in: Reviews

December 21, 2010

Harpsichord at First Church in December

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The Thursday noontime recitals at First Church Boston continued in December. Nickolai Sheikov on Dec. 2 offered two warhorses of the harpsichord literature, J. S. Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in d-minor, BWV 903 and the Italian Concerto, BWV 971. The harpsichordist, a protégé of John Gibbons, had been reviewed last year in these pages. About fifty people heard this recital.

This young harpsichordist demonstrated great technique in the Chromatic Fantasy, but he had a memory lapse, from which he recovered nicely; it sounded improvised, which is a good thing. He used music in the fugue that was grandly conceived. The Italian Concerto was highly inflected and registered to perfection. The Andante movement had a spun melody against a light bass, played on the upper 8. He let the Presto movement rip, playing it on the full ensemble and again, nicely registered.

Elaine Comparone, up from New York, played on Dec. 9. It was a shame that only about twenty people heard her recital. She offered the Bach’s Partita No 1 in B-flat Major. She played from memory, impressively, but was “bangy” and not note-perfect. She also had a memory lapse in the gigue. The Prelude was slow and stately, giving in to a lively Allemande and an even livelier Courante, registered creatively; she began on the two 8’ registers and answered them with the upper 8’, as she did in the Sarabande. Upon completion, an audience member and I speculated whether there was a “New York style”; it is up in the air.

David Schulenberg, a professor and chair of the music department at Wagner College in New York City, lives in Dorchester, so I did not have chance to test my theory at his concert on Dec. 16. A specialist in the music of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach (1710 – 1784), Schulenberg presented a program largely devoted to this rarely heard composer. His book, The Music of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, has recently been published. The program began with rarely heard praeludiums by J. S. Bach, the C Major, BWV 924 and the fragmentary E Minor, BWV 932, which was completed by the performer. This was followed by a praeludium in C Major, BWV 924a, which is attributed to W. F. Bach.

The remainder of the program consisted of pieces definitely by W. F. Bach, including characteristic pieces, fugues, and a concerto without strings, played by the performer from suggestions in the manuscript. First up was L’Imitation de la chasse, F. 26, that featured twists and turns in a near-Rococo style. La Reveille, F. 27, exhibited repeated notes, a feature of this composer. The three fugues, drawn for Eight Fugues, F. 31, all exhibit strange themes and a bizarre fugal discourse.

Then came two Polonaises, in G Major and C Minor, F. 12/11 and F. 12/2. In a program note the performer explained that the Polish dance was popular in the 18th century only to be made more popular in the 19th century by Chopin. The major polonaises are virtuosic; the minor polonaises explore rare harmonies. Short chords characterized the G Major one. The minor one exhibited fascinating turns of phrase.

The March in E-flat, F. 30 presented, once again, repeated notes in the full ensemble. This is Bach’s only March. (Did Johann compose a March?) The final piece, the third movement of a Concerto in G Minor, was the pièce de résistance. The string parts were played on the two 8s coupled; the solos were played on the upper keyboard. They were so different they might have been two contrasting pieces. The solos distinguished themselves by exhibiting different styles and tempos. This recital was earlier reviewed in these pages here. I agree with Michael Rocha that it was “bangy.”

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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