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John RUTTER (b.1945)
Suite Antique, for flute, harpsichord and strings (1979) [20:11]
Philip GLASS (b.1937)
Concerto, for harpsichord and chamber orchestra (2002) [24:08]
Jean FRANÇAIX (1912-1997)
Concerto, for harpsichord and ensemble (1959) [19:37]
Christopher D Lewis (harpsichord); John McMurtery (flute)
West Side Chamber Orchestra/Kevin Mallon
rec. American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York, 10-12 September 2012.
NAXOS 8.573146 [64:02]

This "amazingly rich and varied programme", according to Naxos, "build[s] on the magnificent harpsichord concerto legacy of J. S. Bach" - a contentious assertion indeed. Rutter, Glass and Françaix are not names wisely bracketed with Bach; even if Rutter's 'Suite Antique', for example, does look back half-heartedly to a distant past, it does so with schmaltz that would have given Bach a bilious attack. The mere title of its fourth movement, 'Jazz Waltz', crushes any sense that this is a composer with any real connection to Bach.
 
US-based Welsh soloist Christopher D Lewis makes his debut here for Naxos, and he plays with confidence and an appropriate sense of fun. In truth, however, there is little in his programme to tax even an average soloist. Conductor Kevin Mallon, as if emphasising Lewis's lightsome approach, looks uncommonly cheery in the booklet photo. The joke is one anyone who heeds the title 'Harpsichord Concertos' without considering the three composer names given greater prominence.
 
As the title indicates, Rutter's Suite Antique is not a concerto at all, and indeed it is the flute that is much more conspicuous. Annotator Graham Wade's notes on Rutter's Suite are indicative: "an animated flute solo that could well have been written for a modern musical. [...] The jazzy Waltz which follows brings forward a catchy and energetic melody more reminiscent of Brubeck than Bach. [...] Rondeau concludes the work, and includes, at last, some moments of solo harpsichord". It is a pleasant enough work, to be sure, sounding rather like the theme music for a 1970s TV programme for children. Typical Rutter - but not a harpsichord concerto and a million miles from the 'Brandenburg' no.5 of Bach it is supposedly based on.
 
Glass's work is at least concerto-like in the usual sense. As always, he comes up with attractive melodies and catchy rhythms which he then subjects to rigorous centripetal ostinato treatment. As "one of the most eminent and influential composers of the late twentieth century" he has many admirers, and they will find much to enjoy here. Even allowing for quasi-minimalist tendencies, this is an atmospheric work that is much more interesting than Rutter's and, in the middle movement especially, does clearly pay tribute to the Baroque era.
 
How Glass's post-modernism and Rutter's flute-led suite link with Jean Françaix becomes immediately clear in the opening 'Toccata' of the latter's Harpsichord Concerto, which features both in a very 21st-century soundscape. Some may be tempted to consider Françaix the 'proper' composer of the three on this disc, but this work shows that he could also write music every bit as trite as Rutter. Graham Wade refers to the "wit and elegance" of the Concerto, and he is right, in a way - but Françaix is smug rather than spontaneous, ingratiating rather than inspired.
 
Available to those who download or stream the product is a three-minute bonus track for solo harpsichord called 'So Tango'. This is mysteriously not on the physical CD, but it ought to be, as it would at least leave listeners - momentarily, at any rate - in a positive mood, less likely to dwell on the banalities inflicted on them by Rutter and Françaix. Wade's notes are well written but, as mentioned elsewhere, gratingly effusive. Audio quality is very good, with astute balance between the sweet-toned harpsichord and chamber orchestra.  

Byzantion
Contact at artmusicreviews.co.uk
 


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