Richard Egarr gave the eighth concert in the Boston Early Music Festival’s 2011-2012 concert season in the First Church of Cambridge on the evening of Friday, February 10th. Called “The Harpsichord’s Golden Century,” the program was made up entirely of harpsichord music from the 17th century, a period when, as Egarr asserted, there was the closest connection in history between the composers and the instrument they wrote for, as well as the deepest understanding of the harpsichord’s debt to the lute. As he pointed out in his introductory comments, the harpsichord, that “deeply unmusical instrument,” owes everything to the lute textures, ornaments, even musical forms. The unmeasured prelude (of which Egarr played two, both by Louis Couperin), with its flowing strings of notes written without rhythmic indications, was simply a lute form transferred to an instrument which can — as Egarr said — be called a sort of large mechanized lute.
Those readers who are familiar with the First Church’s vastly bathtub acoustics will by now be astonished that I have referred so frequently to what Egarr said, since speech in the church tends to be wholly incomprehensible in the wash of echoes. Indeed, I was taken aback to notice in the program before the performance began that there was a line saying “Mr. Egarr will speak about each work from the stage.” It seemed a strange choice indeed, until he began to speak. Then it became obvious that “good schoolboy diction” (as he put it) was perfectly able to conquer the echo-effect, and his comments between every piece were comprehensible even from the balcony at the back of the sanctuary.
It has to be said that performers speaking between pieces does not always work. Sometimes it shatters the mood and concentration created by the piece before and distracts one from the piece that begins next, leaving the audience to wonder why the notes were not included in the program to be read (or not) at leisure. Not all musicians are born speakers, after all, and it is difficult to balance speech and music. Egarr, however, is a born speaker — lively, entertaining, informative, and able to convey both his own love and excitement for the music and still create an atmosphere in which the music could take center stage. The only thing that might have been done to assist everyone would have been to print a few facsimiles of the scores that Egarr played from in the program. Though his voice could carry clearly throughout the sanctuary, a sheet of music held up next to the instrument was not visible beyond a few rows to anyone but the extremely far-sighted (or those provided with binoculars). And I am sure that I was not alone in wishing for a closer look at the facsimile of the Froberger manuscripts, with their magnificent initial letters, and the scale at the end of the Lamento sopra la dolorosa perdita della Real Maestà di Ferdinando IV Rè de Romani ascending into a little angelic cloud!
The program began and ended with suites put together by Egarr from the works of Louis Couperin, heavy on the courantes (because Egarr likes them), and including both the Tombeau de M. de Blancrocher and the famous great Chaconne (or Passacaille – the manuscript gives both titles) in C Major. I was glad that there were so many courantes – those notoriously difficult dances, with their unpredictably shifting meter, are rarely to be heard played so well. Egarr also played a Suite in A minor by John Blow and two Grounds and two Suites (in G minor and D Major) by Henry Purcell. The were prefaced by Egarr’s recounting of taking Purcell music to play for his then teacher, the late Gustav Leonhardt (to whose memory the concert was dedicated), and being quite upset when Leonhardt’s reaction was to say “rather lightweight, aren’t they?” Egarr then took ALL of Purcell’s keyboard works to him, one by one. This was a suitable revenge for anyone who admires Purcell’s peculiarly charming eccentricity, and one perhaps justified by Leonhardt’s inclusion of Purcell in his final recital last December.
But to me the most spectacular part of the recital was the Froberger that came before and after the intermission. The ferocious and magnificent Toccata II in D minor, the Suite in C Major (including the Lamento mentioned above), and Froberger’s own Tombeau fait à Paris sur la mort de Monsieur Blancheroche, lamenting the unfortunate young lutenist who came to an ignominious end, toppling downstairs after a party at which Froberger also was a guest. Whether the final descending scale represents M. Blancheroche’s unshriven soul descending to Hell, or merely his earthly form tumbling on those misplaced stairs, remains an unsolved mystery.