Concert Review

MAGGIE COLE & FRIENDS Wigmore Hall - 14 December 1999
we apologize for the late posting of this review

As the last days of the 1800s ebbed away, the harpsichord became reborn as a vital instrument, after more than a century of neglect, in a landmark concert given on December 14th 1899 at the 6 Upper Brook Street, the house of the eccentric harpsichordist and society hostess Violet Gordon Woodhouse, who led a pioneering performance of JS Bach's Triple Harpsichord Concerto in C. Woodhouse's two collaborators on the other keyboards were none other than Arnold Dolmetsch and his wife Elodie. After a hundred years of enforced demise the harpsichord had been reborn; and, as the 20th century got into its stride, Woodhouse was joined by Wanda Landowska in futher revivifying the instrument's credentials: it was Landowska who commissioned original Concertos for the harpsichord from both Poulenc and De Falla. So it all seemed rather apt, as the 20th century stole away, that a contemporary lady 'giant' of the harpsichord, Maggie Cole, should mark the exact centenary of Woodhouse's airing of the Bach Triple, with an invigorating and thoroughly riveting evening of harpsichord compositions, both solo and with ensemble, past and present.

Both of Bach's Triple Harpsichord Concertos - the one in C and the other in D minor - appropriately framed the concert, the D minor being aired first. Of the two, the D minor is the more concentrated, its two outer Allegros hinged around a mesmeric Alla siciliana. Cole's two collaborators here were Malcolm Proud and Alastair Ross and a splendidly bright and cogent sound the trio produced, supported by Alison Bury and Brian Brooks on violins, Annette Isserlis on viola, Richard Tunnicliffe on cello and Peter McCarthy on double-bass. Taut ensemble all round, with some very precise phrasing and a genuine period earthiness. Thereafter it was Alastair Ross's turn to take centre stage, solus, in two adjacent Scarlatti Sonatas Kk 490 & 491, which he executed with consummate ease and flair, following them with Ligeti's fiendishly difficult Hungarian Rock. An idiosyncratically Ligetian composition, Hungarian Rock of 1978 deliberately subverts the textures and timbres to which the listener might suppose the harpsichord to be confined. Ross coped manfully, maintaining the left hand's steady chaconne bass against increasing competition from the more decorative right; and tension rose appropriately to the last chord. In the final item of the first half Maggie Cole was joined by violin, cello and a trio of winds to give De Falla's sparkling Harpsichord Concerto. Exotically Hispanic and Neo-Classical in equal measure, Falla's Concerto pits a centrally placed and processive Lento between a Scarlattian opening Allegro and a pithy almost Stravinskian Vivace finale. Maggie Cole located the work's measure instantly and maintained it. Sharpness of ensemble again contributed greatly with balance just right: a stirring account of a tremendous piece.

With Bach at the forefront of the Baroque keyboard world, one is sometimes prone to forget that his exact contemporary, George Frideric Handel, was also a major exponent of the instrument. After the interval Handel was rightly foregrounded by Malcolm Proud via an appealing and again animated and propulsive account of his Suite No.8. Handel was also alluded to in the piece Maggie Cole gave next: After Handel's 'Vesper' by Gavin Bryars, here receiving its first London performance. Handel never wrote a Vesper, of course, and the title is a typical Bryarsian conceit, deriving its name from the French Surrealist Raymond Roussel's novel Impressions d'Afrique in which the blind Handel is envisaged composing a Vesper by means of a set of chance operations. There is no aleatory though in Bryars's own composition, a quasi-improvisational work (though durchkomponiert) with a number of ornaments and flourishes; and its dedicatee, Maggie Cole, certainly made a persuasive case for it. Whilst the concert was joyously concluded with the second of the Bach Triples, exhilaratingly executed with joyous panache. A hundred years on from Violet Gordon Woodhouse, the harpsichord had certainly been celebrated in style, with the richness of programming and fine all-round musicianship contributing to a real 'event' of a concert.

Duncan Hadfield

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