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Chamber Music, Contemporary Music Media Review Print

New Music for Harpsichord

December 9, 2017 - Easthampton, MA:

uno, due, tre; New works for harpsichord. Beverly Biggs, Elaine Funaro, and Rebecca Pechefsky, harpsichords. (Funaro plays on all tracks). Mark Janello: Concerto for Two, and Toccata-Rondo for Harpsichord; Edwin McLean: Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2 for Two Harpsichords, No. 3 for Harpsichord, and Sonata for Three Harpsichords. Aliénor ARCD-1210; 61:34; © 2017; $10.95, available from CD Baby.

Yes, composers are still writing music for the harpsichord, albeit often on commission or because they know a harpsichordist, but that's how they write most music, after all. And good music at that – music that brings the instrument's tradition clearly into the 21st century. There are cracker-jack harpsichord players in this century as well; this CD offers sound proof of both. It has a work by each composer for a single instrument, several for two, and one for three players, which may be the first in the instrument's history: in my sizeable collection I do not have another, in many years of listening, have never encountered one, and a Google search did not turn one up. Bach wrote concertos for two, three, and even one for four harpsichords, but no such sonatas.

Sonatas were not yet in fashion when the harpsichord was at the height of its glory; the suite was its primary genre. C.P.E. Bach and Haydn were the first to write some, and they soon moved on to the pianoforte/fortepiano. J.C. Bach (Johann's youngest son, whom Mozart met in London, where J.C.B. lived after 1762 and is buried) wrote a Sonata in G for two keyboards with only two movements (Op. 15, No. 5, published in Paris in 1778), so it would likely have been played on harpsichords at the time; both of my recordings are on harpsichords. W.F. Bach wrote one in F (BR A 12, F[alck]. 10), but its date is unknown; you can hear it on YouTube and also there with one player on a harpsichord and one on a fortepiano, which makes an interesting exercise in comparison; you may decide which works better and is more pleasing. Even today, many composers write suites for the harpsichord rather than sonatas as a result.

The music is modern, melodic, tonal, energetic, upbeat, and displays a wide variety in motifs, moods, rhythms, tempos, and styles among the works – some even sound jazzy, others as if they could be pop or rock music tunes. Of necessity, it uses the playing techniques of an earlier time, heavy on the arpeggiations and rapid fingering because the decay of the sound is pretty much instant on the harpsichord, just as on the guitar or lute. It is ordered in a pleasing progression: the solo work opening the program, the three with two harpsichords following, the other solo work next, with the one for three instruments, and the only one with four movements as the climactic conclusion.

The product's presentation is attractive, logical, and practical: a quadri-fold double-thick glossy full-color cardboard sleeve, with the plastic disk holder glued inside the single-thickness third segment; there is no jewel case to break! When you open it, notes from each of the composers about the genesis of the works (written between 1992 and 2015) accompanied by portrait photos of them greet you, McLean's, on the left, and Janello's on the right. Open those halves and you find on the left the bios of the three performers, inside segment one, and of the composers on the right inside segment two; open the right half and you find the recording credits inside segment four.

The art work from the 2010 painting What Goes Around by Lisa Creed is colorful and whimsical, the full work shown on the cover with segments reproduced in other places inside and on the back; she was also responsible for the product design. There are also two photos of the trio of musicians, one a group portrait, the other standing beside their instruments, arranged in a semi-circle, holding hands acknowledging an audience. You'll notice that Funaro's instrument's decoration is everything but traditional 18th century! It is a work of modern art to behold in its own right.

There are those who claim the sound of the harpsichord is annoying, monotonous, grating even. (Would they say that about a guitar or lute? Sounds like a pre-conceived bias to me.) With this music, the sound is downright enchanting and exciting. The music is a fine addition to the repertoire and the CD to a collection.