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Refurbishment of First Church Harpsichord Celebrated with Cienniwa Recital


The scheduled reviewer for the Intelligencer was not able to attend the Sunday afternoon March 28 recital at First Church Boston’s Hale Chapel by Music Director Paul Cienniwa, so I am pinch-hitting. A further disclosure: Mr. Cienniwa is not only the director of the professional choir in which I sing, but he was playing on my newly refurbished Flemish double harpsichord (David Jacques Way, 1980) which lives at the church.

Cienniwa was the claveciniste in the series so named, currently being held at the church. His program featured the deuxième performance of Larry Thomas Bell’s Partita No. 1, Op. 97 for Harpsichord in its Boston premiere. The composer gave a brief introduction to his piece before the recital began. He composed his 10-minute partita in the summer of 2009, he explained, as an antidote to the opera he was composing at the time, so remote is the harpsichord from his opera composition. The first harpsichord he ever heard was on the Sergeant Pepper’s album, but of course that had a very different sound from the modern historically informed instrument.

Cienniwa, to whom the Partita is dedicated, gave it a stirring performance, choosing the registers as the composer intended. There are five movements, traditionally named like Bach’s partitas: “Overture,” “Courante,” “Air,” “Sarabande,” and “Toccata.” However,  Bell said that his piece was in the tradition of Scarlatti.

The only movement that Cienniwa failed to grasp when he was preparing it, we were told, was the “Toccata”; Bell suggested that he should play it as Chico Marx played the piano. From where I was sitting during the concert I’m not sure Cienniwa “shot” the notes as Chico did, but you can decide for yourself by visiting the filmed performance here of full of cascading scales and chords reminiscent of the overture, ends on a single high note.

The other movements were equally deft, from the pauses and scales of the “Overture” to the “Courante,” which featured the 8′ and 4′ registers, to the plaintive theme of the “Air” and the beautiful “Sarabande” with its alternating 8′ keyboards.

Cienniwa opened his recital with a majestical performance of the Huitième Ordre of François Couperin. This particular order, with its 10 movements, is perhaps the longest of the 24, especially with the magnificent lengthy B-minor “Passacaille.” The “Sarabande” has the designation “L’Unique,” which Cienniwa played on the full harpsichord. With its unusual chords and alternating “Vivement” and “Gravement” sections, it’s one of Couperin’s most inspired creations. The use of the buff stop for the tantalizing “Morinéte” last movement was exactly the right decision. Not everyone can capture the Baroque French style as Cienniwa does.

Three Sonatas in D Major (K. 490-492) by Domenico Scarlatti followed intermission. These are marked “Cantabile,” “Allegro” and “Presto.” The increasing velocity was emphasized by Cienniwa’s playing each without pauses.

Bach’s Fifth Partita in G Major (BWV 829) was the final piece in this fine program. The full harpsichord was employed for the “Praeludium.” Cienniwa then alternated registers for the middle movements before returning to 8, 8, 4 for the final “Gigue,” with its strange second half. The strangeness is prefigured by the “Tempo di Minuetta” movement, which Cienniwa rendered extremely well.

The encore was another Scarlatti Sonata, K. 517, a fast one in which Cienniwa demonstrated, if anyone listening still doubted it, his virtuosity.

This was my first exposure to my harpsichord after it had been rebuilt. The audience was full of musicians who told me that it sounded splendid, probably better than I remember, with note clarity through the registers and a powerful tutti in this small room. Cienniwa plans to use it for Baroque French repertoire next season.

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.

[Ed: Mr. Phillips not only graciously pinch-hit, but his review was in to us in timely fashion; outage of the editor’s telephone and therefore use of the internet delayed posting.]

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