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CLASSICAL  January 2007

CLASSICAL January 2007

Subject:

On the 20th Century

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Mon, 8 Jan 2007 08:10:02 -0600

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text/plain

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     20th Century Harpsichord Music
Vol. II

*  Rosner: Musique de clavecin, op. 61
*  Locklair: The Breakers Pound
*  V. Fine: Toccatas and Arias
*  Harbach: Spaindango
*  Thompson: 4 Inventions
*  Borroff: Metaphors
*  Near: Triptych

Barbara Harbach, harpsichord
Gasparo GSCD-266 Total time: 70:53

Summary for the Busy Executive: A grab-bag of work in good performances.

Probably Wanda Landowska, as much as anyone, revived the harpsichord
as a contemporary instrument.  Fairly prominent musicians had dismissed
the harpsichord.  See Beecham's notorious remark about the sound reminding
him of cats copulating on a tin roof.  Vaughan Williams, a composer who
revered Bach and conducted him with deep psychological insight, always
used piano as part of the continuo.  Indeed, he remarked that he would
not have a harpsichord in the same room as any concert he conducted.
Landowska, who regularly gets rapped for her lack of "authenticity" and
her ignorance of Baroque performance practice (compared to an undergraduate
music-history major today), nevertheless brought the harpsichord back
into notice both with highly imaginative - even extravagant - readings
of Baroque and Classical masterpieces and with commissions of great
modern works, notably by Falla and Poulenc.  She helped bring the
harpsichord into the notice not only of the public, but of the composer.
Largely due to her although not written for her, we now have masterpieces
by Barta, Stravinsky, Carter, Frank Martin, and Martinu, among many.

As in most collections, I enjoy some works more than others.  For me,
the real standout is Rosner's Musique de clavecin.  Rosner studied with
avant-gardistes, including Lejaren Hiller and Henri Pousseur, but his
music owes almost nothing to them.  It stands firmly in the neoclassic
Modern camp, of the kind practiced from the Thirties through the Forties.
His music has far more in common with Bloch, Hovhaness, Hindemith, and
Vaughan Williams than it does with the antics after World War II.  Rosner
is a born composer, having written mature string quartets at an early
age, but he is also a great artisan.  His works show both architectural
brilliance and emotional depth.  Like most of our neoclassicists, however,
Rosner's structural vigor disciplines a Romantic sensibility.  Musique
de clavecin paints the portraits of women Rosner knew in the Seventies,
and the composer explicitly links it to Couperin's descriptive keyboard
pieces.  Although, the piece lacks a specific program, it doesn't really
need one; it works just fine as "pure" music.  From a technical viewpoint,
I was struck by how Rosner builds crescendo and diminuendo into the piece
(he also specifies a harpsichord with a 16-foot stop, which adds a strong
foundation to the tone, as well as provides more volume).  Neither
articulation is "natural" to the instrument, which is why most composers
resort to "terraced" dynamics when they write for harpsichord -- sharp,
high contrast of dynamic levels, rather than smooth builds.  Rosner also
builds terraces, but he nevertheless creates the illusion of gradual
increase and decrease as well, usually by a canny gradual thickening or
thinning of the chordal texture - ie, more or fewer notes in the chord.
A keyboard dance suite could amount to little more than a throwaway, but
Rosner strives for Couperin or even Bach, at least in the final, passacaglia
movement - an adagio that amasses great power as it goes along and thus
lends weight to its sibling movements.  The sections differ from one
another in character - from light dance to threnody - so the suite leads
you through a great emotional range. I've raved over Rosner several times
in these reviews.  I'm a fan. For me, he is a master.

I've heard some of Dan Locklair's output, mainly organ preludes and
scores for wind ensemble, which I find well-written and even poetic, but
I can't claim to know him in depth.  It's been hit-and-miss, blind luck
that I've heard some pieces and not others.  The Breakers Pound is yet
another dance suite.  It shows some unusual features: older forms like
pavane and galliard mix with waltz and rag (a particularly woebegone
rag, unfortunately), for example.  But it's not really up to Locklair's
best.  Furthermore, as light music, pleasant enough, it lacks sufficient
attraction and especially harmonic variety to make you want to hear it
more than once.

Vivian Fine's Toccatas and Arias suffers from exactly the opposite
problem.  It's a Serious Piece, way too serious for its own good.  In
its way, it bores just as much as the Locklair.  It lacks any strong
direction.  Fine, a pupil of Sessions, Cowell, and Ruth Crawford Seeger,
has written with great craft, but little compulsion.  I can admire its
counterpoint and motific development, but I'm not really moved.

Edith Borroff's Metaphors is a serial piece - that is, it's based on a
tone-row - but it's quite tonal and the "row" doesn't contain all the
notes of the chromatic scale.  It displays the same high-mindedness as
the Fine, but it actually manages to go somewhere.  The composer describes
it as extended lyricism, which seems to me on the money.  I love this
work, full of a deep understanding of the instrument and how to surmount
its limitations.  A harpsichordist herself as well as a composer, Borroff
has found imaginative ways around the harpsichord's tonal sameness.  Like
Rosner, she has discovered how to keep interest over the long span.

Randall Thompson's inventions belong to the larger collection, 20 Preludes,
4 Inventions, and a Fugue.  Thompson began them as teaching pieces for
his tonal counterpoint students at Harvard.  He would compose on the
spot, ask at various points along the way for suggestions, and then
finish up.  An assistant would transcribe the completed work.  It takes
a while for most people to compose even two measures of music, so these
works are, necessarily, short.  They also come out of practical, pedagogical
circumstances.  Don't expect something on the level of The Peaceable
Kingdom or the Second Symphony.  The inventions are firmly in the idiom
of Bach and Handel keyboard works.  However, their quality definitely
wowed me.  They are fully as good as some Bach and Handel, with surprising
modulations, beautifully worked out in the Baroque idiom.

The two lollipops on the program - Gerald Near's Triptych and Harbach's
own Spaindango - bring welcome leavening.  Harbach's Spaindango - described
in the liner notes as a bolero rhythm, for some reason - is really a
fandango or perhaps a sevilliana.  It's vulgar, energetic, and fun,
dancing with a metaphorical rose in its metaphorical teeth.  The Near,
in Debussy's words, "seeks humbly to please" and succeeds.  It's not a
world-beater, but it does have great charm.

Harbach does well by them all.  My one quibble lies with the performance
order of the Thompson inventions.  I think she should have wound up with
the sprightly second, rather than the subdued fourth.  I doubt Thompson
actually specified order. The recorded sound is fine, if not spectacular.

Steve Schwartz

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