The Lost Art of Frances Cole

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SCARLATTI: Sonatas: in D, K. 29 (2 vers.); in A, K. 208; in d min., K. 32; in d min., K. 141; in G, K. 146. RAMEAU: Suite in a min., RCT 5: Gavotte avec 6 doubles. LIGETI: Continuum. BARTÓK: Romanian Folk Dances, Sz. 56. 3 Slavonic Dances from “For Children”: 3. Quasi adagio; 5. Play; 6. Study for the Left Hand (arr. Cole). J.S. BACH: Partita for Solo Violin in d min., BWV 1004: V. Chaconne (arr. for hpsd by Cole). English Suite No. 2 in a min., BWV 807. GOTTSCHALK: The Banjo. H. SWANSON: The Cuckoo / Frances Cole, hpsd / Parnassus PACD96080; all tracks except the Bach Partita also available for free streaming on YouTube

Unless you happened to live in the New York City-northern New Jersey area during the 1970s and early ‘80s, and were into going to chamber music concerts (not always the same thing), you’ve probably never even heard of Frances Cole. I did live in that area at that time, but although I occasionally listened to chamber music on recordings, my concert budget was very tight and so I had to content myself with going to performances of symphonic music and operas, which were higher on my priority list (although I was extremely lucky to have been able to hear the great flute players Paula Robison and Claude Monteux in person). Thus I knew nothing of this pioneering African-American woman who played the harpsichord in an almost daredevil fashion.

From what I’ve learned in the liner notes to this CD, Frances Elaine Cole was born in Cleveland in July 1937. She studied both piano and violin, getting degrees from Miami University in Ohio and Columbia University Teachers College in New York, in addition to tutelage under Irving Freundlich. Yet we haven’t a trace of her performances as either violinist or pianist, not even local reviews, to judge her by. In 1966 she became deeply interested in the harpsichord, taking lessons with a former pupil of Wanda Landowska, Denise Restout, debuting as a harpsichordist in 1971. Donal Henahan of the New York Times (a critic I couldn’t stomach, by the way, as his reviews were generally smug and smarmy) praised her for her versatility, playing “a difficult program with fluency, flair and imagination, never simply typing out the notes in the cold and brittle manner that deadens so many harpsichord recitals. She generally chose sane tempos, but avoided dullness.”

She was clearly on her way. In the cold, heavy snows of winter in January 1972, she and Paula Robison made the long, hard slog from New York City to Trenton, New Jersey to give a concert. The hall in which they played normally held about 150 people, but due to the inclement weather, only about 30 were present. An anonymous blogger on the Precision Blogging website, giving the year wrong as the late 1960s (before she actually debuted as a harpsichordist) and claiming her as a former violist, not a violinist, nonetheless caught the flavor of what happened at that concert:

The concert began with a short unaccompanied flute piece, Debussy’s Syrinx. Then the two played a gentle baroque flute sonata. Frances Cole closed out the first half with a set of Couperin pieces.

Now. the harpsichord is a quiet instrument, especially in comparison to the piano. The audience had adjusted – more than they knew – to the tinkling of the harpsichord before the Couperin began. This was music that built up to quite a climax, and Cole’s specially built harpsichord was capable of more power than most. Near the end she switched to quadruple and quintuple octave coupling and brought the piece to a thrilling conclusion. The audience, used to thinking of this instrument as a rather puny thing, were bathed in a torrent of sound. They applauded enthusiastically. Frances Cole took her bow and walked offstage.

But what was interesting was what happened the moment the performer was out of sight. The entire audience swarmed up onto the stage, surrounding the harpsichord, and examined it in amazement.

The liner notes for this CD do not explain this “specially built harpsichord” or say how it was  constructed. Was it electronically amplified, or just large-framed like Landowska’s grand piano-sized harpsichord of the post-World War II era? The recordings presented here suggest the former, but as album producer Leslie Gerber admits, all of these recordings, for better or worse, stem from live concerts recorded on cheap portable tape recorders, and these generally distort sound; in addition, they had to be electronically cleaned up, which again removes some overtones from the instrument. Many a music critic, including B.H. Haggin, lambasted Landowska for using such an instrument, claiming it unauthentic, but historic precedent existed. You can look it up. There were indeed 12-foot harpsichords with strong metal frames in Bach’s era; I have a Naxos recording played by Elizabeth Farr on just such an instrument; but don’t let facts get in the way of your historically-informed propaganda!

Colleague Kenneth Cooper, another fine harpsichordist, said of her, “I much admired her work and her ‘spitfire’ personality. She was a terrific gal and a superb player. Fran was a spicy, adventurous and unconventional lady, sharp- witted and very generous, much fun to be with.” Unfortunately, it all came to an end too soon. In January 1983, three months before her 46th birthday, Frances Cole died of an unidentified illness. Whether cancer, heart problems or sickle cell anemia is anyone’s guess, as no one has identified this illness.

Cole’s performances of Scarlatti, Rameau and J.S. Bach are clearly in the right tradition. Although she lacked that certain rhythmic lift and sparkle that Landowska brought to them (most harpsichordists do!), they are certainly lively enough. Of great interest is her performance of Ligeti’s Continuum, an excellent (and difficult) piece which she plays superbly. I wonder if Ligeti ever heard a tape of one of her performances of it; possibly not. This CD also includes her own transcriptions of not only the Bach Violin Partita “Chaconne,” but also of Bartók, Louis Moreau Gottschalk and Howard Swanson’s The Cuckoo, on which we can hear a snippet of her speaking voice.

Although her career as a harpsichordist was brief and sadly cut off in her prime, we must thank Leslie Gerber for continuing to seek out recordings of her playing until he had collected enough to make up a full CD and, more importantly, clean up these private tape recordings well enough to be appreciated by the average listener, most of whom don’t have much patience listening to hissy old tape recordings made in live concerts. Although clearly not state-of-the-art for the 1970s, they are certainly clean and clear enough to give one a very good impression of her gifts. I particularly liked the Bartók pieces, and in the Scarlatti Sonata K. 208 one can hear some ambience around her instrument. Here, it suggests more of a large-framed acoustic harpsichord than an electronically souped-up one.

Her second, longer performance of the Scarlatti K. 29 Sonata in D is much livelier and more imaginative than the first, with several interesting rubato touches; it’s also very playful, with little pauses to emphasize the shifts in mood. I felt that this, like the Ligeti and Bartók selections, was an excellent example of what she could do in concert. The performance of the Bach “Chaconne” clearly suggests the kind of carrying power her instrument had, and yes, it does resemble the sound that Landowska obtained from her grand-piano-sized harpsichord. More important than the sound, however, is her imaginative way with Bach, enlivening his music without distorting it in the least, including a well-judged crescendo about 3/4 of the way through it. Interestingly, her performance of the Bartók Slavonic Folk Tunes retains a piano-like sound despite being played on the harpsichord, and Gottschalk’s The Banjo has a real ragtime swagger. (This piece contains quotes from Camptown Races and Oh, Susannah—clearly not for the PC crowd!) I also liked her performance of the Bach English Suite No. 2 very much, lively and energetic, with excellent clarity in the different “voices.”

Cole’s only commercial recording was an album on which she accompanied baritone Gordon Myers in Songs of Early Americans as both harpsichordist and second violinist, but she played no solos and thus flew under the radar. Thus we must give Leslie Gerber a huge round of thanks for finally rescuing this excellent artist from oblivion. This may well be the most important historic recording of this year.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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