TWENTIETH-CENTURY HARPSICHORD MUSIC, VOLS. I, II, and III. Music by Persichetti, Adler, Albright, Martinu, Templeton, Sowash, Thomson, Rosner, Borroff, Locklair, Harbach, Near, V. Fine, Thompson, Pinkham, S. Jones. Barbara Harbach, harpsichord

TWENTIETH-CENTURY HARPSICHORD MUSIC, Volume IPERSICHETTI: Harpsichord Sonata No. 7. ADLER: Harpsichord Sonata. ALBRIGHT: Four Fancies. MARTINU: Sonate. Deux Pieces. Deux Impromptus. TEMPLETON: Bach Goes to Town. SOWASH: The Unicorn. Theme with Six Variations. THOMSON: Four Portraits. Barbara Harbach, harpsichord. KING­DOM KCLCD-2005; 71:20. Produced by John Proffitt.

TWENTIETH-CENTURY HARPSICHORD MUSIC, Volume II. ROSNER: Musique de clavecin. BORROFF: Metaphors. LOCKLAIR: The Breakers Pound. HARBACH: Spain­dango. G. NEAR: Triptych. V. FINE: Toccatas and Arlas. THOMPSON: Four Inventions. Barbara Harbach,harpsichord. GAS-PARO GSCD-266;70:40. Produced by John Proffitt.

TWENTIETH-CENTURY HARPSICHORD MUSIC, Volume IIIPINKHAM: Partita. S. JONES: Two Movements. LOCKLAIR: Fantasy Brings the Day. ROSNER: Sonatine d’amour. ADLER: Bridges to Span Adversity. Barbara Harbach,harpsichord. GAS-PARO GSCD-280;68:38. Produced by Roy Christensen.

If listening to these three CDs, containing three and a half hours of twentieth-century harpsichord music, doesn’t prove the instrument’s viability as a modern musical medium, nothing will. Barbara Harbach, a faculty member at the State University of New York at Buffalo, tours and records extensively as both harpsichordist and organist. Her enthusiastic, wide-ranging involvement in expanding and promoting the modern harpsichord repertoire can be gleaned simply by perusing the above list of works, many of which were composed with her in mind. Except for the few criticisms noted during the course of the following review, Harbach plays with precision and a refreshing verve, while exhibiting a healthy, exuberant musicality. Sixteen composers are represented—all of them American but Martinu. The pieces she has chosen embrace a wide and varied stylistic range, from those that trade, either seriously or parodistically, on the harpsichord’s association with the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, to more mainstream neoclassical efforts, from some surprisingly effective examples of romantic lyricism, to a few offerings that are wildly sui generis. In an attempt to accommodate the reader, I will comment on the contents disc by disc, in the order that the pieces are listed above.

Volume I originally appeared (minus the Thomson and Sowash pieces) on LP (Gasparo GS-251) a few years ago, and was reviewed in Fanfare 9:5 (p. 305). The most substantial works on this disc are those by Persichetti, Adler, and Albright. During the. last years of his life, Vincent Persichetti concentrated intensively on the harpsichord, which he described as “a whole universe in itself.” The seventh of his nine sonatas for the instrument was composed in 1983. Its three brief movements are terse, concise, and thoroughly abstract in structure, featuring graceful, thin, linear textures idiomatic to the instrument. While the first two movements arc quite austere in tone, the finale explodes with an exuberant rhythmic vitality.

Samuel Adler is a prolific German-born composer now in his sixties who currently heads the composition department at the Eastman School of Music. Adler’s neoclassical sonata of 1982 is more rhythmically and texturally aggressive than Persichetti’s, with the kinds of forceful, dissonant sonorities one does not expect from the harpsichord. These create a jarring, but invigorating, effect. The slow movement, however, provides some tender moments. This is a brilliant, substantial work that becomes more engrossing with each hearing.

A rather bizarre piece that seems to be developing a following among harpsichordists is a wacky stylistic hodgepodge called Four Fancies, composed in 1979 by Michigan-based William Albright. Most striking are the first movement, a maddeningly abrasive takeoff on a Baroque French Overture, and the finale, a “Danza Ostinata” that the program notes link to near-Eastern music, boogie-woogie, Soler, and Terry Riley. The inner movements are more subdued, but mysterious and imaginative. The piece is often irritating, but intriguingly stylish nonetheless.

