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Harpsichordist Encapsulates Spirits

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The stars aligned on Sunday afternoon for another installment in the serendipitous harpsichord series at First Church in Cambridge. Boston’s early music fanatics were overjoyed to hear a recital from harpsichordist Duangkamon Wan Wattanasak which encapsulated the spirit of this past week’s festivities in reverse order: St. Valentine’s Day, Ash Wednesday, and Mardi Gras. She set the tone of the program with one of Johann Jakob Froberger’s programmatic partitas, the light-hearted D major from Estienne Roger’s 1698 publication. She played the opener, a quasi-Allemande subtitled Meditation, faist sur ma Mort future, with a lyrical, botanical touch. Wattanasak guided the music around its sour chords, accentuating the unexpectedly diminished and inverted harmonies that pepper the it. While acknowledging Froberger’s prescribed ‘avec discretion,’ she retained a dance-like and put-together quality that prevented the movement from getting bogged down. There was time for that in the wistful Sarabande which contained numerous flashes of mortality that harkened back to the meditation. Not to be too sappy, Wan executed the interpolating Courante and Gigue with a swingy, carefree style that seemed to say, “You win some, you lose some.”

Wattanasak’s second set, selections from Francois Couperin’s c minor ordre from the second book of harpsichord music, drew from the composer’s darkest music. The five movements of the penitential music seemed to track with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s conception of the stages of grief (though slightly transposed to accommodate the Baroque ordering of movements). The Allemande la Ténébreuse brought with it a sweeping change of mood from the Froberger. It felt as though a cloud had suddenly passed, dimming the light from Arthur Murray Dallin’s stained glass windows. The pathos-laden, Chopinistic music seemed the embodiment of denial. Wattanasak emphasized Couperin’s agonizing use of deceptive cadences and repeated progression to evoke resentment and bitterness. She used a more freely arpeggiated touch to highlight particular notes in Couperin’s harmonic structure, especially those that created diminished harmonies, without loosing the vocality of the melodic line. The chattering dialogue between the hands in the Seconde Courante evoked the bitter muttering of angry, disaffected minds. Her gentle inégalité propelled the discontented music with great energy to its final measure. La Lugubre, the Sarabande, was agonizing. The definition of depression, she presented the serpentine textures as a knitted web impossible to escape. Every tolling low G felt as though it was a pronouncement of death. Not leaving the audience completely shattered, Wattanasak deployed Couperin’s Les Regrets, a lyrical character piece from later in the same collection, to pull us back from the brink. She spoke through the declamatory, aria-like composition to console us. At its moments of maximum expression, Wattanasak expertly deployed desynchronization of the hands to underscore the freedom of the movement. Some pacifying acceptance of the situation came from the La Favorite Chaconne. Despite the unsettled wandering of the couplets, the poised return of the reprise felt like a self-soothing technique, as hearty as a cup of herbal tea before bed. The swagger of the walking bass gave us some feeling that we could go on after the events of the suite.

Her concluding selections from Jean-Philippe Rameau’s D Major suite brought all of the sparkle of carnival to our chairs. L’entretien des Muses, Wattanasak’s opening number, acted as the ethereal overture setting the scene of a dimly lit stage. The rafters erupted with La Joyeuse and La Follette, two chipper pieces that displayed the performer’s bravura. In light of that, Les Soupirs sounded decidedly un-mournful. Rather, it coyly channeled the sad magic of pining after another, and a hint of the smirk of the maid in Vermeer’s the Love Letter. The interpretations embodied the timeless French aesthetic. The concert ended with two slightly delirious numbers: Les Tourbillons (here perhaps describing the swirling mass of bodies in a party) and Les Cyclopes, a jocular tour de force. Wattanasak executed the hand-over-hand passages gracefully without any visible signs of struggle. The chapel sang through the satisfying bass notes she meticulously placed, and the audience was most satisfied by the fluttering throw of a page turn as the second couplet transition to the major. With one detached final chord the movement crescendoed to its close as suddenly as it had begun.

A musicology PhD student at Boston University, Christopher Hodges earned a M.M. in organ performance with Peter Sykes.

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