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Lunchtime Respite: Harpsichord at First Church


Lunchtime harpsichord recitals continue at First Church, Boston, and your reviewer continues to cover them. On February 10, Bálint Karosi, originally from Hungary, played a program consisting of a prelude by Dieterich Buxtehude and J. S. Bach’s Partita No. 1 in b-flat minor, BWV 1002. Karosi has a nice sense of line and knows how to give the harpsichord real impetus. The six movements of the Partita were superbly paced, the Prelude deliberately giving in to the Allemande, which was full of over-legato (overlapping the notes) phrasing. The Courante was taken at a judicious tempo, and the difficult Gigue was well nigh perfect.

French hornist Jean Rife has only studied harpsichord with Peter Sykes since 2004, but already she has turned herself into a keyboardist of note. Her recital on February 17 introduced Jacques DuPhly (1715-1789) to the audience for the first time in this series. She played about half of Livre I in d minor, from 1744. The Allemande was intriguing harmonically, as was the Courante, which she played on the coupled keyboards. She added the 4’ register in La Vanlo, which had Rococo elements. A plaintive theme characterized the first Rondeau. La Tribolet featured hand-crossing at the end, whereas La Damanzy introduced dotted rhythms into the mix. Virtuosity characterized La Casamajor, which she played on the full register.

Another Frenchman was introduced by the next harpsichordist, Leon Schelhase, who hails from Cape Town, South Africa, but trained in Boston with Peter Sykes and now plays with A Far Cry. I refer to the seventeenth-century Jean-Henri d’Anglebert (1620-1691), of which the harpsichordist presented one piece, Passacaille d’Armide.

The majority of the recital was devoted to Handel’s Suite from Rinaldo, which was arranged by one William Babell (1689/1690 – 1723) in 1717. Written in 1711, Rinaldo was the first Italian opera to reach the London stage. It must to have been popular to warrant such an arrangement within six years of the premiere. Schelhase played five movements. Virtuosity characterized the short Prelude, whereas the Overture was full of Handelisms. Then followed three character pieces, Soura Balza, Lascia ch’io pianga, and Sulla routa di fortuna. Soura Balza (which my Italian dictionary translates as “Soura jumps”) sounds like a sea shanty. You can imagine the next piece as sad, but it included variations and an exquisite ending. The third piece was upbeat and featured pregnant pauses throughout.

The March 3 concert presented Chicago-based harpsichordist Jory Vinikour, who happened to study, among others, with my first harpsichord teacher, Kenneth Gilbert. Vinikour is currently playing harpsichord at the Chicago Lyric Opera’s production of Handel’s Hercules. This recital was his Boston debut.

The program consisted of four sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757) and three pieces by Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764). The D-Major sonata, K. 535, was taken at a break-neck speed. You almost welcomed the slow and contemplative sonata in b minor, K. 87. Then another D Major sonata, K. 119, followed, which was filled with full-fisted chords, taken at full register and hand-crossing. The works. The minor companion piece, K. 120 also featured hand-crossing.

L’Entretien des Muses (the maintenance of the muses) was characterized by over-legato and a generally nice sound. Les Tourbillons (swirls) is like its title, whereas Les Cyclopes features virtuosity. An encore, François Couperin’s Les Baricades Mistérieuses, was offered.

This is a very distinguished series. Who knew there were so many harpsichordists at the ready? The series resumes on April 21 with duo harpsichordists Michael Sponseller and Paul Cienniwa and lasts through May. A good way to spend the lunch hour.

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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