Harpsichord News

January 4, 2017

According to Janus

The ancient Romans worshipped many gods. Janus, who provided the name for our first month of the year, had two faces, which allowed him to look in both directions: back to the past and forward to the future. Thus, a Janusian column seems appropriate for the first month of a new year.

 

Looking Back: Topics of the
2016 Harpsichord News
Columns

January: Buried Treasures: The Harpsichord Pages in Retrospect (2006–2015); Something New: Mysteries with Musical References

March: William Bolcom’s Compositions for Solo Harpsichord

April: More Duphly; Two Additional Mystery Novels; Semibrevity Website

May: Historical Keyboard Society of North America Conference at Oberlin College: Duphly, Skowroneck, Leonhardt, and Kreisler—A Twisted Tale

June: Tempi in Early Music from Beverly Jerold Scheibert; Two Clavichords at the Oberlin HKSNA

July: In Memoriam: Drawings by Jane Johnson (A Retrospective Feature Article)

August: Broadening a Harpsichordist’s Horizon: The Fifth East Texas Pipe Organ Festival Continues Tradition

September: Striking Gold: Some Thoughts on Performing Bach’s Goldberg Variations

October: Well-Tempered: Lou Harrison and the Harpsichord

November: Some Thoughts on Programming

December: Christmas Musings: Joseph Wechsberg’s The Best Things in Life; Recordings of the complete harpsichord works of Marchand and Clérambault on compact disc and 21st-century solos on another from the British Harpsichord Society; plus a Christmas Vignette (excerpted from Palmer: Letters from Salzburg).

 

Two Vignettes from 2016 East

Texas Pipe Organ Festival
(November 6–11)

The most recent pipe organ fest in November followed its traditional, successful schedule, albeit with a bit more time allowed for dining and socializing. After the brilliant Sunday evening opening organ recital by Richard Elliot on Kilgore’s prized Roy Perry-designed Aeolian-Skinner organ (Opus 1173, First Presbyterian Church), Christopher Marks (new to the artist roster) began the first full day of the festival on Monday with a recital on the same instrument. His well-designed program devoted to music by Seth Bingham (1882–1972) showed the conservative American church musician to be a composer consistent in craftsmanship, and one indebted to the French school of organ music as well. Nostalgia welled up when, for the first time since high school, I heard again two pieces from Bingham’s organ suite Harmonies of Florence (1929): Savonarola, and one that was in my repertoire in those youthful years, Twilight at Fiesole. These pieces brought back memories of another outstanding advocate for French music, Oberlin professor of organ Fenner Douglass, with whom I had the great privilege of studying during my senior year. Douglass played French organ music ranging from Titelouze to the most recent works of Messiaen, but an American whom he admired and whose music he performed was none other than . . . Seth Bingham. 

 

Vignette Two: In Janus-Speak,
Ave atque Vale (Hail and 

Farewell)

I was not particularly looking forward to the fourth organ concert of our annual “day in Shreveport” even though the program was to take place on the grandest of the festival organs (Aeolian-Skinner opus 1308) in the most accommodating acoustic: St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral. Replacing the indisposed Marilyn Keiser as recitalist was the winner of the 2016 Longwood Gardens Competition, Joshua Stafford. His stylishly eclectic program comprised Leo Sowerby’s Comes Autumn Time, Seth Bingham’s Roulade (heard for the second time at this Festival), Lemare’s transcription of Dvorák’s Carnival Overture, a quiet Lied (Douze Pièces) by Gaston Litaize, and, following intermission, Liszt’s lengthy Fantasie and Fugue on the Chorale “Ad nos” from Meyerbeer’s Le Prophète. From the opening notes until the final strains of his patriotic encore, it was apparent that this young man is a stellar musician with a seemingly effortless technique that could encompass anything. But more than that, he demonstrated music-making of the highest order, delivered without affectation, obviously played with delight and musical intensity. At the conclusion of this amazing recital, before the final chord had died away in the reverberant cathedral, the audience, as one, rose to its feet, shouting “Bravo.” My own word choice was “Bravissimo!” Welcome to the company of outstanding artists, Joshua Stafford. I can scarcely wait to hear more from your talented fingers, feet, heart, and soul.

