More than ever is the Boston Early Music Festival a cornucopia, and now with niche offerings. At the Museum of Fine Arts last Friday and employing four historical instruments from its fine collection, a recital—three recitals, actually, for harpsichord, then fortepiano, then clavichord—took place, in a well-attended all-day compendium of nominally youth-related keyboard works. “The Youthful Keyboard: Inspiration and Instruction” was curated by Boston’s own eminent early-music keyboardist (and BU professor) Peter Sykes, who also was the lead of the five performers. Some recital portions had subthemes (Beethoven and the fortepiano’s limits; pedagogy), which seemed to this listener a bit forced, or perhaps irrelevant, but no matter. The day was highly rewarding, albeit long. Let us go to the play by play.
The morning harpsichord recital opened with Sykes performing Bach, always a good thing, on the MFA’s two-manual 1736 Henry Hemsch, of ravishing and silvery tone and showy paintings, with very little of what so many object to about harpsichord sound. Sykes this day played generally in the currently mandated metronome-banning “felt rhythm” style, which such past stalwarts of steadiness as Zuzana Růžičková and Anton Heiller (not to mention Gould, Landowska, Tureck …) would hardly recognize, and the C major, C-sharp major, F-sharp minor, and G major Preludes and Fugues from WTCI sometimes traded forward motion for (arguably extraneous) drama, emphases, expressivity. The S.859 Fugue was held up to an inspecting light rather than thrown firmly our way. Fortunately Sykes made all such approach with sensitivity and strength, and his dramatic pauses and sways were everywhere loving and petit. His lurching, expressive-rhythm peers seldom do as well.
Antoine Forqueray’s Première Suite concluded Sykes’s half of the morning program. It is wild. Does Forqueray’s being a viol star (he played “like the devil,” they say) account for his grumbly, bass-oriented sonic sensibility? Maybe so, actually: online sources say this is a harpsichord transcription by his son of the viol original, although I didn’t hear Sykes mention that. Forqueray, a contemporary of Bach and all the other ~1670s–1750s crowd and a member of an influential French musical family, gave his suite movements colorful names (“La Portugaise: Marqué et d’aplomb,” etc.). These sections are binary, full of chunked dusky chords connected by walking, leading, arpeggiated lines. The last dance, “La Couperin: Noblement et marquee,” seemed to end unexpectedly, powerfully, in almost chromatic darkness. Sykes made the most of this opportunity to introduce us to the work and vice-versa. One rather cool note: Sykes employs his iPad to read his scores.
Royal Conservatory of the Hague harpsichord professor Fabio Bonizzoni is a charmer. He jumbled his presentation from what was in the printed program, so this report may have some things wrong, and he also went long. Jumping back a century earlier than the preceding musics, Frescobaldi’s first Toccata contained more of those short showy runs between homophonic cadences, but it’s a mature work of drama, engaging and with what sounded like a strange nontonical ending. A solid Aria was even more developed. The ensuing “Battle” Capriccio delighted the audience to the laugh-out-loud point, meaning at the end we did just that, owing to the music’s nonbass rumbles, marches, fanfares, attacks, flurried bunches and bunched flurries, horn and pipe calls, bass rumbles and, presumably, victory. Louis Couperin’s Passacaille showed off varying harmonically gorgeous progressions fussily embellished over the ground round, rather, rond, with a surprising minor ending. Before Froberger’s probing “Meditation on my future death” Bonizzoni spoke of adolescent despair, trying to steer thoughts back to the notional youth theme, and it did sound like gloomy noodling over punctuating bass lines. The guy in the next seat muttered “Soporific,” but I was charmed, also by Gemiani’s “Amoureusement.” Bonizzoni is a strong player, and his final piece, the young Bach Toccata in E minor S.914, rarely performed, came as a relief to these spoiled and parochial ears. Bonizzoni played this better music, or at least more-explicable music, most firmly, if with a touch of rushing in the fugue.
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Witty, lanky Aussie Anthony Romaniuk was another born performer, his mid-day recital titled ‘The Limits of Sonority — Beethoven and the 5-Octave Piano.” This right next to a description of the MFA’s 1796 Broadwood, which has six octaves. Whatever. The instrument is gaudy, made for a Spanish customer and decorated with ornaments like some C&W piano almost worthy of the Liberace collection. After explaining how needlessly finger-waggy the 18-year-old Beethoven’s emphatic notations are, Romaniuk, happy banger, dove in with a neat improvisation that led right into the early Sonata in C minor, Op. 10 no. 1, written a couple years after the Broadwood was built. It’s an impetuous piece, raring to dramatize the keyboard technology achievement—a whole new world of “loudsoft” beyond what Mozart had done. Romaniuk achieved subtly shaded quietude in the Adagio molto second movement and ornery (meaning Haydn-like) attacks in the Finale Prestissimo that were head-turning. Likewise the “Eroica” Variations, in a performance so splendid and accomplished, from the early strands of the famous tune gathered and redeployed all the way to the final fugue, that I would like to hear it again, in fact own a recording. (Don’t be misled by this mediocre 2012 rendering.)
