in: Reviews

June 14, 2009

Boston Early Music Festival: All-day Inaugural Keyboard Mini-Festival

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On Friday morning, June 11, at nine o’clock sharp, internationally acclaimed fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout began explaining to a good sized gathering at First Lutheran Church of Boston why he was about to play a Haydn sonata dating from 1771 on a type of  keyboard the composer only heard years later. A published revision of the sonata appearing in 1780 had added a stack of dynamics. Aware more and more of advances in keyboard technology, Haydn desired “specificity” of expression in his evolving scores.

The interplay of composition, keyboard and performance was the focus of the six-hour mini-marathon directed by Boston’s Peter Sykes. Six of  “today’s most active and respected early keyboard artists” immersed rounds of enthusiastic listeners in music from the 18th century played on four different keyboards, all replicas of instruments originally built in that century.

Hearing Kristian Bezuidenhout play Haydn on a remake of a 1795 Anton Walter fortepiano bore out this relationship of composer-instrument maker-performer convincingly. It was as though the 30-year-old South African-born keyboardist possessed the most advanced sensors enabling him to find life in once remote and inert substance that existed in these Haydn’s compositions through the instrument that later had enlightened the composer. Bezuidenhout communicates his great gift of insight and artistry directly and completely.

On somewhat of an exploratory mission, Andrew Willis tested three J. S. Bach solo keyboard concertos circa 1738-1739 on a Florentine fortepiano by David Sutherland, 2005 after Givanni Ferrini, 1735. Would this particular instrument choice-a cross between a harpsichord and a piano-have been given more of a chance to speak were Willis to have chosen something else to play?  The four “orchestral” strings were too lusciously meaty for the Florentine. A note in a slowly moving melodic line that would have found expression through a rhythmic nudge on the harpsichord or a slight change in volume on the piano, here, sounded, simply, odd. Overall, Willis depended too much on motorizing Bach. His mission did not need to take on three concertos.

Part II shifted to the harpsichord. Luca Guglielmi and William Porter played a double-manual harpsichord after a 1716 Fleisher by Allan Winkler from Medford, MA. Guglielmi displayed technical mastery, with fingers flying through high-speed passages. He looked to the art of illusion to turn other passages on the harpsichord into stunning silvery liquid. For an encore, Guglielmi sensuously titivated the beginning of Della Ciaia’s Fifth Sonata; its simple and repetitive patterns spun out of alluring harmonies had everybody asking about the piece that nobody seems to have ever heard before. The Suite in E minor especially called for a little less capturing and a little more liberating of what is on Bach’s pages.

To help find our way through early music, William Porter suggested creating narrative. Never definitive, always speculative-which also makes for fun- the scenario he tinkered with was the Orpheus legend, which he tied to the passacaglia from Musicalisher Parnassus: Uranie by Johann Caspar Ferdinand Fischer. From Porter’s fingers came down-to-earth storytelling, the 10 dances of Fischer curtsied and bowed.  And like the concluding passacaglia, narrative for certain, informed Bach’s Partita IV in D Major. And unlike Gublielmi preferring broad-brushed strokes, Porter shaped small musical figures that participated in monologues or dialogues. In the Sarabande he might have gone too far, allowing a single note to disappear into a hanging silence. I sensed the audience was puzzled by this and other thoughtfully prepared passages.

With Guglielmi and Porter alternately at the keyboard, Alan Winkler’s ever so entrancing harpsichord appeared to be two different instruments.

For Part III, out came the clavichord, described as an “intimate instrument” associated with “private experiences.” It was so much so, that at times, intrusions from Boston’s noisy afternoon traffic made it impossible to hear this incredibly soft-spoken early keyboard instrument. Obviously a suitable venue for future endeavors is a must for publicly spotlighting the clavichord, an instrument favored by so many in the 18th century but little known these days. It should not be.  Advocates contend that this tiny apparatus makes the “sweetest of sweet sounds.”

When one devoted clavichordist, David Breitman, began Haydn’s Sonata in B minor, a whole new listening experience came on like gangbusters in the reverse. Oh my! Was it ever soft! By the time he had finished his program (that also included Johann Sebastian and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach), that instrument could be played as fast as a gust of wind, as delicately as the gentlest breeze. Brietman’s playing revealed many of the instrument’s capabilities, among them, the performer’s extraordinary control over the keys, which are directly in contact with the string, like no other keyboard action.  So it is not lightly that the listener can take each and every one of the performer’s notes, be they fast or slow, soft or softer.

Peter Sykes also played the Haydn Andante and Variations F minor. How remarkably different the experience was between the Bezuidenhout/fortepiano and the Sykes/clavichord. Besides feeling warmer and friendlier, space also felt dramatically redefined in the latter. Ritardandos, among other refinements in timing, generously dispersed throughout, further personalized this very touching music. But much of what he played at this time could not be heard well if at all.

Sykes asked, “Performers are supposed to care about composers, but what happens if you don’t and you just want to try something out?” His testing Beethoven on the clavichord, raised the big question of the day. He asked, “What do think about hearing Beethoven on this instrument?

The larger Beethoven chords in the Largo e mesto from Sonata in D major increased the “plosives” (my description) heard at the onset of the sound-puff, PUFF. In addition, the clavichord’s short “ring” caused chords to die out much sooner than they would have on other keyboards. I kept thinking, now, even more, about the relationship of composer-instrument maker-performer. Beethoven was still there. The Alan Winkler clavichord induced extraordinary tonal, spatial and temporal transformation. In his dual role of performer and director, Peter Sykes did convert-did change the music-and did win over listeners.

This promising new mini-festival deserves to be around in years to come. It was a memorable day, full of lively learning and listening.

Ed: This is one of 11 full reviews by Boston Musical Intelligencer reviewers of concerts from the 2009 Boston Early Music Festival.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and Chairman of the Department at U. Mass Boston for the past 15 years, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award in Teaching and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. Also a composer, he lives in Watertown.

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