The closing event of the festival on Thursday evening was a recital by Frederick Swann at Kilgore’s First Presbyterian Church. Announced as the veteran artist’s final organ concert (he will continue to play church services), this repeat of the program he had given as a rededication concert for Aeolian-Skinner Opus 1173 following its 1966 revision by Roy Perry, capped Swann’s career of some 3,000 recitals with graceful, intense playing, always offered to the benefit of the music. In a class act that will be remembered for a very long time, the acclaimed organist did not play a traditional “encore” to acknowledge the continuing ovation of the large crowd; instead he instructed us to open our hymn books and sing, supported by his inspired accompaniment, “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creation.” These two unforgettable musical events receive my vote for best in show, ETPOF VI. 

 

The Future: Hello 2017

Billing itself as “the world’s best-selling classical music magazine,” BBC Music is a very good journal. Each monthly copy has affixed to its cover a compact disc, custom-produced to form part of the month’s offerings. For the December 2016 issue the featured composer is Johann Sebastian Bach. Articles discuss “the secret of his genius in ten masterpieces,” attempt to make sense of the extensive Bach family tree, and generally aid the reader/listener in various musical discoveries. This issue also contains 110 reviews of classical music discs by knowledgeable critics. The accompanying CD is of JSB’s final masterpiece, The Art of Fugue, in an orchestration devised by harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani for a substantial baroque instrumental contingent made up of two violins, viola, cello, viola da gamba, violone, two flutes, recorder, oboe, oboe d’amore, oboe da caccia, bassoon, cornetto, and two harpsichords (the players are members of the Academy of Ancient Music). This baroque chamber orchestra version is an attempt to suggest the type of coffee-house performance that Bach might have put together. With some moments of solo harpsichord, but many more with the instrumental band, it is indeed a colorful and unusual performance.

To suggest something for the future, I would like to reference a BBC Music “last page”—one of its “Music That Changed Me” series. In the September 2005 issue, the featured musician was the brilliant, energetic British harpsichordist (and conductor) Richard Egarr. I have been an admirer of his nimble-fingered, exciting playing for quite some time, and a part of what nourishes this spirited musical drive surely could be traced, in part, to the choices he makes for his own listening. Egarr cites six recordings, and I note with interest that only two of them comprise music for a solo keyboard. Both of these discs are historical testaments from unique and path-breaking musical artists. I suspect that many of Egarr’s own savvy musical instincts come from his “listening outside the [keyboard] box,” something I have long advocated, and that I recommend to our readers as a sure path to continuing aural adventures during this new year. My own choices nearly always include vocal works, for listening to good singers or choral ensembles helps incredibly in learning to make our own phrases breathe naturally (a benefit that is also attained by playing, or listening to, wind instruments).

So, for the record (as it were), here are Egarr’s six choices: Music of the Gothic Era (David Munrow); Early Violin Music (Musica Antiqua Köln); Mahler, Symphony I (Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Leonard Bernstein); Moritz Rosenthal (historical recording of piano music issued by American Columbia’s Biddulph label); Tchaikovsky, Marche Slav (London Symphony Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski); and, as the second keyboard item: Bach’s Goldberg Variations (Glenn Gould, piano), which he cites as a performance style that he has had to overcome in his own study of the monumental work.

Finally, dear readers, a few hints of some developing columns that may appear during the first half of 2017: from a group of colleagues who perform contemporary harpsichord music, some listings of their favorite works; an in-depth examination of a Bach prelude and fugue from the WTC; a guest article about some legendary French harpsichordists; an article on harpsichord pedagogy. Any suggestions for other topics of interest?