The MFA Broadwood’s top treble is thunky-plunkier than that of the later Broadwood described here, but the midrange is about as rich and forceful as a 20th-century Steinway M, and the bass was wonderfully buzzy.
The second mid-day offering, “Music for the Sufferings of Young Werther,” featured Mozart’s prematurely mature Sonata in A minor K.310 and Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Sonata in D major Op. 28, with the immensely credentialed, smartly spoken pianist Yi-heng Yang. This day she was two musicians, quite aside from the programed peculiarity of trying to reflect the 24-year-old Goethe’s maudlin tale of the Worst Case of Unrequited Love ever. Werther passages were read, twice, by Yang’s “friend Margie,” also the page-turner, in superbly weenie boy voice, full of modern teen drama. It was close to moving, but also excruciating, to hear that moonstruck lad go on so. In any case, while written only four years after the epistolary work, K.310 to my ear has nothing in common with it in affect or any other tone. From the start this sonata reaches out, right into one’s passing through life, and grips and does not let go, with the ending even more powerful than the powerful opening. It is like nothing else in Mozart, almost, and everyone duly notes its connection with the death of the composer’s mother. Goethe’s pathos and despair may be real and potent, but this sonata represents something quite other.
In the event, Yang did a poor job with it. Her Allegro maestoso was choppy and the opposite of majestic, the Andante cantabile con espessione rough-hewn at best, and the dark Presto weakly phrased and of low flow. A mess of a performance. One dreaded the Beethoven.
Which was fine, and often more. This lovely piece was treated and came off with coherence and integration, phrased fondly, with minor-key moments and rocking lefthand drumming octaves cleanly navigated, and a topflight ending page. One figured, then, that Yang’s Mozart was perhaps an anomaly. A truly impressive achievement of Yang’s was that somehow she made the Broadwood’s top octaves sound fully integral, not just plinked.
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Every concertgoer, every musician of every sort, indeed every person in the audio industry really should go to a clavichord concert. In a precise and focused acoustic space like the MFA’s Remis Hall (flat surfaces, little diffusion), and with a dynamic range dropped tens of decibels below today’s norm, a clavichord recital completely reboots your hearing. Peter Sykes requested no applause, suggesting program rustling instead, a wise and indeed essential constraint.
This later-afternoon recital featured two of the museum’s clavichords. The first is a late-1500s toolbox-looking thing of fir, 4’ wide and 6” high; the second is a much fancier and more elaborate instrument from two centuries later, by Schiedmayer, with the superseded technology heading into obsolescence. The former’s sound was beautiful, the latter’s beautifuler, but both just extremely quiet: faint banjo over a table radio two rooms away.
Sykes began this third recital with selections from Diruta’s ~1610 treatise “Il Transvilano” (“The Transylvanian,” a purported dialog with said diplomat about organ technique). The Ricercare showed that elegant Renaissance contrapuntal multivoice work that so captured the learned musician Bach more than a century later, and the Toccata on the Sixth Tone with Bad Leaps amused. Moving to the Schiedmayer, Sykes played, with care and sensitivity, the F-sharp minor and A major Preludes and Fugues from WTCII, but again with some of today’s de rigueur expressive semi-lurching. Just for kicks I may ask if I can oil his metronome. He closed with absorbing, lightweight youth-oriented pedagogy from Daniel Türk (b.1750), selections from “Keyboard School” plus a sonata. For the historically minded it is always fascinating to hear what else was being written and taught and played in 1777 other than the big guns.
Speaking of pedagogy and alternative music, the long day closed smack in the middle of the 18th century with C.P.E Bach’s “Music To Educate the Musical Youth,” from 18 demos bundled into six sonatas. Eastman professor Ulrika Davidsson is another pro, a formidable keyboard artist for such soft instruments, upright of posture while supple of approach. C.P.E.’s sonatas are, she informed us, quite variously keyed and time-signatured by movement; she did not say “random.” Davidsson plowed through four of these unusually engaging and enjoyable sonatas (III–VI) with flair and confidence, polish and poise and point-making, which is much easier to write about than actually effect on a clavichord. She showed that clavichord output level is directly linked to touch and weight and force. Her coloration and dynamics had delicacy, pleading passages pled, crosshand passages excited. For my taste there were, still, overmuch expressive rhythm and pausing dramatics. But many times these instructive works rose to the level of real pieces, and you’d think they’d be taught and played more than they are. A fine end to a fine day of learning, even for us nonyoung.