Norfolk Chamber Consort: 1-2-3-4 Harpsichords
October 1, 2018, Chandler Recital Hall, Norfolk
Review by Adelaide Coles

The Norfolk Chamber Consort opened their 50th(!) season with a concert devoted to the legacy of a truly noteworthy instrument: the harpsichord. Its character alternately witty and profound, sarcastic and devout, gloomy and bright, the harpsichord has an ability like no other to instantly transport the listener to a different time. A peer to the clavichord, and a precursor to the fortepiano, the harpsichord was invented around 1400. Its strings are plucked by quills (“plectra”), unlike the fortepiano and the modern piano, which use hammers to strike the strings. After its inception, many regional variants and improvements followed, such as increasing the size (and thus volume) of the instrument, adding second and third keyboards (“manuals”) for the hands, and including different “stops” to change the timbre, similar to the stops on a pipe organ.

In this entertaining program of Baroque music, the NCC showcased the harpsichord in different roles: as a solo instrument, as supporting accompaniment, in a pair, and en masse. My initial reaction when I learned about this concert was, “Where on Earth are they going to find four harpsichords?” For this, we can extend our gratitude to one man in particular. The evening was dedicated to Vernon McCart, period keyboard instrument builder, restorer, and collector who was in attendance to hear one of his wonderful instruments brought to life.

Over the course of the concert, the audience became acquainted with the differences in sound and character between the four harpsichords on stage, as well as the instruments’ individual appearances. (In the 16th and 17th centuries, harpsichords could be as ornately decorated as you can possibly imagine, with intricately carved legs and outer cases featuring extravagant works of art. By opulent Baroque standards, the outsides of the four instruments used in this concert were plain, but the enchanting sounds that emanated from them were anything but.)

Opening the concert was J.S. Bach’s Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue, BWV 903 (ca. 1717-1723). As indicated by its title, the piece is remarkably chromatic and represents a major departure from the typical harmonies of the time. The piece sounds quite fresh to the modern ear — extended harmonies such as 9ths, 11ths, and 13ths appear throughout the work. One can only imagine the reaction of 18th-century listeners! (And immediately understand why some people today say that J.S. Bach was the first jazz composer.) This piece was an excellent choice to open the concert and accustom the listeners’ ears to the sound and tone of the historical instrument. Unfortunately, there was a prolonged commotion in the audience that disrupted the first half of the 12-minute piece. The unobtrusive tone of a single harpsichord is no match for a dreadful coughing fit. Keyboardist Andrey Kasparov demonstrated mind-boggling concentration as he played the entire work from memory through the commotion, without hesitation.

Next, flautist Wayla Chambo and cellist Jeff Phelps joined Kasparov for François Couperin’s Concert Royal No. 4 in E Minor (1714). Couperin (1668-1733) composed this and other dance suites for the aristocratic court of “The Sun King,” Louis XIV. (Judging from the complexity of the music, these pieces were probably better suited for listening than for dancing.) The composer often left the exact instrumentation up to the performers—whichever court musicians were in attendance, presumably!

Before playing, Jeff Phelps shared with the audience several steps he had taken to recreate a period-appropriate sound from his cello. He used a Baroque-style bow, which is strung with less tension than the modern one; the reduced tension creates more of a sensation of “pulling” the sound out of the strings, while tuning his lowest string a half-step down. This changed the cello’s sound quite dramatically—warmer, less diffused, more direct.

Throughout, flautist Chambo emulated a Baroque playing style, imbuing her clear tone with minimal vibrato, which suggested the rounded sound of a recorder. She and the other performers instinctively brought out the crescendos and diminuendos inherent in the interwoven melodic lines, tapering their entrances and resolutions tastefully, to great effect in the Sarabande. The balance of the flute, cello, and harpsichord was especially pleasing; the mellow tone color of the woodwind perched nicely atop the string sonorities without over-saturating the sound space. The insistent propriety of the Courante française was a little silly; the Courante à l’italienne was somewhat more free-spirited, like a nobleman riding on horseback. The finale, Forlane, was the highlight of the suite, with catchy canonical melodies and countermelodies passing from instrument to instrument.