The three works by Bohuslav Martinu are rather disappointing. Deux Pieces date from 1935, while the sonata and Deux Impromptus appeared during the composer’s last years, 1958 and 1959 respectively. At best they display some modest, neo-Baroque charm, but, for the most part, are flimsy, routine, and uninteresting.

“Bach Goes to Town: Prelude and Fugue in Swing” is a movement from Alec Templeton’s 1938 Topsy-Turvy Suite, originally composed for piano. By now, the notion of jazzing up the Baroque idiom is not new, and this example sounds banal and dated, though it certainly loses nothing on the harpsichord. However, Harbach plays the piece so squarely and stiffly that what little charm it has is stilled.

Rick Sowash is a forty-year-old composer who studied at the University of Indiana. What I know of his music has been sweetly and simply tuneful, with an identifiably American flavor. Both pieces presented here follow that description. The Unicorn, composed in 1976, suggests a senti­mental pastorale—pretty, but extended beyond its durability through mere changes of registration. Theme with Six Variations was written a decade later and is too simplistic to take seriously.

Virgil Thomson’s Four Portraits were originally written for piano. Like most pieces by this vastly over-rated composer, some moments are pretty, others are banal, but all are vacuous.

If a listener wished to sample only one of these CDs, I would recommend Volume II, as the one with the most interesting program. Worthy of special attention is Arnold Rosner’s Musique de Clavecin, one of the most eerily fascinating compositions for harpsichord I have ever heard. As many Fanfare readers already know, Rosner has fashioned quite an original means of expression, using a language rooted in the distant past—in particular, in the idioms of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Not that this is so remarkable in itself—after all, the same can be said for Respighi’s suites of Ancient Dances and Airs, Gordon Jacob’s William Byrd Suite, Warlock’s Capriol Suite, and any number of other examples by Poulenc, Vaughan Williams, et al. But what makes Rosner’s music special is that, in most of his works, its stylistic atavism does not exist merely to provide quaint antiquarian charm, but rather, serves as a basic medium to convey a wide range of emotional states—some quite intense and powerful. This is more clearly illustrated by the 1974 Musique de Clavecin than by any other music of Rosner to appear on disc thus far. The work is in five substantial movements: The first is a grim, stately sarabande; the second, a sardonic, grotesque dance; the third is a macabre nocturne, somewhat reminiscent conceptually of Scriabin’s Vers la Flamme  in its reiteration of a simple but haunting chord progression that grows gradually from a soft and mysterious opening to a climax of nightmarish intensity and back; the fourth movement is a lovely Elizabethan dance of benign character; the work concludes with a somber passacaglia. Lasting twenty-two minutes, Musique de Clavecin contains virtually nothing a contemporary au­dience would describe as “dissonant,” but is full in texture and weighty in content—a challenge for the performer that Harbach meets admirably.

Also worthy of attention is a work from 1987 called Metaphors, by Edith Borroff, a New York-based composer in her mid-sixties, currently on the faculty of SUNY/ Binghamton. Described as a set of variations on a tone row, Metaphors is an expertly shaped, richly expressive piece—abstract in conception, but not at all forbidding.

Dan Locklair is a composer from North Carolina, now in his early forties. The Breakers Pound, composed in 1985, was inspired by a poem of Stephen Sandy called Freeway. This is an entertaining, parodistic sort of piece, with wild stylistic incongruities—from Baroque to boogie-­woogie—somewhat along the lines of Albright’s Four Fancies, but lighter in weight and more approachable.

Barbara Harbach’s own Spaindango is a rather ferocious little tour-de-force, with a faintly Spanish flavor. Despite its brevity, it makes a distinctly indelible impression.

Gerald Near (b. 1942) is a noted church musician based in Minnesota. His Triptych is simple and direct, with a melodic warmth reminiscent of Hanson and Creston.

