20th CENTURY HARPSICHORD CONCERTOS—Leigh: Concertino for Harpsichord and Strings—Rorem: Concertino da Camera—Kalabis: Concerto for Harpsichord and Strings—Nyman: Concerto for Amplified Harpsichord and Strings—Jory Vinikour, harpsichord, Chicago Philharmonic/Scott Speck—Cedille CDR 90000 188, 75:42, *****
It’s fascinating to speculate why so many 20th century composers have embraced the ancient harpsichord as a soloist in an orchestra concerto. The prominence and advocacy of Wanda Landowska and Violet Gordon-Woodhouse influenced Poulenc, de Falla and Martin to write for the instrument. Others followed: Glass, Gorecki, and Martinu. The sonic attraction is the tart ‘plink, plink’ sound that stands out in string-heavy ensembles. The compositional challenge is for the orchestra not to drown out the intimate and small volume of the harpsichord. One solution is to limit the number of instruments used. Another is to carefully choose instruments that contrast with the harpsichord. This is one genre that is meant to be heard on recordings, as the balance can be adjusted between harpsichord and orchestra. Make no mistake about it, there are some fascinating modern works for harpsichord and orchestra and this collection adds four to that group.
Czechslovakian composer Viktor Kalabis (1923-2006) showed promise as a young pianist, but when the Nazi’s came his poor eyesight saved him from Nazi conscription and he spent the war working in an airplane factory. Under communist rule (1948), Kalabis wrote his thesis at the Prague Conservatory on Bartok and Stravinsky, arousing suspicion among party adherents. His marriage to Jewish harpsichordist Zuzana Ruzikova and their refusal to join the communist party consigned him to a low level position at the Czechoslovakian Radio. When the communist government was overthrown in 1948, Kalabis received his doctorate, but declined several prodigious positions and instead worked for the Bohuslav Martinu Institute and Foundation.
His 1977 Concerto for Harpsichord and Strings, written for his wife, generates a considerable amount of drama and tension between a rather sinister orchestra and a more reflective harpsichord. An eerie tranquility in the Andante fails to erase the unsettled atmosphere. The third movement starts with frenetically motoric passage. A brief quiet interlude offers hope for reconciliation between orchestra and harpsichord, only to continue the conflict to the end. This work is an exciting discovery, and Vinikour and the Chicago Philharmonic are superb.
Minimalist British film composer Michael Nyman (b. 1944) is known for his film scores, operas, three string quartets and a violin concerto. He’s also a harpsichord player and used it in composing the score to a 1983 Peter Greenaway film, The Draughtsman’s Contract. The 1994-5 Concerto for Amplified harpsichord and Strings is a minimalist circus for these forces. Using themes from The Convertibility for Lute Strings and a Tango for Tim, Nyman has fashioned a wild ride that never lets go. What fun!
Inspired by his friend Daniel Pinkham, the 23 year old legendary American composer Ned Rorem wrote the Concertino da Camera (1946), only to consign it to a trunk, unperformed until 1993. A jolly toccata with a cadenza that’s a homage to Scarlatti opens the 17 minute work. Rorem is noted for his songs, and the beautiful slow movement is an early example of his melodic genius. The final presto maintains the sunny mood of the beginning.
Audiophiles might remember the 1985 Lyrita recording of Walter Leigh’s (1905-42) Concertino for Harpsichord and Strings (1934). It’s a delightful neoclassical work of almost nine minutes, with a nostalgically beautiful slow movement and an uplifting finale. This recording, with its sonic clarity and precision is now a preferred version.
This is an album to be treasured for its unusual but winning repertoire, the superb artistry of harpsichordist Jory Vinikour and the Chicago Philharmonic, and the great sound.