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Harpsichord at the Holidays - Christmas Carols past and present
see end of review for track listing
Elaine Funaro (harpsichord)
rec. 4, 6-7 January 2010, 3-4 January 2011, Baldwin Auditorium, Duke University, Durham, NC, USA. DDD

In the early Christian church Easter was the main feast. During the Middle Ages Christmas gained increasing weight, and here the church sometimes connected to very old traditions. They christianized them, but some elements remained intact. These often found their way into popular Christmas repertoire. The increasing popularity of Christmas resulted in a large repertoire of songs, many of which are still well-known. Through the centuries the texts have sometimes been adapted, the music changed also, not only in melody but especially in rhythm. Some of the Christmas carols which are still sung would hardly be recognized by the people who sang them first.
In the 18th century Christmas carols - called Noëls - were very popular in France. Organists improvised around such songs; some also published their arrangements. Among them were Jean-François Dandrieu, Louis-Claude Daquin and Claude-Bénigne Balbastre. The latter was especially famous for his concerts with Noëls. In 1756 he had been appointed organist at St Roch, and there he played his Noëls every year during Midnight Mass. His playing attracted such huge crowds that in 1762 the archbishop forbade him to play.
Such pieces were not only scored for organ but many could also be played at the harpsichord or with an instrumental ensemble. This disc includes various examples of this repertoire. The rest of the programme is devoted to modern pieces for the harpsichord which in various ways links up with the tradition established by the likes of Dandrieu and Balbastre.
The harpsichord is mostly used in music written before 1800. However, the instrument has appealed to composers of later eras. For instance, Francis Poulenc composed his Concert champêtre in the late 1920s for the then famous harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, who also inspired Manuel de Falla to compose a harpsichord concerto. In the time of historical performance practice an increasing number of contemporary composers took an interest in the harpsichord and wrote music for it. Some harpsichordists who focused on baroque music were receptive to new repertoire, others even specialised in it. One of the best-known is the Polish-born Elisabeth Chojnacka. Elaine Funaro seems also to be a performer with a special interest in modern harpsichord repertoire. Her biography says that she has premiered pieces on five continents and has performed with several symphony orchestras.
This disc is released by the label Aliénor Classics. Aliénor was started in 1980 and runs a quadrennial competition for new music for the harpsichord and commissions new works for the instrument. This disc includes arrangements of Christmas carols by three contemporary composers. We are told very little about them, except that they all have been past winners of the Aliénor Harpsichord Composition Competition. Edwin McLean has arranged eleven carols in A Baroque Christmas - a sequence dating from 2003. The title is already an indication that he connects with the style of the baroque era. The carols are clearly recognizable and as they follow the French baroque pieces the difference isn't that great. Most carols are well-known; however, I can't remember having heard Pat-A-Pan before. The disc contains hardly any information; this is regrettable: I would have liked to have known a little more about some of the carols and to have had some information about the composers.
Stephen Yates uses a more modern idiom. In his Sonatinos he includes fragments of Christmas carols. In this context they are less easily recognizable. Jackson Berkey is the most modern of the three composers. Obviously the melodies limit the freedom of a composer as most of them are pretty old. Even so, for lovers of baroque harpsichord music his contributions are probably the hardest to swallow, whereas they will have far fewer problems with McLean's arrangements.
That is certainly my experience, especially as I am not exactly receptive to contemporary music. The performance of the French baroque pieces is alright, but they will hardly be a reason to purchase this disc. The CD seems most suitable for those who have an interest in contemporary music and would like to know how modern composers write for the harpsichord. Times have changed since the days of Poulenc and De Falla: they composed their concertos for the modern factory harpsichord of Landowska. Today that kind of instrument is hardly used anymore: even in contemporary repertoire baroque harpsichords - copies of historical instruments or built in the style of such instruments - are the standard. That is also the case here. The booklet includes no details about the harpsichord used by Funaro. The psychedelic painting of the instrument seems to suggest that it was built for performances of modern music rather than baroque repertoire. The late Gustav Leonhardt certainly wouldn't have played on such an instrument; I suspect that he wouldn’t even have wanted to be seen with it.
Johan van Veen 

Track listing
Jean-François DANDRIEU (1681-1738)
Minuit fut fait un Reveil [2:23]
La Musete & double [3:57]
Claude-Bénigne BALBASTRE (1727-1799)
Quand Jésu naquit à Noël [2:55]
Edwin McLEAN
A Baroque Christmas (2003):
Noël Nouvelet [1:25]
God Rest You Merry, Gentleman [1:23]
What Child Is This [2:05]
The Coventry Carol [1:44]
We Three Kings [2:56]
Pat-A-Pan [1:26]
In Dulci Jubilo [1:49]
O Come, O Come, Immanuel [2:44]
Good King Wenceslas [2:06]
Silent Night [1:32]
Adeste Fideles [1:46]
Stephen YATES
Sonatino 1 [2:09]
Sonatino 2 [1:29]
Sonatino 3 [2:20]
Jean-François DANDRIEU
Carillon ou Cloches [3:23]
Louis-Claude DAQUIN (1694-1772)
Noël Etranger [2:42]
Noël Suisse [3:59]
Jackson BERKEY (*1942)
Keyboard Carols (1997-98):
Greensleeves: What Child is This, the Silent Word? [3:20]
Christmas Day in the Morning: I Saw Three Ships [3:18]
Fantasy on a Rose: Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming [7:02]
The Good King: Good King Wenceslas [3:29]
Gentlemen, God Rest Ye!: The Nine-finger Carol [3:59]
Three Kings of the Orient: We Three Kings [3:26]