Veteran composer Vivian Fine’s 1986 Toccatas and Arias is described as “a meditation on Baroque forms.” Though imaginatively constructed, it is rather dry in effect.

Randall Thompson’s Four Inventions originated as classroom exercises in counterpoint. Al­though much of Thompson’s music engenders warm affection, these Anna Magdalena-like trifles are too slight to warrant attention—or inclusion in a serious recital program.

Volume III adds a couple of new names to Harbach’s program, while delving further into the works of some composers previously sampled. Massachusetts-based Daniel Pinkham, now in his late sixties, has long been associated with the harpsichord—both as performer and composer. (His 1955 Concerto for Celeste and Harpsichord is a long-time favorite of mine.) The Partita offered here is an ambitious work in six substantial movements, composed in 1964. Perhaps the fact that the music was originally written as part of a television documentary accounts for its apparent lack of stylistic balance. Much of it is difficult to characterize—serious in tone, light in texture, cool, dry, and rather impersonal in effect. Though several of the movements strike me as excessively academic, others are delightful, especially an ebullient Scherzo and Trio, and a strangely Debussy-like (imagine!) Envoi.

Samuel Jones, now in his mid-fifties, is a professor of composition at Rice University in Texas. His Two Movements from 1988 are abstract, serious, solidly crafted, and conservative, as one might expect of an Eastman graduate from the Hanson years. In common with the Adler sonata and the Borroff Metaphors discussed earlier, Jones’s piece does not make a strong personal impression, yet promises further rewards on subsequent hearings.

Dan Locklair reappears on this disc with another oddly entertaining piece, this one called Fantasy Brings the Day (1989). Like much of the music presented here, it exhibits virtually no Baroque reference, yet exploits the harpsichord’s characteristics most effectively.

Arnold Rosner’s 1987 Sonatine d’Amour is rather less interesting than his Musique de Clave­cin. It is in two movements—the first, an incantatory recitative punctuated by broken chords; the second, a gentle, graceful dance. Part of the problem may lie with the performance: The melismatic melodies of the first movement are played rather metronomically, while the second movement is paced a bit slowly. In any case, the result seems monotonous and overextended.

Samuel Adler composed his Bridges. to Span Adversity in 1989, in memory of Jan deGaetani. Its two movements, though skillful, are awfully dry.

On the whole, this beautifully recorded set of CDs represents an impressive accomplishment, ensuring for Barbara Harbach an important place among today’s generation of harpsichordists—and a preeminent one among those who specialize in music of the twentieth century.

KABELÁC: Eight Preludes. JANÁCEK: Sonata 1. X. 1905, “From the Street.” Three Fugues MARTINU: Piano Sonata

KABELÁC: Eight Preludes JANÁCEK: Sonata 1. X. 1905, “From the Street.” Three Fugues MARTINU: Piano Sonata • Ivo Kahánek (pn) • SUPRAPHON SU 3945-2 (68:37)

This is a most intriguing survey of Czech piano music of the 20th century, presented by the exciting young pianist Ivo Kahánek. To begin with, any new recording of music by Miloslav Kabelác is noteworthy. Kabelác (1908-1979) was the most important Czech composer of his generation—roughly contemporaneous with such figures as Shostakovich, Panufnik, and Lutoslawski—but his music remains little known outside his native country (and not that well known within it, I gather). A generous portion has been recorded over the years, but most of those recordings are no longer available. This is most unfortunate, because Kabelác was an immensely fascinating composer, who used a simple musical language to express extremely complex affective states, and who embraced tight structural controls in producing powerfully emotional music. Perhaps what is most worthy of note is that the expressive content of his music is unique—unlike that of any other composer, although a passage here and there may suggest Shostakovich, while a concern with extreme motivic economy may call Panufnik to mind. 

