in: Reviews

June 16, 2015

Keyboard Paternity Exposed

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One way of approaching an antique musical instrument is via its place in history, by assessing its lineage and progeny. Another way is to take the instrument on its own terms, by appreciating it for what it can actually do. These approaches are not antithetical and may even be complementary, as in this year’s iteration of the Boston Early Music Festival’s Keyboard Mini-Festival, curated by Darcy Kuronen, Pappalardo Curator of Musical Instruments for the Museum of Fine Arts. The Keyboard Mini-Fest, featuring three instruments in the MFA’s collection, was held in the museum’s Remis Auditorium on Friday.

The Mini-Fest got under way with a harpsichord recital by Alexander Weimann, an accomplished keyboardist and conductor who was recently appointed Artistic Director of the Seattle Baroque Orchestra. Weimann’s instrument was a splendid double-manual French harpsichord by Henri Hemsch [link here]. This sonorous instrument probably dates from 1736, and Weimann’s program featured music from around the same time by Johann Sebastian Bach, Jean-Philippe Rameau, and George Frideric Handel.

Weimann opened with the French Ouverture, BWV 831, from the second volume of Bach’s Clavier-Übung (“keyboard exercise”). Working one’s way through this long sequence of dance movements is certainly an exercise and can even be quite a workout for the performer. Bach’s writing is, after all, a German take on a French musical genre, and the German-born Weimann’s reading put me in mind of Gustav Leonhardt, a giant of the previous generation. I appreciated the spotlight he shone on Bach’s inner voices, though I’d have preferred less smudging of details.

Weimann continued with an arrangement of a suite from Rameau’s opera-ballet, Les Indes Galantes, and three of Handel’s Six Grand Fugues, HWV 605-610, interleaving Rameau’s courtly dances with Handel’s studious counterpoint. In comments from the stage, he justified this by comparing the Rameau to salad greens and the Handel to beefsteak; finishing one before starting the other, he argued, would be boring. I realize that in earlier times it was common for performers to intersperse disparate compositions in this way. However, the constant interruption denied Rameau’s writing the opportunity to create its own sound world. That’s a pity, but even so, I enjoyed the folk flavor of the “Musette en Rondeau” and the tonal variation of “Les Sauvages.”

In Weimann’s recital we could hear the harpsichord straining against its limits, striving for more volume and variety of sound. The Mini-Fest’s next recital, by Tom Beghin, showcased one instrument-maker’s response, a gorgeous fortepiano with a Wedgwood-inlaid case that emerged in 1796 from the London workshop of John Broadwood & Son [link here]. Beghin’s program presented works by Johann Baptist Cramer, Muzio Clementi, and Theresa Jansen, but the star of the show was Joseph Haydn’s Grand Sonata in E-flat major, which Haydn composed for and dedicated to Jansen.

In music, we tend to think of the Classical era as one of discipline and restraint, but often what restrained the composers of that era was the limitations of the instruments for which they were writing. When Haydn was given the opportunity, as he was with Broadwood’s trailblazing fortepianos, he showed himself to be fully capable of grand gestures such as we usually associate with the Romantic era. Beghin’s reading of this sonata underscored the theatricality of its opening allegro, and its finale was full of the rhythmic energy so typical of Haydn at his best. Though Beghin’s sympathetic reading made the most of its symphonic textures, his passagework was altogether too messy.

Broadwood was at the forefront of the keyboard “arms race” of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a race that was to provide the necessary firepower for Beethoven and those who followed in his footsteps. However, though something wonderful was gained by those efforts, something equally wonderful was lost. That was the message of the Mini-Fest’s final recital, Luc Beauséjour’s truly virtuosic performance on a clavichord also dating from 1796 by the South German craftsman Johann Christoph Georg Schiedmayer [link here]. For me, and evidently for many others in the audience, this was the Mini-Fest’s high point.

The clavichord is capable of unusual expressiveness, but the delicacy of its sound would lead many performers to shy away from extrovert compositions such as Beauséjour tackled head-on: Handel’s Suite in D minor, HWV 437, and Bach’s French Suite No. 5 in G major, BWV 816. Again the latter composition is a German take on a French musical genre, but I appreciated the greater freedom indulged in by Beauséjour, who seemed truly to revel in his instrument’s capabilities. Most amazingly, though complex counterpoint can be tough on a clavichord, he even added to the program two fugues from that display of counterpoint par excellence, Bach’s Art of the Fugue. I don’t think there was the slightest doubt in anyone’s mind that Beauséjour earned his standing ovation.

George W. Harper is a religious historian who teaches in the Philippines. For 25 years he lived in the Boston area, and for 13 of those years he sang with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus.

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