Classical: Hurray for harpsichords
Thursday 16 December 1999
NEVER TOO proud to acknowledge a debt to earlier masters, Bach himself was the icon for 20th century composers hooked on the idea of tradition. For them, in turn, the harpsichord's sound became a symbol of their period stance, a point nicely made at the Wigmore Hall on Tuesday, when Maggie Cole and friends framed an evening of modern works for the instrument with Bach's triple harpsichord concertos in D minor and C major.
Also evoked was an evening, exactly a century ago to the day, when redoubtable harpsichordist Violet Gordon Woodhouse plus the Dolmetsch family, garbed in Elizabethan dress, gave a pioneering account of the C major Concerto by candlelight in nearby Upper Brook Street. So enclosed in the evening was a further fold of historical reference, with the programme stressing how modes of presentation, performance practice and authenticity remain constructive issues for today's early-music movement.
With Malcolm Proud and Alastair Ross, Cole gave strong, clean accounts of the Bach, the ensemble only slightly faltering before the close of the D minor Concerto's slow movement. The C major Concerto, full of swagger and festive spirit, aptly closed the evening. The composer who bridged the centuries was not Bach, however, but Scarlatti, for all that Schoenberg found whispers of atonality in the German composer's music. It was very strange indeed, the two-movement Scarlatti Sonata in D, played by Alastair Ross, sounding dysfunctionally Spanish. Awkward silences framed splashes of wild flamenco colour; disjointed leaps and scrunchy chords were thrown together in ways that could have rivalled Poulenc. Hungarian Rock, by Gyorgy Ligeti, did something odd yet entirely right to conclude, dismissing itself with a phrase of ersatz folksong after pages of rhythmic hyper- activity. By contrast, Gavin Bryars' After Handel's `Vesper', though entirely predictable in rhythm, tickled the ear with chords that swerved to unexpected places, touching en route progressions lingering from half-remembered music, though whether by Bryars or other composers, baroque or pop, proved hard to ascertain.
Cole played the Bryars on a delightful instrument that was emphatically not of the heavyweight, faux-Bach kind that proved popular earlier in the century. At one point a limpid right-hand tune was registered to seem like a twanging mandolin. For Manuel de Falla's pocket-sized Harpsichord Concerto she preferred a similar tone, definitely not of the kind that Wanda Landowska would have chosen at the work's premiere in 1926. Though in a sense inauthentic, the resulting lighter, magical sound of soloist and small ensemble led by Alison Bury was entirely justified aesthetically. Besides, de Falla's score is a perfect miniature piece that may well prove more hardy than many a grander 20th-century work in years to come.
Yet perhaps the most lasting impression was of Handel's Suite No 8 in F minor, played by Malcolm Proud. After a dreamy prelude and robust fugato, the Allemande offered a string of descending phrases as fresh and as beautifully controlled as a peal of bells.
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