by Walter Simmons
TWENTIETH-CENTURY HARPSICHORD MUSIC, Volume I. PERSICHETTI: 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 III. PINKHAM: 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.