My own personal favorite among Kabelác’s works—and the one that seems to have attracted the most attention internationally—is an extended orchestral passacaglia, entitled The Mystery of Time. But the Eight Preludes for piano date from the same period (mid 1950s) and are probably his most fully realized music for the keyboard, offering a fairly representative sample of his compositional concerns. Kabelác’s musical language during this period was largely consonant and emphatically modal, with very simple textures and repetitive patterns. Each Prelude creates the impression of an improvisation oriented around a particular compositional device or pattern figuration, and is identified by an Italian adjective, e.g., ostinato, meditativo, sognante, etc. Much attention is focused on the open fifth and the triad—its polarization between minor and major, and its tonal transformation through the alteration of individual pitches, one at a time, while others are held constant. Rhythmic asymmetries are produced through subtly shifting accents within simple patterns. Some of these devices produce an effect that might be termed “proto-minimalist.” Others suggest non-Western musical languages and/or instruments. Despite the composer’s deliberately limited means, the Preludes embrace a wide and compelling array of unusual moods and attitudes, as well as a variety of keyboard usages. My own favorite—and the one I would present as a means of introducing the composer’s work—is No. 4, “Preludio Corale,” a piece that evokes a sense of sinister foreboding that must be heard to be grasped. Some are solemn, others are ethereal; but what is rarely found in Kabelác’s music is humor—his music is dead serious. 

Interestingly, this is not the first recording of Kabelác’s Eight Preludes. A CD devoted to a complete traversal of the composer’s piano music appeared about ten years ago (Panton 81 9012-2 131; see Fanfare 25:1), featuring the Czech pianist Daniel Wiesner; both recordings, incidentally, were produced under the direction of Milan Slavický. Although the older disc is now so obscure as to render any comparison between the two performances largely pointless, I will nevertheless note that Wiesner’s approach is somewhat drier and more literal, while Kahánek is freer, more “pianistic,” and more dynamic, showing greater attention to sonority. As fine as this new recording may be, any listener with an interest in Kabelác who encounters Wiesner’s recording is advised to grab it, as none of the other pieces on that recording are available elsewhere. I look forward to the day when Kabelác’s music begins to win recognition beyond the Czech Republic.

Less obscure than Kabelác’s Preludes, but not exactly a repertoire favorite, is Bohuslav Martinu’s late (1954) Piano Sonata. A highly rhapsodic work in three movements, these do not exhibit the customary contrasts in tempo and mood, nor is there much differentiation among them, although the central movement is longer than the others, and somewhat more probing. The overall character of the work is warmly luxuriant, almost bucolic, with figurations and harmonic voicings that are often surprisingly Brahmsian. Like a number of Martinu’s later works, the music is characterized by shifting shapes and patterns, and rhythmic irregularities within a consistent texture, with a spontaneity suggestive of a fantasia. It is less driven and more gemütlich than much of the composer’s music, while the textures are generally dense and busy. In comments quoted in the program notes, the pianist states that the challenge in performing Martinu is to accomplish “the sharpest possible projection of the work’s outlines” without sacrificing its spontaneity, so that it become more than “just a tangle of notes.” Kahánek manages to accomplish this pretty well.

Probably the best-known work on this new release is Janácek’s Sonata 1.X.1905, “From the Street,” supposedly inspired by an incident during which a political demonstrator was slaughtered by a soldier. The sonata was originally conceived in three movements, but the composer was dissatisfied with the finale, and discarded it, leaving only the other two, entitled respectively, “Presentiment” and “Death.” The work opens with a motif typical of the composer—distinctive and when once heard can never be forgotten. The movement develops this motif throughout, in the process creating an expression of great emotional and psychological complexity. The second movement does not exhibit the dirge-like quality one might associate with its title (that was the movement that was discarded). But in its strange, moody way supplies the needed balance to its predecessor.

As a special bonus, Kahánek includes on his program three little-known fugues by Janácek, written while he was in his mid 20s. In G minor, A minor, and A major respectively, they provide a fascinating glimpse into the composer’s treatment of this relatively precise mode of composition. The first is the most interesting, because its subject is a melody recognizably characteristic of the composer. The subject of the second includes a rapidly descending scale pattern, a quirk that becomes the chief focus of the piece. The third is the longest but least interesting, as its subject is abstract and devoid of character, and its development rather mechanical.

As indicated by the plentiful photos in the program booklet, Kahánek is quite young and rather Mephistophelian in appearance—unusual for a blonde. He seems deeply dedicated to the Czech piano repertoire and his performances on this recording illustrate his vital commitment to this music. I look forward to further samples of his artistry. 

