Encountering multiple keyboards on stage is a rare augury of excitement to come, whether that artillery comprises 12 bulky square pianos for a Gottschalk “monster concert,” or, as in the case at First Church, Cambridge, four slender but decorative harpsichords for Baroque concerti. When I arrived on Sunday afternoon, Cambridge Concentus was set to give us Bach’s six concerti for two, three and four harpsichords with four local luminaries as soloists.
The string players in the ‘orchestra’ numbered four in the first half of the program and five in the second half. The two violins, viola and cello were arrayed against the curved back wall of the chancel and behind the harpsichords, which were disposed in a similar arc in front of them. According to the dogma espoused by Artistic Adviser Joshua Rifkin, one string on a part is the only correct disposition for these six concerti. Even though the audience in the large First Church was gathered up close in the chancel, the impact of the four strings lacked pizazz. Part of the problem was in their un-favored placement and part in the nature of the shy early instruments themselves. Again, according to Rifkin’s remarks to this writer, Baroque strings cannot be pushed—they clam up if the player digs in. Overall, though the strings certainly had some great moments, one often wanted more: it isn’t often that harpsichords drown out orchestras.
If you had in your mind the sound of Bach performed by Kissin, Levine, Argerich, and Pletnev on nine-foot Steinways, with loud modern string players, you were going to be disappointed [listen here]. If, on the other hand, you wanted a better-rehearsed, purer version, with almost everything lining up perfectly, then you had come to the right place. Artistic director David Kjar began with an apologia: what we were about to hear were, gasp, transcriptions—five based on earlier works of Bach, and in the case of what Kjar called “the quad,” one that Bach transcribed from Vivaldi’s earlier work for four violins. Of course, transcriptions can also be homages, and we received these with great pleasure—no need to apologize. And original is not always better in the output of composers.
With one exception, the six concerti were given in numerical order. I suspect that BWV 1061 came before BWV 1060 because it put the entire program in order of increasing excitement and complexity. Indeed, the Concerto for Two Harpsichords in C Major, BWV 1061, was the closest to its origins as a two-harpsichord piece, especially since the strings sat out one movement entirely.
Rifkin arrived to challenge Dylan Sauerwald to the first harpsichord duel in the first of his three theatrically late stage entrances. And then the instruments spoke in an extreme stereophony because of their wide placement. This would have been a fine hi-fi demonstration record in the Ping-Pong era on headphones, but it was immediately clear that the instrument on the audience’s right was favored by better projection. For this reason, it was generally used for the primo part except in a couple of instances when Bach assigned the interesting role to the secondo. As the soloists piled up, it was interesting to contrast and compare, but the player on the 1984 D. Jacques Way French double-manual, after Blanchet, with a beautifully painted lid on the right, always seemed favored, no matter who was playing.
In the first Allegro, Sauerwald and Rifkin evinced great good cheer, while the four strings accompanied dutifully. We would have wished for more engagement. With fluty 8ft. stops for the Adagio, both keyboards sang lyrically and every lick lined up, as the strings stood in silent adoration. In this duel of sensitivity, Sauerwald drew the first blood, but Rifkin, seeming quite liberated from his score, appeared to take pleasure in the strokes of his opponent. The second Allegro is an incredible contest in virtuosity in the form of a fugue in many parts. Bach’s pure intellect juggled all of those lines while preserving the fun. In lesser performances it can sound like a well-oiled music box, but this one rocked.
Matthew Hall stepped up to keyboard #1 for BWV 1060. Both practitioners at the highest level, Hall asked for no quarter and gave none to Sauerwald in the virtuosic Allegro. The Adagio could have been more heartfelt to these ears. There was very little rubato and much metronomic precision which seemed alien to a slow movement. When I later asked both Rifkin and Sykes why there were giant ritards at movement endings, but none within movements, both agreed that Italianate music should be played straight ahead. Rifkin even said, “Yes, we made adjustments to tempos, but the audience shouldn’t hear them, and I hated those ritards.” Nevertheless, within the Adagio there were ravishing moments, especially when the pizzicato strings and the harpsichord plucks were so perfectly aligned. Sauerwald and Hall traded wonderful individualistic call and answer riffs and had very different feelings for the 3/4 (or was it 6/8?). The concluding Allegro opened with a vigorous tutti. Following the melodic bouncing ball became a pleasure, especially as it collided with the keyboards. The strings were courtly and dignified, though without humor; they also had some moments of questionable intonation. Sauerwald and Hall raced in Ferraris, while the strings followed in Impalas.
Some assorted observations: Sykes’s face appeared demonic, as illuminated by his tablet. Matthew Hall in the Allegro of BWV 1063 really ripped—he’s a man to be watched. David Miller added attitude when his violone enriched the ensemble. His emphatic insistence on getting things going goaded the other strings to emote more. The Allegro Assai of BWV 1064 was a great celebration destined to live long in our memories.
By the time we got to the Concerto for Four Harpsichords in A Minor, BWV 1065, there were as many as 320 plectra plectring. Yet this was Dolby SurroundSound—not merely mechanical clicks. Sykes at keyboard I exploited his pride of place beatifically. Among the four harpsichords, the chords piled up with amazing splendor in the sparkling opening Adagio. Vivaldi’s rippling albertis evoked guitars and hurdy-gurdys. Reveling in virtuosity—Bach, celebrating Vivaldi, the players paying hommage to Bach and each performer rejoicing in the work of his colleagues—the concert left this listener with a feeling of artistic tributes across the centuries.
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer.