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Some Like It Plucked
Les Inventions, Thomas Gould (violin), Patrick Ayrton (harpsichord)

rec. (concerto) 2-5 February 2018. Atrium, The Hague, The Netherlands. (other works) 8-11 August 2018. Church of St Blaise, Chandives, Sâone-et-Loire, France

GLOBE GLO5272 [66:14]

 

There is some precedent for using the harpsichord in jazz; Artie Shaw used it in a recording he made in 1940 and a decade later, Erroll Garner made a solo album on the instrument. But despite such aristocratic pioneers, the instrument has never caught the imagination of jazzers, and this recording of jazz and jazz-related piano pieces on the harpsichord rather shows why it never made it as a firm fixture in the world of jazz. Opening his disc with Gershwin’s I Got Rhythm Patrick Ayrton reveals the harpsichord’s one great jazz-oriented feature; it’s ability to create its own in-house rhythm section. With hefty action clatter from the Jonte Knif and Arno Pelto German double-manual harpsichord of 2004, Ayrton certainly gives the Gershwin a tremendous rhythmic edge.

But that other great feature of jazz – rich and distinctive harmony – not to mention flowing melody lines, simply is beyond the harpsichord’s remit. Thick texture chords become obscured by the clatter of action and the instant decay once a note is released puts an end to any real hope of a sustained legato line. (It is interesting to note the Garner recording either used a remarkably resonant harpsichord or added some reverberation of its own to the recorded sound as a way of side-stepping this issue.) In light of this, it seems an odd choice for Ayrton to give us a harpsichord version of Copland’s Sentimental Melody; we get neither sentimentality nor a melody in what is a decidedly stiff dance-like performance. And the Poulenc Improvisation as delivered on the harpsichord seems so focused on the mechanical articulation of each individual note, it has all the improvisatory feel of a Swiss timepiece.

With stronger jazz credentials, Alec Templeton’s satirical blend of Bach and swing makes sense on the harpsichord, even if we don’t get much of a swing feel here, while the dance movements of Erwin Schulhoff’s six Esquisses de Jazz – notably a jagged “Tango” and bouncing “Charleston” – do come across with splendid rhythmic verve. Against that, though, the harpsichord’s lack of sustaining powers serves only to disjoint still further the already awkward lines of the “Boston”, while “Blues” takes on quite a grotesque character from the thick chords in the harpsichord’s lower register.

When it is combined with other instruments, the harpsichord seems much more at ease in this repertory. There’s a splendidly spiky account of the “Marche Royale” from Stravinsky’s Histoire du Soldat with Thomas Gould devilishly mischievous on the violin, who also pairs with Ayrton for a very neat account of Schnittke’s Suite in the Old Style, and a fun-filled version for violin, harpsichord and un-attributed whistler/vocalist, of Artie Shaw’s Summer Ridge Drive.

According to Ayrton’s booklet notes, the whole reason the disc was made was to present Joseph Horovitz’s Jazz Harpsichord Concerto in which Ayrton is partnered by the 12-piece ensemble, Les Inventions. Written in 1965 Horovitz characteristically draws on a whole kaleidoscope of jazz styles, from ragtime to contemporary, with plenty of allusions to the harpsichord’s principal hunting ground of the German baroque. Cleverly scored with the harpsichord mostly filling in rhythmically (reminding me of that famous quote about the harpsichord sounding like “dancing on broken glass”) while the orchestra has the bulk of the melodic and harmonic material and adds plenty of colourful touches. It’s not a great work, and like so much of Horovitz, it works best when it is in pastiche-mode, but the clarity and detail of this performance serves it very well.

Marc Rochester

Harpsichordist Patrick Ayrton proves, inadvertently, that his instrument really is not suited to jazz unless it comes packaged with other instruments; the best moments here find him partnered with the violin of Thomas Gould and in Horovitz’s Concerto

Tracklist

George Gershwin (1898-1937): I Got Rhythm [1:29]

Alec Templeton (1909-1963): Bach Goes To Town (Prelude and Fugue in Swing) [3:14]

Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998): Suite in the Old Style [15:19]

Erroll Garner (1921-1977): I Can’t Get Started with You [2:34]

Erik Satie (1866-1925): Gnossienne No.2 [2:15]

Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942): Esquisses de Jazz [12:33]

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971): L’Histoire du Soldat – Marche Royale [2:58]

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963): Improvisation No.7 [3:07]

Artie Shaw (1910-2004): Summer Ridge Drive [3:30]

Aaron Copland (1900-1990): Sentimental Melody [1:57]

Joseph Horovitz (b.1926): Jazz Harpsichord Concerto [16:43]


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