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Recital Review Print

Wearing Another Hat: Music for the Harpsichord by Organ Composers

January 31, 2009 - Greenville, NC:

The 13th Annual East Carolina Religious Arts Festival was held at St. Paul’s church and included a recital by Frances Conover Fitch, harpsichord. Igor Stravinsky is supposed to have said that religious music is any music that has a lily on the cover. The harpsichord, even with a lily among the painted flowers on the soundboard, is not usually thought of as a religious instrument even though frequently used in church. The connection between this concert and a religious arts festival is tenuous.

Nevertheless, Frances Fitch is definitely an artist, a very fine one, and her presence was welcome at this festival under any pretext.

The link to “organ composers” is sketchy as well. While true that Bach and Locklair (forgive me for putting them in the same thought) have both composed for organ, “organ composer” is not exactly the short tag appropriate for either one. Perhaps the title was a way of explaining the scattergun nature of the program, reminiscent of the standard 1960s AGO recital with one representative piece from diverse historical eras, designed to show that either the performer of the hour or “this new organ,” or both, was capable of playing all things in all styles. Fitch herself did acknowledge that the program would have needed five different kinds of harpsichords, and a clavichord for good measure, to allow her to present each piece as conceived.

The small audience, perhaps 50, in the acoustically-vast St. Paul’s church, allowed Fitch to invite everyone, twice, to draw nigh and hear. I was in the second row, exactly centered on the instrument; I could hear (and see) fine, but I wonder what those who were three rows behind me heard.

The concert began with two short pieces by Thomas Tallis which appear in the Mulliner Book, “O Ye Tender Babes” and “Like As The Doleful Dove.” Fitch played in a clean and seer style; our close quarters allowed me a good view of her face; she seemed in the grip of some unseen emotion. The Tallis definitely cried out for one of those historical harpsichord sounds that was not available. The beautifully-maintained old Hubbard kit by Conrad Sharpe, 1977, was far too well-mannered. These little pieces needed the snarl of a regal or the grunt of a virginal.

Next came “Praeludium Toccata” by J. P. Sweelinck, a better fit for this French style harpsichord. The fugal section was clean and transparent and there was good rhythmic drive throughout the piece.

The totally cerebral and abstract Contrapunctus V from Die Kunst der Fuge, S. 1080 of J. S. Bach, had a number of missed notes. Fitch, who otherwise seemed quite cool, appeared to lose her composure in this piece. Even the wrong notes were clean and precise, however, and Fitch was able to keep the music going.

With "La De Caze" and "La Lugeac" from Balbastre’s Pièces de Clavecin, the music finally matched the style of the instrument. (This caused me to wonder briefly what this most idiomatic of national styles would sound like on a virginal, an Italian-style instrument, or a big fat Jacob Kirckman!) Balbastre, and the harpsichord, designed after the instruments of the Parisian Paschal Taskin, brought out the absolute best in Fitch. Her playing was stylish and musical. She made spectacular use of the demanding acoustics of the building. She played with flair and verve. "La Lugeac" was particularly fine: jolly, flowing, strongly articulated, the bass line oinking, like young pigs in the highest and best French style. Fitch’s facial expressions suggested she wanted to sing. Fitch handled the cadences in masterful style; she introduced a false ending almost as successful as Cavaliere’s in “Good Lovin”!

The right instrument for Herbert Howells’s Lambert’s Clavichord is not as obvious. Fitch said she believed this was intended for clavichord, but there are a number of passages that worked well on the harpsichord that did not impress me as idiomatic clavichord writing. And one wonders just what kind of clavichord Howells might have had available to him when he composed this in 1926-27.

As all good recitals, this ended with a big and complicated piece, Dan Locklair’s The Breakers Pound. Fitch has all the technique and confidence necessary to carry off a piece like this successfully. The first movement, "Prelude," has an interesting disparity between the success of the ostinato bass and the fragmented, twitchy, broken-glass treble line. In the double movement "Waltz Rag," Fitch did a beautiful job of extracting and exploiting the ragtime feeling. Fitch seemed to me to take the final movement, "Postlude," at a rather stately pace. Locklair is a master of the really neat little phrase. The music is plodding along and all of a sudden one perks up at a really effective little phrase and thinks, “I need to hear that again!” And just as effectively, Locklair obligingly states it again and one smiles. And then he states it again . . . and again . . . and again.

My late mother, who had no fondness for baroque organ music, was with me once when a basse de trompette by Marchand was played. I really liked it, but before I could mention this, Mama said with a snort, “He missed two or three good places to stop.” Perhaps I’m no scholar of Locklair; I shared my mother’s feeling more than once in this piece. “The-good-place-to-stop” feeling never extended at any time to Fitch. At the end she looked at her watch and exclaimed, “I’ve finished early.” I think that would have been a fine excuse to encore the Balbastre!