in: Reviews

May 19, 2011

Four Harpsichord Concerts at First Church

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Two harpsichords make such a jolly sound when they are well matched that programs that feature duo harpsichordists surprise me with their rarity. Paul Cinniewa and Michael Sponseller offered a short program in the noontime Thursday series April 21 at First Church in Boston. The program was a winning one, too. For once, Bach suffered in comparison to the rest of the pieces, by Gaspard le Roux (c. 1660-1707) for two harpsichords and rarely heard Fandango (Quintettino op. 40 no. 2) of Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805).

Cinniewa is  music director at First Church; he played my harpsichord, a David Jacques Way made in 1980, which is used in most of the First Church concerts. Guest artist Sponseller, who plays with Emmanuel Music, tours as a soloist and chamber musician; his instrument is a French harpsichord built by Earl Russell (1922-2004) after 1736 Henri Hemsch. (This instrument was also used in the Emmanuel Lenten series, as wellas in its Emmanuel’s production of Stravinsky’s Rake’s Progress in April.)

The le Roux Pièces pour deux clavecins began unusually, with a soft gigue. Then Cienniwa offered a prélude in ré, which Sponseller answered one movement later with a prélude in la. The Gavotte was a sprightly affair. Two minuets followed, then a courante. The J. S. Bach piece was the middle movement, marked “Adagio overro Largo,” from the Concerto, C Major, BWV 1061 for two harpsichords. It can be seen on YouTube here. The pièce de résistance was the Boccherini Fandango. Here Cienniwa and Sponseller outdid themselves. It is full of gimmicks and repeated chords. It got quite an ovation, so an encore was given, the le Roux gigue again.

Matthew Hall, organist and assistant choirmaster at Church of Our Saviour, Brookline, and an editorial assistant at the Packard Humanities Institute, Cambridge (which published C.P.E. Bach: The Complete Works), played an all-Bach recital on Thursday, April 28. He chose a difficult program, the Prelude and Fugue from the Well Tempered Clavier, Book I, BWV 860, and the third English suite in G minor, BWV 808. The prelude was taken at a lively clip, as was the fully registered fugue.

The prelude from the English Suite was played coupled — i.e., two keyboards, upper and lower register, are played together and nicely inflected. Slow and stately characterized the Allemande, with ornamented repeats. The Sarabande was harmonically adventurous, whereas the two Gavottes had many repeated notes. Played on the full register, the Gigue was appropriately fast.

Representing the state of Connecticut was Linda Skernick, who is on the music faculty of Connecticut College, The Thames Valley Music School, and who also tours widely. She offered an all-Bach recital on May 5, including a piece never heard before by this reviewer. This was the Prelude for the Lute or Harpsichord, in Eb major, BWV 998. The Prelude sounded improvised on the lower 8’ register, a good thing. The fugue, played on the couple keyboards, had an interlude on the upper 8’ register. She played a little on the slow side, which I like; sometimes harpsichordists play too quickly and the instrument loses resonance.

The recital ended with the Four Duets, BWV 802-805, from the Clavierübung, Part III, for organ. They are often played on harpsichords. Many people consider the four duets to refer to the four elements. By this reckoning, the first duet, with its flowing theme, refers to water. The second duet, played on the coupled keyboards, refers to air, whereas the third duet in G major is a depiction to earth. The fourth duet in A minor, played on the coupled keyboards, refers to fire. This conjecture is very effective, and apt.

The May 12 recital bought a solo recital by Michael Sponseller. His was an all-French recital, featuring Pièces de Clavecin,  (1746) by Joseph Nicolas Pancrace Royer (1705-1755) and an unscheduled piece by Jacques Duphly (1715-1789). The opening piece, “La Majestueuse,” a  courante in D minor, is grand, as the title suggests. It featured a trait of Royer’s compositions — interruptions. Sponseller played La Zaïde, on the upper 8’ and emphasized the surprising ending. The Tambourine brought a drone to the proceedings. For this concert, he used my Way harpsichord, on deposit at First Church.

Royer was known in his day as an opera composer. (Sponseller said that he had been in a brawl with Rameau.) The short Suite de la Bagatelle was actually found in between two acts of his opera. But the greatest piece is Royer’s Le Vertigo, characterized by repeated chords and interruptions. It was a wild thing. Because Sponseller had forgotten to bring Royer’s La Chasse de Zaïde, he subtituted Duphly’s contemporary Les Graces. It’s marked Tendrement, and Sponseller played it that way.

According to composer Betsy Schramm, who was at the concert, Royer is a weak composer made to sound superior by Sponseller’s art. I wholeheartedly agree.

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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