bach and Händel were creating masterful works for harpsichord that continue to be performed in the Twenty-First Century whilst they were still teenagers, Jean-Philippe Rameau began writing much of his most acclaimed keyboard music in the mid-1720s, when he was in his early forties. The five pieces that Vinikour included in La joie de vivre were drawn from the D-minor Suite (RCT 3) published in Rameau’s 1724 Pièces de clavecin. Like Byrd and Bull a century earlier, Rameau brought to music for the harpsichord an uncommonly refined gift for portraying vibrant scenes in sound. His ‘L’entretien des Muses’ was played with intensity that irradiated subtleties of Rameau’s harmonic daring. Vinikour made both ‘Les tourbillons’ and ‘Le lardon’ tours de force, their very different characters individualized not by idiosyncratic effects but by close adherence to the composer’s specifications. This performance of ‘La boiteuse’ was distinguished by kaleidoscopic tone colors, achieved by sensitive management of dynamics. Requiring great dexterity and emotional engagement, ‘Les cyclopes’ is a perfect vehicle for Vinikour’s artistry, and his performance thrilled and touched in equal measures.

Like one of his most illustrious predecessors on the French musical scene, Jean-Baptiste Lully, Joseph-Nicolas-Pancrace Royer was born in Italy. Arriving in Paris at the age of twenty-two, Royer served the Bourbon court of Louis XV as tutor to the royal household and shared directorship of the famed Concerts Spirituels with Jean-Joseph de Mondonville. Sadly, very little of Royer’s output has survived, but the works that are available to Twenty-First-Century musicians are of superb quality. Vinikour performed the Allemande (‘Marche avant le sacrifice’) with boldness, the chords played forcefully but gracefully. Eloquence was the cornerstone of his intelligent, understated interpretation of ‘La sensible,’ but ‘La marche des Scythes’ gave Vinikour an opportunity to demonstrate unadulterated technical prowess. Having furnished an exposition of the beauty of which the instrument was capable throughout the evening, he concluded the announced programme with an explosion of bravado.

Rather than selecting a virtuosic display piece from his considerable repertoire, Vinikour chose for his encore the well-known fifth piece from François Couperin’s 1717 Ordre sixième de clavecin, ‘Les Barricades mystérieuses.’ His performance was unfailingly agile, of course, but his reading of the piece exuded a spirit of celebration that manifested the recital’s theme. This was an evening in which the joy of living, expressed through music, eclipsed the sorrows of a prolonged season of silence.