IN: Reviews

Comprehensive Lenten Harpsichord Series at Emmanuel


Emmanuel Music presented the six harpsichord partitas (BWV 825-830) of J. S. Bach in its free Lenten series this year on successive Thursdays at Emmanuel Church’s Leslie Lindsay Chapel. The players were Michael Beattie, Leslie Kwan, Nancy Granert, Charles Sherman, Michael Sponseller and Robert Levin. The Handel and Haydn Society lent the instrument, a fine German double by Alan Winkler.

On March 25, Robert Levin performed the last partita in E Minor. It was good to place him as the last in the series. In his written program notes Levin referred the fan shape of the six keys, B-flat, C-Minor, A-Minor, D-Major, G-Major and E-Minor. His playing is appropriately stylish, and he has a way of distinguishing the underlying structure amid the whirl of ornamentation. He captured the fantastic nature of the Corrente and Gigue. After the Gigue he had a momentary lapse before standing and accepting the applause. Unwilling to send us outside after such a grueling Gigue, Levin played an encore, the E Major fugue from the Well Tempered Clavier, Book II. It’s based on a placid subject from Palestrina and did the trick.

A week earlier harpsichordist Michael Sponseller played the partita No. 2 in C Minor. As he often does, acting music director of Emmanuel Music John Harbison delivered words about the partitas that precisely capture their musical effect. In his introduction, Harbison explained that, although it was not planned, the series ended with two “blockbusters,” especially the last two movements, the Rondeaux and Capriccio (which Harbison described as “striving.”) Sponseller, playing from memory, is a young player with extraordinary gifts. In 2006, Emmanuel Music awarded him a Lorraine Hunt Lieberson Fellow.

Charles Sherman played the G Major, which Michael Beattie introduced as the “sunniest” partita. Sherman is a masterful player. Once again playing without benefit of music, Sherman captured the amazement of the Tempo di Menuetto and the bizzareness of the second half of the Gigue.

Emmanuel Church’s own Nancy Granert offered the B Flat partita. Harbison explained that this “lyrically attractive” partita has the usual suite movements. Granert played the Praeludium at a slow, deliberative pace that suited it well as the opening piece. She employed the same registers for the Courant and the Sarabande, but rectified this in both Minuets. Granert had a little bit of trouble with the fiendishly difficult gigue but ended up with a triumphant high mordent.

Leslie Kwan played the less familiar A Minor partita, which Beattie described as “quirky.” Kwan certainly played it that way, giving an excellent account of it, getting better as the partita unfolded. The Burlesca movement came across as suitably unusual. Kwan is General Director of L’Académie, a Boston early music group.

Emmanuel Music Associate Conductor Michael Beattie led the series with the D Major partita. Harbison dubbed this partita Bach the Improvisor, saying that the names of the movements really don’t matter. Bach just uses the movements to indulge his fertile musical imagination. Beattie captured the plaintive nature of the Allemande, as he did in the fanciful Sarabande. The long Gigue is a real tour de force, with its stunning chromatic end. The repetition meant that the audience heard it twice. A lot of smiles were noticed as the audience members emerged into the daylight.

Most Thursdays had a full house, and the chapel, a 125-seat Gothic wonder, is an ideal place to hear harpsichord music. This is a good idea, and I hope Emmanuel Music continues it. Bach helps by grouping his pieces in sixes. (I wonder if this is because of the season of Lent?) May I suggest the six violin sonatas and partitas for next year?

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.

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  1. Bravo, Larry Ellis. You gave scope and individualization to the six harpsichord partitas. It was an exuberant treat for those who were able to attend all concerts by these talented musicians. You identified their abilities and the wonder of the Bach conception of these great dances. Thanks for the review, Joan Nordell

    Comment by Joan Nordell — March 28, 2010 at 7:18 pm

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