IN: Reviews

Noondays at First Church


Artem Belogurov (BMInt staff photo)

The Thursday noonday concerts at First Church Boston continue at a high level. The first of three programs included in this review was a performance on Dec. 1, by harpsichordist Nickolai Sheikov, consisting of a suite by Handel and three sonatas by Scarlatti.

First up was Handel’s (1685-1759) familiar Suite in E Major (HWV 430.) There are four movements in the suite: Prelude, Allemande, Courante, and an Aria with 5 Doubles. The Prelude was played on the main keyboard and sounded improvised, which is a good thing. The Allemande sported repeats on the upper keyboard. A fast tempo characterized the Courante, which was played on coupled keyboards. In the famous Aria known as the “Harmonious Blacksmith,” Sheikov proved his velocity, as he played on full registers.

There were three sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757), announced from the stage: K. 211 and K. 212 in A Major; and K. 56 in C minor. The K. 56 was memorized (à la Paul Cienniwa) and played on full registers.

On December 8th the excellent Russian émigré pianist, Artem Belogurov, offered a tantalizing preview of an intriguing larger recital devoted to late 19th and early 20th century composers of the so-called Boston Second School. The program from composers associated with the Harvard Musical Association showcased  short works by George W. Chadwick (1854-1931), Arthur Foote (1853-1937), Arthur Whiting (1840-1923), Ethelbert Nevin (1862-1901), and John Knowles Paine (1839-1906), which Beloruov is planning  to record.

Chadwick’s piece was Les Grenouilles (Humoresque.) It’s sillier than one might expect from an illustrious former President of the New England Conservatory. Foote’s work is more serious and evocative: excerpts from Five Poems after Omar Kayyam, Op. 41. Whiting’s offering was another Humoreske — another charming  trifle. Nevin’s Etude in a form of Scherzo, Op. 18, no. 2.  had some real substance. Paine’s, Fuga Giocosa, Op. 41, no. 3.  has as its fugue subject a tune which unfortunately is familiar to all who remember the Three Stooges. Still, it’s intriguing to hear such a program from a young pianist not at all embarrassed to explore this realm. His immersion seemed total.

One could quote Stephen Ledbetter who recently said of this genre, “Now that the cultural wars of the 19th and early 20th centuries are several generations behind us, it is easier to absorb the music of our more distant past with historical understanding and to accept and enjoy music that our grandparents thought outdated, and to recognize its own value and beauty, and the pioneering work of its creators.”

As an aside I note that I live in the building commissioned in 1884 by Oliver Ditson, the great music publisher. In 1909 his son invited Foote and several other musicians to form the Society for the Prevention of Destitute Musicians. I like to think that this decision was made in my living room. Foote was music director at First Church in Boston (the site of this concert) for over thirty years.

F:Paul Ciennewa, Hilary Walker, R: Cynthia Miller Freivogel, Harold Lieberman,Zoe Weiss, Asako Takeuchi (BMInt staff photo)

I’ve left the best to last. On Dec. 15, mezzo-soprano Hilary Anne Walker performed, in its entirety, J. S. Bach’s (1685-1750) Cantata 35, “Geist und Seele,” complete with a small baroque band: baroque violinists Asako Takeuchi and Cynthia Miller Freivogel; baroque violist Harold Lieberman; and baroque cellist Zoe Weiss with series organizer Paul Cienniwa playing the elaborate organ part. The ensemble was well-tuned and bright of sound without giving in to the sometimes fashionable exaggerated accents and swells on individual notes one sometimes hears from early musicians.

There are seven movements in this cantata divided in two parts, two sinfonia, three arias, and two recitativos. It was a feast to hear such music. The two sinfonias were of unequal length, whereas the first aria, “Geist und Seele wird verwirret” is much the longer one. Walker displayed clear understanding of German as well as intense emotional involvement with her light but sumptuous mezzo-soprano voice. Her bio mentions the physicality of her singing, but her intellect is also quite in evidence.

The second aria has a melisma on “alles” (everything.)  The English translation of the third aria is worth quoting in full: “I wish only by God to live,/Ah, if only the time were already here,/A joyful Halleluah/With all the angels I would raise./My dearest Jesus, lift yet/The sorrowful yoke of suffering/And let me soon in Your hands/End my tormented life.” Bach and the performers succeeded at the conveying the deep meaning and sentiment.

The series resumes in January. The free Thursday afternoon concerts start at 12:15 pm and last until 12:45 pm.



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