in: Reviews

February 23, 2010

Three Generations of Harpsichord Music in Authentic Tuning at First Church

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Hendrik Broekman presented a fine harpsichord recital Sunday afternoon, February 21, at First Church Boston as part of their series, “Les Clavecinistes,” sponsored by Hubbard Harpsichords of which  Broekman is technical director. He played on a copy of an anonymous French instrument of 1669 tuned in 1/5 comma meantone appropriate to three generations of 17th-century composers. This tuning gave the afternoon a certain pungency.

The hour and a half program began with two variations of a Pavan by the Dutch Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562–1621). These are teaching pieces and featured the 4’ register of the harpsichord, a favorite of Broekman’s and of 17th century French harpsichords in general. The next first generation composer, the rarely heard William Inglott (1554–1621), organist at Norwich Cathedral, was represented by variations on a popular tune, “The Leaves Bee Green.”

The next section featured the inimitable John Bull (?1562–3–1628) in two pieces, a somber Prelude (played on a single 8’ register) and one of the composer’s fantastical In Nomines. According to Broekman’s notes, “The entire piece is written in compound proportion, essentially in 11 (it begins in 4+4+3 but ends with 2+2+1.5).” This is a workout for the performer and listener. Broekman noted, “It is like getting hit over the head by a 2 x 4.” He also said the listener is glad when it was over, but I find that this composer always puts me in a trance.

The composer and lutenist John Dowland (c. 1563–1628) was justly famous in his day and transcriptions of his music abound. The Earl of Essex’ Galliard “Can She Excuse” is unusual in that it is set in four voices. Then came Heinrich Scheidemann (1596–1663) and Melchior Schildt (1592-3–1667), represented by a Præambulum and a Pavana Lachrimae, his setting of a famous piece by Dowland. Both composers studied with Sweelinck and extended his influence. The Scheidemann has to be heard to be believed; it goes all over the map. Rising thirds characterize the Schildt setting.

After intermission (and the inevitable tuning touch-up) we came to two extraordinary “3rd generation” composers, Johann Jakob Froberger (1616–1667) and Louis Couperin (ca. 1626–16610, “just about every harpsichordist’s favorite composer,” according to Broekman. Froberger had an exceptional life for his times, wandering about, including a difficult crossing of the English Channel. Broekman began with a posthumous sectional Toccata and then proceeded to a Suite with a most unusual order of movements: Lamento, Gigue, Courante, and Sarabande. Froberger really knew how to make the harpsichord sound wonderful. The Lamento was moving, the Gigue (played on full harpsichord) was rich, and the quiet closing Sarabande rendered on a single 8’.

Couperin’s Suite in g minor and G Major closed the program. Progenitor of the famous French musical family, Louis Couperin wrote more than 200 harpsichord and organ pieces that were not however performed until after his death at the young age of thirty-five. A number of them were only rediscovered in the 20th century, when the harpsichord revival was underway. The suite gives ample reason for Broekman’s claim. It begins with a traditional ordering of dances and ends with a spritely Gaillarde, a somber Passacaille in g minor and a grand Sarabande. The performer clearly admires this composer and gave them a masterful performance. There was one encore drawn from earlier in the program.

This program was extremely thoughtful, unusual in a harpsichord recital that avoided J. S. Bach. Broekman provided copious program notes. He has a way with words, both written and spoken extemporaneously from the stage. His whole demeanor bespeaks someone who has devoted most of his career to the harpsichord. His written tribute to Frank Hubbard (1920-1976), founder of Hubbard Harpsichords and author of Three Centuries of Harpsichord Making (1965), was extremely moving.

Larry Phillips studied music at Harvard, the Montreal Conservatory, and at New England Conservatory. In 1974 he was a prizewinner at the International Harpsichord Competition in Bruges, Belgium.

2 Comments

  1. It isn’t everyday that you hear the word ‘pungent’ used to describe music. This wonderful review makes me regret so much that I missed this concert. But, the reviewer’s knowledge and love of the music makes reading the review, even without the experience of hearing the performance, a delight.

    Comment by Rosemary Kean — March 5, 2010 at 9:28 pm

  2. I echo Rosemary Keane’s regret — I wish I had been there. And I would note that this review makes me wish that the program would be repeated, simply because I would now enjoy the concert all the more, thanks to Mr. Phillips’ intense familiarity with the harpsichord, which he shares with us so well.

    Comment by Nigel Harvey — March 6, 2010 at 10:25 pm

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