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Recital Review Print

Spanish Music for Various Keyboard Instruments

March 25, 2007 - Durham, NC:

The Memorial Chapel organ, on the campus of Duke University, is built in the style of the Italian renaissance. Also kept in this room is the Positif built by Flentrop to test the acoustics of the chapel. This seeming embarrassment of riches was supplemented for today's concert by four more instruments: a fretted clavichord by Keith Hill (1978), a folding, portable Bibel-Regal by Bruce Shull (1982), an inner-outer style Italian harpsichord by the Swiss builder Edskes (1989), and a Flemish double harpsichord by Richard Kingston (1983). Five of these six instruments figured in a program of mostly Spanish music performed twice (because the Memorial Chapel is very small) by Robert Parkins, assisted by David Arcus, who played the sixth one, the Flentrop Positif.

The program began with Bernardo Pasquini's Partite sopra la Aria della Folia da Espagna. People, even concert-goers, are capable of being really quiet. When Parkins began to play, the soft but incisive voice of the instrument accomplished a complete silence in the audience. From my seat half way back and on the opposite side of the chapel, the sound was both clear and adequate. At future clavichord recitals, playing just a few measures of something, or playing the first variation twice, would effectively quiet the audience.

From the soft, Parkins moved to the loud, the pipeless reed regal, with hand-activated bellows. Parkins's performance of Cabezón's Tiento sobre Qui la dira was clean and academic. The regal is not an instrument of stable tuning or genteel voice. I want the smell of onions and garlic in the air, smoky torches, and raucous dancing, so that as the regal goes out of tune with playing, the dancers, performer, and bellows boy (in this case woman) will go out of tune along with it, from the wine, exercise, and elevated spirits. In Memorial Chapel, one is forced to focus overmuch, I think, on excessive niceties of tuning and performance.

The Italian-style was the vehicle for Gallardas I by Juan Cabaniles and an anonymous Xácara from the MSS of Padre Antonio Martín y Coll. The beginning of the Gallardas was disjointed, wooden, and quite un-Parkins-like. This may have been from the transition from the feather-light regal to the very plucky action of the Italian harpsichord, or it may have been from the excessive paper-shuffling of all the music. Once the page-turning was out of the way, Parkins pulled the last variation together in a very exciting way, fueling some inappropriate clapping led by (I confess) this reviewer. It was applause well deserved.

The Xácara had nice rhythmic drive. The playing seemed to be much more stable without any page-turning.

Parkins then disappeared (like the Wizard of Oz) behind a curtain in the corner and re-appeared over our heads at the keyboard of the Brombaugh organ.  In Cabezón's Tiento I (2° tono), Parkins made good use of the immediate speech and expressive action of the organ. Arauxo's Tiento [36] de medio registro de tiple (10° tono) featured the Principal as accompaniment to the Cornetto available on the same keyboard by using the divided stops. A set of jolly bagpipe variations from the Martín y Coll MSS also showcased contrasting sounds.

For the rest of the program, Parkins played the double harpsichord by Richard Kingston. The favorable leverage of the Flemish/French key action is much less demanding than the adverse leverage and conspicuous ictus of the Italian. This seemed to make Parkins's playing somewhat more relaxed and flowing. It was fascinating to be able to watch his hands, like two great white spiders, moving up and down the keyboard with deadly accuracy.

Of the two Pasos of Narcís Casanoves, XI was much superior to the preceding VII.

The same comparison can be applied to the pair of Scarlatti sonatas, K.302 and 303, both in C minor. K.303, however, was some of Parkins's best playing. He sounded excited about what he was doing. K.303 has some repeated passages that were better when they were played like the cuckoo and not like Avon calling.

But the best was yet to come: Padre Antonio Soler's Concerto for Two Keyboards (No. 6, in D major). For this Parkins, the University Organist, was assisted by David Arcus, Chapel Organist, playing the Flentrop Positif. There is a huge amount of contrast between the Kingston harpsichord and the Flentrop, but much similarity too, in some of their timbres and their quick attack. To quote a cartoon from a century ago, "It sounded like a hull brass band in a cyclone," especially after the douce beginnings on the clavichord. In the first Allegro, the balance was a little skewed in favor of the harpsichord. The Andante began with a truly lovely organ solo, which then handed off to the harpsichord. Parkins added some very interesting ornamentation to the reprise. In the second Allegro, things were moving fast and very exciting. The final Minué had some typical Spanish batalla written in.

For bows at the end, it was Arcus's turn to disappear behind the curtain, until called back by Parkins for a bow. I was in just the right seat to see that backstage, Arcus was clapping as hard as the rest of us. This is a fine tribute from one good musician to another.