United States Bull, J. S. Bach, Domenico Scarlatti, Louis Couperin, Rameau: Jory Vinikour (harpsichord), Weill Recital Hall, Carnegie Hall, New York, 10.12.2015 (SSM)
John Bull: “Lord Lumley’s Pavan and Galliard”
“The King’s Hunt”
J. S. Bach: Partita No.3 in A Minor, BWV 827
Domenico Scarlatti, Sonata in D Major, K. 535
Sonata in D Major, K. 534|
Sonata in D Minor, K. 120
Sonata in D Major, K. 119
Louis Couperin: Suite in C Major
Jean-Phillipe Rameau: Suite in A Minor from Nouvelles suites de pièces de clavecin
Before this concert, I was not familiar with either Jory Vinikour or his recordings. This speaks both to my ignorance and to the situation of harpsichordists performing in the States today. The drain of American musical talent to Europe and elsewhere continues as it has for the last century, although success abroad often leads singers and musicians back to the States with coveted prizes traded in for coveted positions or roles.
The situation with harpsichordists is more serious. Not that anyone would have expected William Christie to always stay stateside, but he left Buffalo for Paris, never to look back. He toured as a harpsichordist for 10 years before founding the still pre-eminent early music group, Les Arts Florissants. The late Alan Curtis did for Italy what Christie did for France. Similarly, Scott Ross, the most brilliant and prolific harpsichord of this era, left Maine for Europe, his talents recognized there and his eccentricities ignored. Ross’s legacy includes the first recording of Scarlatti’s complete 555 sonatas on 34 CDs. Jory Vinikour moved to Paris in 1990.
Even though the performance took place in the smallest of Carnegie Hall’s theaters, Weill Recital Hall, the fact that it was a sold-out event proves there is more than enough interest in early keyboard music to justify more concerts like this one. Vinikour chose a varied program, from the beginning of the Baroque era and the music of John Bull through Scarlatti in and around the middle Baroque, back a bit to the earlier Baroque and ending with a Rameau Suite.
The opening music by John Bull immediately put the audience into a faraway past as successfully as any play by Shakespeare, who was born just two years after Bull. If the music sounded like it came from a lute, it did and it didn’t. Most harpsichords have lute stops which work very well in making the instrument sound like the plucking of a lute.
The Bach suite that followed is a big jump, some 25 years. By this time the improvisational style of the Toccatas, Fantasies and Preludes was beginning to seem old-fashioned. Bach was known in his time as a virtuoso organist, while the larger body of his works was considered old-fashioned. Because all of Bach’s instrumental suites were emulations of dance movements, there would be no need to specify a tempo, certainly for his contemporaries. Vinikour took the Allemande at an undanceable pace, but since there was no dancing in the aisles, it was perfectly acceptable. The same is true of the repeats. Bach specifies repeats of the binary A-B sections. It is not often done, but Vinikour took the repeats on the A section but not the B. Both Glenn Gould in his Bach and Ross in his Scarlatti toe the line and take the repeats, but do occasionally drop them on the B section. Sometimes it’s clear why, at other times not.
Considering the amount, quality and variety of Scarlatti’s output, too much praise cannot be given to Scott Ross who continued his Scarlatti project through to his terminal illness at the age of 38. Like running a four-minute mile, thought an impossibility, once a complete set was achieved, it became not quite commonplace but still doable. Since Ross’s set there have about a half-dozen others, either completed or soon to be. The pieces selected here are examples of the pairing of sonatas that Ralph Kirkpatrick used in establishing Scarlatti’s method of composing. I’m not sure why this performance hierarchy reversed the order in both pairs. This is very difficult music, and there were mis-hits on some of the crosshand jumps, particularly at the end of K. 120, made even more impossible by the speed at which it was taken.
Louis Couperin’s Suite in C Major is most interesting for his non-measured first movement Prélude that reflects what improvised music of the time would sound like. It’s coded in such a way as to give the player a guideline, but not much more. A careful reading, as was done here, produces a sense of spontaneity that strongly contrasts with the more rigidly set dances that follow. The concluding Passacaille is a set of variations on a repeating bass. More commonly known as a Chaconne, it combines a hypnotic rhythm with a continuous repetition. Rameau used it often in his operas as a closing dance. Vinikour gave this movement a well-measured interpretation.
Rameau’s music is like no other of the period. The opening Allemande is the right tempo and meter, yet it is laughable to even imagine someone dancing to it. As François Couperin did in his later books, Rameau began giving titles to his “pièces.” Here, in “Les trois mains,” through the use of crosshands and overlapping, he produces the effect of three hands playing. Vinikour grasped the humor inherent in much of Rameau’s music with the sudden short descending runs leading to the cadences in “Les Trois mains.” The concluding variations of the Gavotte were a fitting climax to a well-played and well-selected program.