The intimate but grand setting of the Music House was perfect for this happy hour and a half of Maude Gratton, Sebastian Bach, 18C French music, and wine and canapés. The Music House double harpsichord by Richard Kingston, 1992, positioned against the long wall of the room, brought everyone conveniently close to the music. Maude Gratton, from France, is the Young Soloist 2006 of French Public Radio and was awarded a Diapason d'or in 2009 for her first recording, music of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach.
Gratton, looking nervous, opened with four movements from Bach's Partita in E minor, S. 830. The Toccata movement was played very freely in the free parts and very precisely in the more rhythmic parts (measure 28 et seq if you're counting). Her ornamentation, here as throughout, was excellently thought out and executed. As themes reappeared, careful ornaments were added. The Air was brisk, with nuanced phrasing. The Sarabande was florid and lovely; its rhythmic freedom moved it out of the realm of actual dance music. There was a little rough going in the second part. The Gigue is seemingly composed at cross purposes to the gigue rhythm, but Gratton made perfect sense of it, both mathematically and musically.
The Prelude and Fugue in G minor, S. 885, are No. 16 of Well-Tempered Clavier II. The Prelude was a little plodding, but the Fugue was precise, clean, and spiritual.
The Toccata in C minor, S. 911, is remarkable in its organization, with a 12-measure flourish of sixteenth and thirty-second notes, a 20-measure Adagio, and then 175 measures of very intense more-or-less fugal writing interspersed with stretches of rhythmic go-wild. It is a Bach tour-de-force, and was equally a Gratton tour-de-force: just when one thought neither Bach nor Gratton could sustain any more fevered writing and playing, Bach would step it up again and Gratton was right there with him!
The impresario host announced the wine-tasting-and-canapes intermission by saying that inexplicably and totally accidentally, all of the French wine had been found to have been drunk up. Nevertheless there was one good Beaujolais and several good non-French Cabs, along with delicious little goodies served up by members of the ECU French Club, who had made this recital part of the activities of French Week.
The French harpsichordist was on her own turf after intermission — music by three French near-contemporaries of Sebastian Bach: Jacques Duphly (1715-1789), Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764), and Jean-Baptiste Forqueray (1699-1782). The selections were amusing for including a Forqueray by Duphly and a Rameau by Forqueray. French composers of this period generally named pieces for their buddies or their patrons. By Duphly were "La Fèlix" and "La Redemond," from the Second Livre …, 1748, and "La Forqueray" from the Troisieme Livre ..., 1758. "La Fèlix" is a rondeau with two couplets bracketed by a refrain, ABACA. Gratton seemed to relish Duphly's exploitation of the dark sonorities of the lower range and extracted the essence of the style luthé so characteristic of French harpsichord music of this period. She also made the most of the vicious bass chop, like an ax falling on the keyboard, in the refrain. "La Redemond" is a large two-part piece, rather like a Scarlatti hand-crossing sonata, but with typical French sonorities. Gratton played with spirit and complete precision and assurance. "La Forqueray" is another rondeau, three couplets this time, in F minor with charming lapses into major descending scales like waterfalls. It is remarkable for hardly ever rising above middle C, exploiting the bass sonorities of the instrument. Gratton made the most of the pig-snuffling-like implied 10-chords in the refrain, which starts on below middle C and falls deep into tenor range.
By Rameau were a Courante and "La Rappel des Oiseaux," in this case very active tiny birds who clambered up and down very fast under Gratton's nimble fingers.
Forqueray's "Rameau," composed in a manly, marching band, brusque style, was played with vigor by Gratton. The chords were clear and articulated. "La Montigny" begins in a fluid style but soon reaches a series of door-slams, then back to fluid. "La Sylva" is a slow, doleful aria, played to the hilt by Gratton. "La Boisson" is just the sort of rousing three-time hurricane of notes to be expected for the finale; Gratton got them all just right! Maude Gratton is a precise and forceful player, who perfectly paired her program to the Music House instrument.