MARTINU: The Five Piano Concertos. Concertino for Piano Orchestra.

MARTINU: The Five Piano Concertos. Concertino for Piano Orchestra. Jiri Belohlavek conducting the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra; Emil Leichner, piano. SUPRAPHON — 11 1313-2 032 DDD]; two discs: 75:56, 74:14. Produced by Jana Smekalova

Although the music of Bohuslav Martinu enjoyed a brief period of international prominence during the 1940s, it was soon eclipsed by other music presumed to represent more “advanced” compositional thinking. However, during the past twenty years, his work has been rediscovered by a new generation of performers and listeners, as his vast output is gradually being made available for general consumption. With someone as prolific as Martinu, who managed to produce some 400 works, this process takes a long time. Such compositional workaholics, like his contemporaries Villa-Lobos and Milhaud (not to mention Martinu’s erstwhile student Hovhaness, treated elsewhere in this issue), seem to lack the capacity to monitor the quality of their production, so the job is left to others. Typically, the resulting group of truly distinguished and significant works is no larger than that of composers of more moderate productivity, but this essential core is buried among reams of routine, formulaic redundancy, and this is as true of Martinu as it is of the others mentioned above (and of the 18th-century prototypes for this sort of fecundity). But determining which of his 400 works really represent the composer at his best is a daunting task, requiring familiarity with at least 60%-70% of them. Now some 35 years since Martinu’s death, I wonder how many critics and musicologists have reached that point; I myself cannot claim acquaintance with more than 10%, at the most. And so, the “assessment” phase proceeds before the “discovery” phase has really been completed, with many untested assumptions, premature generalizations, unwarranted conclusions, and some unexpected discoveries along the way.

Interestingly, the unearthing, sorting, and sifting of Martinu’s output has roughly coincided with the existence of Fanfare as a vehicle for discourse concerning new musical discoveries. Reading through the comments of a variety of writers in this journal on the subject of Martinu over the course of 16-17 years offers a fascinating microcosmic view of this process. One observation that emerges is that the grim, harsh, and darkly propulsive Double Concerto for two string orchestras, piano, and timpani, seems to garner unanimous praise as a masterpiece (an assessment with which I have no quarrel). But an initial critical enthusiasm welcoming an engaging creative voice marked by freshness, vigor, and humanity, and graced by distinctive individual touches, seems gradually to have given way to a certain amount of disappointment. There have been complaints about Martinu’s lack of formal focus, about his indulgence in empty pattern-spinning and in mannerisms that, with repetition, become irritating clichés, and there has been an increasing awareness of the duplication of meaning that is virtually inevitable in an output of such dimensions.

For most composers with five piano concertos to their credit, such a cycle would stand as a central component of their canon, and if those five concertos existed alongside nearly 40 other pieces for piano, including additional concerted works, one might conclude that the piano were the primary medium for such a composer. But neither of these assumptions seems to hold for Martinu. With a particular propensity for the concertante concept, he spewed forth dozens of such works (again, like his 18th-century antecedents), and the piano concertos seem simply to be five more, though, presented along with the Concertino that appeared between Nos. 2 and 3, they do span most of his compositional career (unlike his six symphonies, for example which all appeared during a twelve-year period). The inclusion of the Concertino is appropriate, as it is really no more different from the concertos, with regard to weight, style, or dimensions, than they are from each other. So what we have on this generously filled two-CD set are six full-length works spanning the years 1925-1958, adding up to two and a half hours of music that strikes me as, for better and worse, typical Martinu.

