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26.4.05

Penelope Crawford at the National Gallery

Harpsichord by William Dowd, after a 1730s instrument by François Etienne BlanchetWe've been immersed in the sound of old keyboard instruments lately: an 18th-century Snetzler organ and harpsichords at the Library of Congress and the Corcoran. On Sunday, April 24, the parade of old instruments continued with the return of the Snetzler organ, plus a harpsichord and a fortepiano, at the National Gallery's free concert series (see the program notes, in a .PDF file). Our hosts were historical keyboard specialist Penelope Crawford, formerly the harpsichordist and fortepianist for Ars Musica Baroque Orchestra, and the museum's own Stephen Ackert. This concert is the latest in the series of concerts presented in connection with the Gilbert Stuart exhibit at the National Gallery.

Ms. Crawford only played the harpischord—a copy, built in the United States by William Dowd, of a 1730s instrument by François Etienne Blanchet—once, in Haydn's Sonata in E-flat Major, Hob. XVI:28. This 1776 sonata, as the performer's own program notes informed us, was "probably intended for the amateur market," and the most likely house instrument at the time was the harpsichord. Not surprisingly, this piece is pleasant enough and had the expected dose of Haydn's whimsical humor but is ultimately not that memorable. Most unfortunately—in what is probably an inevitable response to the acoustic peculiarities of the West Garden Court—the harpsichord was amplified by a microphone, which sounded terrible.

Fortepiano by Paul McNulty, modeled on an Anton Walter instrument from 1805Happily, this was eclipsed by Ms. Crawford's only other solo performance of the evening, Muzio Clementi's Sonata in F Minor, op. 13, no. 6, on the Paul McNulty fortepiano (modeled on an Anton Walter instrument from 1805). If your only experience of Clementi are the cutesy sonatinas that just about every piano student has had to play, this is not that Clementi. This stormy piece, composed in 1784, with its strong dynamic contrasts, must have had quite an effect on the young Beethoven, since it sounds quite like many of the pieces he would go on to compose. Ms. Crawford's performance was exceptional, with a skillful handling of the hands-crossed effects and dynamic sculpting. The latter was helped considerably by the delicacy of the instrument's piano range (the frame is all wood—no resonant metal—and the hammers are smaller and covered with leather).

Ms. Crawford and Stephen Ackert joined forces to play three pieces for four hands on the fortepiano, beginning with J. C. Bach's Sonata No. 3 in F Major, with Ms. Crawford as primo (the high part) and Mr. Ackert as secondo (the low part). Playing four-hands piano is challenging enough when you have seven octaves and a bit on the modern instrument, but the fortepiano allows only five and a half octaves, which makes things quite cozy. It is also tricky to manage the sustaining and una corde mechanisms, which are operated not by pedals but by knee levers, all of which the duo managed with grace.

The Bach was the least interesting of the four-hands pieces, and it was quickly forgotten when Mr. Ackert entered the stage in an 18th-century costume, complete with tricorn hat. He searched around for a place to hang his hat and then approached the piano with great deference, where Ms. Crawford was seated this time in the secondo position, much to the audience's amusement. The reason for this rather odd playshow? Ms. Crawford and Mr. Ackert were playing the part of the piano teacher and student, respectively, in Haydn's Il maestro e lo scolare, in which the secondo teacher introduces each phrase, the primo student answers, and then they play together. The Andante melody thus introduced in the first movement is then treated to a series of variations of increasing difficulty. This was a charming performance, although perhaps could have cut it short by a variation or two.

Stephen Ackert at the Snetzler Organ, 1761Mr. Ackert played two pieces on the Snetzler organ, which I described in my review of the Gilbert Stuart concert on April 10 (Anglophiles Converge on National Gallery, April 11). The image here shows him in action, with an assistant operating the billows by the side foot pedal. The first piece was the Lesson by Signor Pescatore, by an anonymous composer, which seemed an odd choice for the organ since it is found in a collection called The Harpsichord or Spinet Miscellany. The second was a Flute Voluntary by Benjamin Carr, a short and sweet trifle that showed off this extraordinary instrument's light flute registration.

The concert ended with a delightful performance of Beethoven's March in D Major, op. 45, no. 3, which is also for four hands, with Ms. Crawford returning to the primo position. The op. 45 set of three marches was published in Vienna in 1804, with a dedication to Princess Maria Esterházy. This third march evokes the humor of Haydn, with many funny percussive rhythmic effects in a call and response format between secondo and primo, which Ms. Crawford performed superciliously. It was an interesting program of rare pieces, on unusual instruments that make wonderful sounds, and I for one was sad that the sparse audience's applause was not sufficient to merit an encore.

Next Sunday's free concert at the National Gallery will feature Dean Shostak, a specialist on a crazy instrument that Benjamin Franklin invented, the glass armonica. He will be joined by soprano Kelly Kennedy. The program includes two pieces that Mozart wrote for this instrument, an Adagio and an unfinished Fantasia, as well as pieces for it by Saint-Saëns, Johann Schulz, and Ann Ford.

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