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20th century Harpsichord Music Volume 1
Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
Deux pieces pour clavecin (1935)
Sonate pour clavecin (1958)
Deux impromptus pour clavencin (1959)
Virgil THOMSON (1896-1989)

Four Portraits;
Madame Kristians Tonny; eccentric dance
Jamie Campbell; stretching
Hommage to Mayra Freund and the Harp
Max Kahn; Fanfare for France
Vincent PERSICHETTI (1915-1987)

Harpsichord Sonata No. 7 Op. 156 (1983-84)
William ALBRIGHT (b 1944)

Four Fancies for Harpsichord (1979)
Samuel ADLER (b 1928)

Sonata for Harpsichord (1982)
Rick SOWASH (b 1950)

The Unicorn (1976)
Theme with Six Variations (1986)
Alec TEMPLETON (1909-1963)

Bach Goes To Town (1958)
Barbara Harbach (harpsichord)
Recorded at the Colgate Rochester Divinity School (1985 and 1989)
GASPARO GSCD-251 [72.36]

This generous collection, splendidly performed, gives a great deal of pleasure. It’s a reissue of two Gasparo issues of the 1980s, one LP and one cassette – the copyright dates are 1985 and 1989 – and they’ve been expertly transferred. The programme has variety, gives us Martinů’s complete works (fourteen or so minutes) for solo harpsichord, the saucy Virgil Thomson Portraits, some fine contemporary music dedicated to Barbara Harbach and ending with Alec Templeton’s evergreen swinger. There’s something for everyone – and having listened to one or two of Gasparo’s rather more austere and forbidding issues recently this one has commendable vivacity and luminosity, as well as a non-prescriptive approach to repertoire generally.

Those Martinů pieces really are pièces – French in inspiration since they were occasioned by the harpsichordist Marcelle de Lacour, also responsible for commissioning Martinů’s Concerto. Dancing and vibrant they are characterful little studies, characteristic of the mid-thirties Paris years, but there is greater substance in the Sonata, written the year before his death. Gentle, undulating lyricism informs its little sliver of a middle section, written as it is in fantasia form, everything sounding idiomatic and free. The impromptus are vivacious and witty bagatelles written a mere matter of months before his death. Thomson’s Portraits receive sparkling renditions – the first deliciously mordant, the second with a Renaissance feel and the third in which Harbach uses the delightful lute stop to suitably bardic effect (her apt word by the way). The fourth is a quirky little fanfare.

Persichetti dedicated this seventh Harpsichord Sonata to Harbach and it was premiered in 1984. It’s an idiomatic work, as befits a composer who wrote so well for the instrument, with a little Andantino that is constantly inflected and full of melodic interest. And the finale is brisk and characterful. William Albright’s Four Fancies are riotously exciting, with an abrasive, obsessive repeated Excentrique opener and a storming Danza ostinata with its compound of baroque and boogie-woogie – wonderful stuff. Adler, born in Mannheim, also wrote his Sonata for Harbach. It took its inspiration from Domenico Scarlatti and is full of scurry and strong chordal flourish. He juxtaposes insistent writing with a more elliptical slower section, but knows how to turn on the toccata style aggression when required – as we can see from the driving finale. Rick Sowash (b 1950) cultivates a deliciously lyrical and timeless Renaissance feel in The Unicorn and in the Theme with Six Variations he takes a rather rustic sounding tune and the variations unfold in a perspicacious and attractive way, full of glint and colour and affection. Bach Goes To Town evokes the spirit of Johnny Guarneri, though it’s often forgotten that it’s the first movement of Templeton’s Topsy-Turvy Suite.

As ever Barbara Harbach is a superb guide to the repertoire, plaintive or driving, glinting or wit-fuelled. Amidst the mass of releases, new and old, I hope this one doesn’t get passed over. It’s addictive.

Jonathan Woolf

The entire Gasparo Catalogue may now be purchased through MusicWeb

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