Vinikour Plays 20th-Century Harpsichord Concerti

CDR 188 - cover

LEIGH: Concertino for Harpsichord & Strings. ROREM: Concertino di Camera. KALABIS: Harpsichord Concerto. NYMAN: Concerto for Amplified Harpsichord & Strings / Jory Vinikour, hpd; Chicago Philharmonic Orch.; Scott Speck, cond / Çedille CDR 188

To get straight to the point, there simply aren’t many classical harpsichordists who will even consider playing modern music, and there haven’t been since the unjustly-forgotten Sylvia Marlowe left us many years ago. Most of them are so hung up on their Bach-Handel-Scarlatti-Couperin-Lully world that they never venture much past the 18th century.

Thankfully, Jory Vinikour, who made his Çedille recording debut playing good ol’ J.S. Bach, isn’t one of them, and here he presents four harpsichord concerti written between the 1930s (Walter Leigh) and a few years ago. The Leigh concertino isn’t terribly daring, but it does follow in the footsteps of Stravinsky and is a well-conceived piece with some interesting moments.

Even more interesting is the surprisingly jazz-influenced Concertino di Camera by Ned Rorem, an excellent composer of songs whose music seldom intersects with a jazz feeling—yet here it is, particularly in the first movement which also sports a surprising slow section in the middle. Towards the end, he introduces some interesting backbeats. In the second movement, Rorem is more lyrical and reflective, but still using unusual chord positions that seldom have the key note sounded in them which gives the music a feeling of rootlessness. There are some little solos for the trumpet and oboe in it as well as a more extended one for violin, almost like a sinfonia concertante. In the third movement, Rorem surprises us once again, presenting not a jazz beat but an Italian tarantella rhythm mixed with somewhat modern chords—and again a trumpet solo with little fills for flutes and clarinets playing separately and together. In all three movements, the solo harpsichord acts more like a commentator on the orchestral goings-on. His solo lines are separate from the action while still contributing to the whole. At the 2:50 mark, however, there are some backbeats but not necessarily jazz-influenced ones.

By contrast, the concerto by Viktor Kalabis is resolutely atonal but not 12-tone. Kalabis uses short melodic motifs which he knits together to form the whole, using the harpsichord as both a melodic instrument and a rhythmic one, playing repeated riffs in double tempo during the first movement. The little staccato laughing or mocking figures which tie in with the busy harpsichord line almost sound as if played by winds though this is a string-only orchestra. At 5:18, the orchestra stops playing to allow the harpsichord a solo. One may choose to call it a cadenza, but although it has a cadenza-like feel to it the music is more adventurous and free-form that all of that which precedes it.

In the second movement, Kalabis pulls back a bit on his atonalism to produce an unusual but somewhat lovely melody played by various strings which comes to a pause before the solo harpsichordist enters, playing a sequence of unusual, slow clashing chords. Eventually the music gains its form and the movement proceeds with the harpsichord and the orchestra exchanging commentary. The third movement is an “Allegro vivo” with plenty of vivo, the tempo flying along at a manic pace and the harmony back to atonalism. The tempo slackens early on, at 2:38, to allow the soloist to play a brief atonal cadenza interrupted a few times by an almost pastoral-sounding theme played by the strings. Eventually the fast tempo returns, and the music becomes a bit more playful in character, with the soloist playing quadruple-time figures in rapid fashion against the winds and bass. Yet this “Allegro vivo” ends quietly, with a solo violin playing very high sustained notes.

Michael Nyman’s concerto is also atonal, and its first movement almost relentless in its driving forward propulsion. The double-time chord figures played by the soloist also ramp up the tension. The music becomes quite congested, with rapid figures played against each other in opposing and jagged rhythms. It becomes quite complex indeed, and holds one’s attention to hear how it’s all going to sort itself out. It’s a shame that I didn’t have any liner notes with this download so that I could read about this extraordinary work. The rather brief sections, six of them, flow into one another in an uninterrupted flow of rhythm and motion. The sudden key change at the beginning of the fourth section, marked simply quarter note =c. 100, is accompanied by frantic string tremolos so loud that they almost bury the soloist, amplified though he may be. A somewhat minimalist ostinato plated by the soloist with repeated Es in the middle of the keyboard surrounded by choppy chords and a running line in the treble also build up the tension, which is finally released via a series of odd figures in 16ths. The orchestra then joins in the fray, building up tension and even adding some syncopated backbeats.

The highest compliment I can pay this CD is that you’re not likely to hear any of it played on your local sleep-inducing classical music station. This disc is a real butt-kicker!!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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2 thoughts on “Vinikour Plays 20th-Century Harpsichord Concerti

  1. Thank you for your wonderful review! A small quibble: you mention winds in the Kalabis Concerto, but… apart from Rorem, these works are string orchestra.

    Best wishes and thanks,

    Jory

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