Third on the program was Sonata in C Major for Two Claviers, after Wq. 87 (post-1766) by J.S. Bach’s “most talented son,” Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788), performed by the Invencia Piano Duo, Oksana Lutsyshyn and Andrey Kasparov. It was great fun to see this multi-talented keyboard duo on harpsichords instead of pianos, and as always they delivered an entertaining and stylish performance. In this duet, we were treated to a variety of colors and timbres across the ranges of the instruments. I was able to appreciate many of the differences in character and tone between the two instruments—in what register the harpsichords resonate strongly, where they buzz and growl, where they can sound silvery and transparent.

The sonata displayed the expressive and dynamic personality of C.P.E. Bach. C.P.E.’s cosmopolitan musical tastes were often at odds with his father’s, whose music many had deemed as “old-fashioned” even before J.S.‘s death in 1750. The lighthearted first movement, Allegretto, had the two instruments converse in tidy, appealing phrases, neatly boxed and tastefully ornamented. In the flowing second movement, Adagio, the performers both utilized the “lute” stops on their instruments. This dampened the sharpness of the plucked strings to a soothing mellow timbre, like a harp with nylon strings (or, presumably, a lute with strings made from animal gut.) The third and final movement, Allegro, was a polyphonic jubilee, with a rising sense of expectation through elegantly ornamented sequences and deceptive false endings.

Following an intermission were two concerti for multiple harpsichords and string quintet. The string ensemble consisted of Gretchen Loyola and Anna Dobrzyn on violin, Anastasia Migliozzi on viola, Jeff Phelps on cello, and Madeline Dietrich on double bass. The first work was J.S. Bach’s Concerto for Three Harpsichords and Orchestra in C Major, BWV 1064 (ca. 1730), with harpsichordists Oksana Lutsyshyn, James Kosnik, and Max Holman. NCC Artistic Co-Director Andrey Kasparov conducted the ensemble.

The concerto opened with a quick Allegro, bright clanging sounds from the harpsichords cutting through the confident syncopations and suspensions of the strings. The second movement, Adagio, begins with a yearning melody in the upper strings in an offset canon. Then we hear a soli of the three harpsichords answer the strings’ question, all embellishing the same melodic themes simultaneously. As the piece progresses, Bach alternates between the two groups, strings and harpsichords, building the tension by gradually pairing the instruments in increasingly florid conversation. Phelps and Dietrich created a resonant ambiance with their continuo parts, on top of which the upper strings and harpsichords blended beautifully. Violinists Loyola and Dobrzyn made strong impressions here with their evocative dialogues. The resplendent finale, Allegro, was a delightful contrast, reminding this listener of a fall day, a time of harvest and of plenty. Harpsichordist Lutsyshyn featured prominently in this movement, cascading up and down the keyboard in never-ceasing scalar passages while Holman and Kosnik provided a solid foundation.

Kevin Kwan, organist and director of music at Christ and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Norfolk, joined the ensemble as a fourth harpsichordist for the final work on the program, Concerto for Four Harpsichords and Orchestra in A minor, BWV. 1065 (ca. 1730), J.S. Bach’s transcription of Antonio Vivaldi’s concerto for four violins. In this concise three-movement piece, Bach primarily treats the strings and the harpsichords as separate entities, making excellent use of the contrast in sound between the two instrument families. (Vivaldi’s positive influence on the string writing is also apparent.) The first movement, Allegro, is quick, lively, and motivic, if a touch academic. When playing together, the four harpsichords seemed to blend into one massive keyboard. The theatrical second movement, Largo, centered around an extended soli of layered arpeggios for the harpsichords, the texture quite radical for a Baroque work. It was in these soli passages that I could hear more clearly what the individual performers were doing. Particular acknowledgment goes to Lutsyshyn, who tackled the virtuosic Harpsichord I part, layering rapid arpeggios overtop a mechanical ticking clock texture, and to Holman, who took the lead improvising in clever Baroque style over the two extended cadences at the end of the second movement. The final movement, Allegro, begins right away and carries the listener away in a rollicking 6/8 dance. The five string players’ crisp articulations and passionate dynamic expression provide a regal backdrop for the harpsichord soloists’ dove-tailing melodies.

I greatly appreciated the rare opportunity in Hampton Roads to hear these historical instruments and pieces imbued with fresh life in concert. It was a spectacle for the eyes and ears, and a great deal of fun. Many thanks to the performers and organizers for making this concert a reality. Looking forward to the next NCC concert on November 12!