The Gloucester Meetinghouse Foundation in the namesake port city staged a rare treat this past weekend for its annual birthday celebrations for Johann Sebastian Bach: his music for multiple harpsichords! The historic 1806 meetinghouse served as the ideal venue for the concertos for three and four harpsichords. Its wood and plaster sanctuary resonated enough to support the softer sound of the period instruments without any echo to cover up the subtleties of the sound. The Arpeggione Ensemble, a period string quartet based in the North Shore, gave adequate accompaniment to the veritable who’s who of harpsichordists: Elliot Figg, a NYC based harpsichordist and composer; Frances Fitch, professor at Tufts, Brandeis, and NEC; Lenora McCroskey, professor emeritus at the University of North Texas; and Peter Sykes, faculty at the University of Michigan, Julliard School, and Boston University.
The Concerto in A Minor for Four Harpsichords headlined the concert. One harpsichord introduces a seed, the melodic fragment from which the rest of the movement is based. After a second harpsichord joined to add ornaments, all four jumped in with a blasting a-minor chord. The movement alternated between tutti sections, with everyone playing, and solo sections for one or two. They performed without the optional string parts so that the audience could hear the differing tonal qualities of the instruments. The two by builder Allen Winkler (who was in attendance) sang with a more refined, mellower tone than the other two. One, a rare Dowd Italian, produced a powerful, punchy sound akin to that of a banjo while the other, an early Hubbard Flemish, had that mid-century ping. These disparate tonal colors intensified the evolving texture of the music. The second movement featured a spine-tingling passage of arpeggios from all four harpsichordists simultaneously. While one played in 32nd notes high in the register, another had 16th notes in a middle register, and several plucked eighths in the bass. The vivacious final movement ended with a mad-dash finale that incited much applause.
The Concerto in C Major for Three Harpsichords utilized the harpsichords by moving the solo passages freely from one player to another. This resulted in a stereophonic effect as the melody moved about the room. At warm-up, a performer joked that they should have set the harpsicords in the corners of the room to wow the audience. This concerto is believed to be an arrangement of a lost one for three violins, the resultant awkward writing doesn’t fit easily under the hand at the keyboard. Despite these difficulties, the skilled clavierists managed the odd leaps while phrasing them as effectively as possible on those dynamically challenged keyboards.
The Concerto in D Minor for Three Harpsichords used the harpsichords differently. Bach split melodies among harpsichords at the same time. He reinforced a melody with parallel thirds or sixths in another part. This requires the performers to coordinated trills and breaths which they managed with maximum clarity. The second movement, a graceful Alla Siciliana, placed most of the melodic material on the first harpsichordists, Peter Sykes. The movement ended with a cadenza, elegantly shaped by Sykes, which transitioned into the unexpected fugal final movement.