A faculty recital by harpsichordist John Gibbons at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall on Monday evening, May 9th, presented masterworks of keyboard music from three centuries. Professor of Historical Performance at NEC and director of its Bach Ensemble, Gibbons is also well known to Boston audiences as a founding member, with violinist Daniel Stepner and viola da gambist Laura Jeppesen, of the Boston Museum Trio.
In Monday’s concert, Gibbons played a two-manual, five-octave French-style harpsichord by Boston builder Allan Winkler based on a 1711 instrument by Pierre Donzelague of Lyons. With two keyboards and three sets of strings (two eight-foot and one four-foot) it has far more tonal possibilities than the single-strung three-and-a-half octave instruments of William Byrd’s time. Yet Byrd, beginning in the 1570s, composed a body of works that raised English keyboard music to a high level and still make for delightful listening.
Gibbons opened his program with three pieces by Byrd, beginning with two stylized court dances, a paired pavan and galliard. Byrd’s pavans typically consist of a series of eight-measure “strains” in freely polyphonic style, each followed by an ornamented repetition that retains its melodic and harmonic skeleton while varying the texture with trills and passage work. The Pavan is in a sedate duple meter; the similarly constructed Galliard that follows is in somewhat faster triple meter. The second work, Byrd’s setting of a popular dance song Will you walk the woods so wild, opened with the tune in the top voice and thumping chords in the bass, then proceeded through thirteen variations in which the tune migrated to inner voices, sometimes altered beyond recognition, and increasingly complex finger work enriched the texture. In the Fantasy in C, virtuoso passage work alternated with sections in fugal style. Gibbons played this music in a refreshingly straightforward manner, sensitive to its engaging details but devoid of miniaturist mannerism.
A famous virtuoso in his day, Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643) is known primarily for his keyboard music. The Partite sopra l’aria di Ruggiero is one of several sets of variations he composed on a popular sixteen-measure dance bass. A freer composition, Toccata XI from his Partitas and Toccatas Book I is infused with caprice in its headlong scale passages and shifting modes, and here I wished that Gibbons had taken a somewhat more supple approach to tempo and phrasing. Indeed, the notation of the Prélude in F major by Louis Couperin (1626-1661) demands such an approach from the performer. It is entirely in whole notes (Gibbons held up the score for the audience to see), with only elegantly drawn slurs to provide hints as to the approximate duration and grouping of notes; even fast passages and trills appear uniformly as apparently slow large white notes. It is up to the performer of these preludes to distinguish among chordal, melodic, and ornamental tones and to realize coherent progressions out of what appear at first glance to be unfinished sketches. An uncle of the more famous François-le-Grand, this Couperin is one of the most important harpsichord composers of the seventeenth century, but he died young and none of his music was published in his lifetime.
Following the unmeasured prelude, Gibbons played a group of six stylized dances in F major, concluding with a lively chaconne, a series of variations (couplets) interspersed with a short refrain on a familiar dance bass. The Tombeau de Mr. de Blanrocher that followed was an entirely different sort of piece, a tribute to a lutenist friend of Couperin’s who fell downstairs and died without receiving absolution. Suspended dissonances and chromatic pitches added to the “pathetic” affect of this piece in solemn French overture style.
From the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I of Johann Sebastian Bach Gibbons chose the Preludes and Fugues in F-sharp major and F-sharp minor, two pieces contrasting in both affect and technique. Here Gibbons showed how the harpsichord can be coaxed into denying its apparent physical limitations to produce singing tone and clearly-defined inner voices. Finally, we were treated to a fine performance of Bach’s Partita IV in D Major. Each of the six partitas opens with a movement in a different style. The Ouverture in D major, the favored key of trumpets and drums, is in the grand style of French Baroque opera, its scalar flourishes and exaggerated dotted rhythms followed by a sprightly fugue in triple time. In the Allemande, Gibbons skillfully brought out the additional voices implied within the complex arabesques of single melodic lines and in the Courante, subtle shifts between binary and ternary groupings in 3/2 meter. The Gigue, with its long and complex subject worked out in a dazzling motoric fugue, brought this summa of Bach’s writing for keyboard to a brilliant conclusion.
Virginia Newes, who now lives in Cambridge, was Associate Professor of Music History and Musicology at the Eastman School of Music.