Despite 11:00 a.m. hour, the Goethe Institut-Boston was packed on Thursday for a Boston Early Music Festival Fringe concert that might have looked monochromatic on paper, consisting as it did entirely of works for harpsichord by Bach. Not only that, but there were two suites in the same key, the English Suite (BWV 808) in G Minor and the French Suite (BWV 816) in G Major; and the harpsichords were made by the same craftsman, Owen Daly, after instruments by Zell and Mietke. However, the concert was in fact a case study in contrasts: two performers (Ignacio Prego and Byron Schenkman) offered very different approaches on two instruments with divergent personalities.
The difference in the instruments was unmistakable as soon as you entered the room: On the left was a big, double-manual Zell harpsichord decorated with orientalist images of pagodas and birds. On the right stood the much smaller single-manual Mietke in simple unadorned dark wood. The differences in the instruments were mirrored in the musical approaches of the players.
Prego won the 2012 Westfield International Harpsichord Competition, and studied in Madrid and Indiana. On this occasion he displayed dramatic flair and in a performance that was filled with intense activity and brief moments of surpassing sweetness. The English and French Suites are, of course, collections of pieces in dance styles, but they are aestheticized dances. This gave Prego license to often leave the dance impulse behind to explore other dimensions of the piece. The Zell harpsichord has a big voice with a hint of buzzing edge, and a profound low end. Prego emphasized the drama and conflict in the suite: every moment was filled with emotion, to the point of rhythmic distortion. Often the pulse would stretch out to accommodate an expressive gesture or one of Prego’s frequently florid ornaments. The Sarabande was so full of them that the music couldn’t quite accommodate all that the performer wanted to say. He did show a lighter touch in the second Gavotte, played daintily on the upper-manual alone, producing a hushed, glowing tone. It was a strong-willed, thoughtful performance, whose primary effect was to uncover—or did it inject? —anguish buried beneath the notes.
Schenkman and the Mietke inhabited a quite different interpretive universe, whose aesthetics were made immediately clear by the brief, elegant fantasia Schenkman played before embarking on the piece proper, which simply outlined a chord then executed a brief arabesque before landing gracefully. In Schenkman’s hands the dances were, in fact, dances, moving lightly from step to step in a performance that was tempted the body to movement while remaining intellectually absorbing. Although, like Prego, he also ornamented liberally in repeats, the additions were rhetorical flourishes in an existing style rather than amplifications or personal discoveries. The instrument had translucent tone with rounded edges, with a solid but understated center in each note. There was personality in this playing, too, but it was gracious and understated. The dotted rhythm that dominates the Loure had a skipping, swinging quality I’ve not heard before—enough so that the trailing bass statement after each section had a hint of wit and humor to it, as if that voice were happily trailing behind, taking its time to come to the end. The tempi were all on the fast side, but never too fast—and apart from some tangled fingers at the end of the Gigue all was executed with a fine sense of balance.
The differences were great enough to make one wonder how the players would blend in the final work, the Concerto for Two Harpsichords, played without accompaniment (BWV 1061a). When playing simultaneously, the two players blended remarkably well. Although Prego, as expected, had to take care to avoid dominating, and for the most part the happily meshing musical gears of the first movement created a lush, pulsating carpet of harpsichord-sound. When called upon to speak in dialogue, however, the players and instruments were sticking to their individual guns, and at times Prego/Zell sounded bullying, Schenkman/Mienke tentative. More successful was their encore, an arrangement of the final movement from the Organ Trio in D Minor (BWV 527). Less formal and public than the concerto, written originally for a single instrument, and filled with echoes, the piece elicited a relaxed performance from the players. Their stylistic and aural differences were no less apparent, but in this context they took on the quality of two individuals engaged in a shared conversation, their differences giving depth and shading to the passages they traded. I’m usually skeptical of encores, but this was a deeply satisfying way to end this concert, a somewhat less ambitious work of Bach’s providing the basis for a reconciliation of two quite different sound worlds.