In the hands of an inept performer, the harpsichord can sound like a swarm of malevolent wasps; a talented artist, on the other hand, has the ability to coax a broad spectrum of sparkling sounds from this demanding instrument. An attentive audience of intriguingly eccentric Early Music enthusiasts was treated to a true keyboard artiste when French harpsichordist Pierre Hantaï made his long-overdue return visit to the Boston Early Music Festival on the evening of 10 June, at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall.
Visually, the concert was quite arresting: somberly dressed performer and ornate French double-manual harpsichord, complete with bucolic lakeside scene on its inner wing, sharing center stage in the golden glow of Jordan Hall. What’s this? A thick notebook of music awaiting on the music stand? As a pianist with a proclivity for nerve-induced memory slips, I find the harpsichordists’ tradition of playing from the score to be quite civilized. Also provides the recitalist with added repertoire flexibility.
Monsieur Hantaï used this flexibility to mix things up a bit and toss in a few extra bon-bons, but essentially the concert consisted of a Scarlatti sandwich on thick slices of Bach bread. J. S. Bach is Hantaï’s bread-and-butter and he performs the great master’s works with calm assurance and depth of understanding. His playing is by no means glitch-free, but any occasional, ephemeral glitches are self-assured occasional, ephemeral glitches.
The opening mélange consisted of several small preludes and fugues usually relegated to student recitals; refreshing to hear these little gems played with such maturity and sophistication. His tempi were controlled, with liberal rhythmic inflection breathing life into the music. Actually, the very first piece (one of the bon-bons not included in the program) was a fascinating transcription Bach created of a piece originally penned by the incredibly long-lived (nearly 99!) Johann Adam Reincken, a 17th-century German organist and composer who had a great influence on the young Bach. After this warm-up, Hantaï plunged in to the English Suite No 4 in F Major, played with panache, elegant turns of phrase, and the occasional sweeping hand flourish. With his active feet and slightly angled orientation to the keyboard, the energetic Pierre looked as if he were about to vault from the bench and do a quick gavotte around the harpsichord. This never happened. Instead, he ended the suite with a powerful, emphatic, forceful, and brisk interpretation of the gigue. Boogie down with Bach!
The second half opened with four sonatas by Bach’s exact contemporary, Domenico Scarlatti. The first two, both in D Major [though, to these ears, with tuning sounding approximately a half-step lower] were sparkly and rollicking creations; in contrast, the third had its pensive moments. Hantaï’s expressive gifts were exemplified in his renditions of these colorful works. And then there was the final Scarlatti selection, K. 175, in the dark key of A minor [actually even darker, as it sounded more like A-flat minor]. Gott im Himmel! [Or should that be Mamma mia?] Manic, buzzzzy, pounding, chordal, masculine, startlingly modern – this was music on steroids! Brilliantly, virtuosically played.
To round out the program, Hantaï treated us to another English suite, No. 2 in A minor. He performed these dance movements with verve and panache, and a generous helping of embellishments. The bourrées were especially festooned with ornamentation. Dessert consisted of an encore in the form of the prelude from a third English Suite, number five in E minor. Toothsome!
Pierre Hantaï is no doubt one of the premier harpsichordists of his generation. He has the rare ability to breathe life into what can be an arid and sterile instrument. One can only hope it won’t be another decade before his next BEMF appearance.
Ed: This is one of 11 full reviews by Boston Musical Intelligencer reviewers of concerts from the 2009 Boston Early Music Festival.
Michael Rocha is a self-described “long-ago” music teacher, a long-time music enthusiast and pianist, and short-time Web designer: http://www.cobaltocumulus.com. He graduated first in his class of 2,800 from UCLA, with an MS in Meteorology from MIT.
Ed: Following is what we were able to determine was the concert Hantai performed:
Bach: Prelude in C major, BWV 966 [transcription from one of the Hortus Musicus pieces by Johann Adam Reincken]
Bach: Fugue in C major, BWV 953
Bach: Prelude in D major, BWV 925
Bach: Prelude in G major, BWV 924
Bach: Prelude in G minor, BWV 909
Bach: English Suite No. 4 in F major, BWV 809
Scarlatti: Sonata in D major, K. 177
Scarlatti: Sonata in D major, K. 511
Scarlatti: Sonata in A major, K. 208
Scarlatti: Sonata in A minor, K. 175
Bach: English Suite No. 2 in A minor, BWV 807
Encore: Prelude from Bach English Suite No. 5 in E minor, BWV 810