By “typical Martinu,” I refer to the composer’s penchant for motoric rhythmic figurations that bristle with a fluent vigor spiced by syncopated sub-groupings, though, as has been noted, in less inspired passages, the music may simply clatter along mechanically. This constant bustle of activity is offset by lilting, Czech-accented melodies that at times soar in richly-scored triadic harmonizations. The piano concertos are not heroic, romantic virtuoso vehicles, but are rather created along late-Baroque/classical lines, with outer movements characterized by a playful exuberance and slow movements marked by lyrical warmth and an occasional touch of mystery. The emotional tone remains moderate throughout. It took Martinu a number of years to develop his peculiarly idiosyncratic language into its “mature” form, though one can discern consistently recognizable elements throughout the stages of evolution. So while listening to one of these concertos after another can easily create a sense of redundancy, there is no question that the kaleidoscopic stream of imagery found in No. 5 is a far cry from the straightforward chunka-chunka regularity of No. I.

Martinu composed his Piano Concerto No. 1 in 1925, while he was living and studying in Paris. I challenge the conventional view that the influence of Stravinsky and Les Six pervade his music from this period; I am not sure that Martinu didn’t arrive at his own brand of neoclassicism independently of these other voices, which convey to me an entirely different mentality. This First Concerto certainly is characterized by clean, diatonic lines and clear, spare textures that suggest 18th-century practices. The outer movements bounce along cheerfully in a happy-go-lucky fashion, while the slow movement generates tender warmth quite alien to Stravinsky,

The Second Concerto was composed in 1934, but was revised ten years later. In this work, Martinu’s distinctive lilting lyricism blossoms forth, enriching the cheerful neoclassical bounce.

The Concertino dates from 1938 — the same year as the aforementioned Double Concerto — and strikes me as a psychologically and musically more complex work than both earlier concertos, with some of the ambiguity of mood that characterizes Martinu’s later work. I assume that the diminutive denotation of the title is prompted by its shorter duration, though the Concerto No. 4 is shorter still.

Concerto No 3 of 1948 displays a greater richness of orchestration and variety of texture. Toward the beginning, a distinctive two-chord figure — sometimes called the “Moravian cadence” (a dominant-quality thirteenth-chord in inversion built on the fourth scale degree resolving to the tonic) —  which Martinu used until it became something like a tic, is proclaimed here for the first time in these works. Rather peculiar are repeated references to the phraseology of Beethoven and, to a lesser extent, Brahms — not so obvious as to be deliberate quotations but too frequent to be meaningless coincidences. Though the work exhibits many of Martinu’s most engaging qualities, its insistent lack of expressive contrast creates a weak profile.

The works discussed thus far are of interest primarily to those listeners who have an insatiable appetite for Martinu’s music and welcome all they can get their hands on. Though each is ingratiating enough, these pieces offer no more or less pleasure or stimulation than other comparable works by the composer. To hear one at a time once in a while is fine, but, taken all at once, the repeated mannerisms and the exceedingly restricted expressive range make a poorer cumulative impression than the music really warrants. However, the Fourth and Fifth Concertos are on a higher level, displaying far greater individuality, psychological complexity, and musical interest.

The two-movement Concerto No. 4, subtitled, “Incantations,” was completed in 1956, and seems regarded by critical consensus as another one of the composer’s masterpieces. It is certainly the most challenging of these concertos in its language and the least conventional in form, with brittle sonorities, angular percussive gestures and a nervous insistency that combine to create a sense of urgency and expressive power missing from its predecessors, and evoke a sense of the fantastic characteristic of Martinu’s most memorable works.

This sense of the fantastic is given even fuller expression in the Concerto No. 5, “Fantasia Concertante,” though its harmonic language is less angular and dissonant than in No. 4. As recently noted by Benjamin Pernick (Fanfare 17:3, pp. 231-2), this concerto resembles the Symphony No. 6, “Fantaisies Symphoniques” of 1954, in its profusion of richly varied sound-images that tumble forth in a swirling torrent of imagination, creating at times an almost other-worldly effect.

Although I haven’t heard it myself, I am tempted to recommend to all but the most omnivorous Martinu devotees the single Campion disc discussed in the review just cited, as it features specifically the Fourth and Fifth Concertos, along with the Harpsichord Concerto. However, Pernick was somewhat reserved in his evaluation of those performances. The two-disc Supraphon set discussed here was recorded between 1986 and 1989, and the performances and sound quality strike me as perfectly adequate. Of course, those fanatical devotees won’t hesitate in acquiring this first complete recording of the Martinu Piano Concertos.