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High Time to Give the Harpsichord a Plug

After the first summer's thunderstorm (a rather mild precursor to what is going to come later in the season), the air, not so humid to begin with, was reasonably fresh. For actual crispness, however, one had to go to the Library of Congress's Coolidge Auditorium, where a sparse crowd was awaiting Olivier Baumont on April 23. The slim, one-manual Bordeaux-red and gold harpsichord, looking more beautiful and elegant than a grand piano ever could, awaited him as well.

A wonderfully pleasant and friendly-looking man, Oliver Baumont bowed to preemptive applause and started with Jacques Champion, Sieur de Chambonnières (1601?–1672), Six Pieces in F major. Light and pearly music in the Allemande was followed by music with more speed and ornamentation in Courante 1 and more expression in the slower Courante 2. Playing, as harpsichordists and organists often do, with a certain professorial manner and dignity, matter-of-factly but with visible joy, Mr. Baumont lacked any of the showmanship traits, habits, and quirks of many of his star-pianist colleagues. That was itself as refreshing as the sound of the harpsichord was. The right cembalo in the right hands provides a cleansing of the musical palate, enjoyable to the point of tears. Nothing against Bach and Co. on the grand piano (Bach is bigger than the instruments on which he is performed), but one must come back to the honesty of the harpsichord every so often. I cannot recall when I last had such a deeply emotional, completely involved musical experience. There was a sort of (musically) spiritual calm that took me wholly—and wholly by surprise.

Sarabande "O beau jardin", Rondeau, and Chaconne flew by me, so enthralled was I with the music. Following Jacques Champion, Sieur de Chambonnières, the alleged founder of the French school of classical harpsichord playing and composing, came the better-known François Couperin with his eight preludes from L'Art de toucher le clavecin (1716). Couperin on the piano was recently so well served by Angela Hewitt (see the Ionarts review from December 18, 2003), albeit not yet with the Preludes, and is becoming a more and more popular French composer together with Rameau and Charpentier, all of whom emerge from behind the more famous, if less talented, Lully. These Couperin preludes (in C, d, g, F, A, b, B-flat, e) were most wonderful. The agile Mr. Baumont played them impeccably and with visible enthusiasm. The atmosphere was, for me, never less than engrossing.

Johann Christian Bach, Harold Hoeren
Handel, Suites for Keyboard, Keith Jarrett
Couperin, Keyboard Music, Vol. 1, Angela Hewitt
The sound of the harpsichord itself was splendid. Crisp and clear but neither harsh nor dry—gentle—with plenty of definition and a lovely balance, the 1990 Thos. & Barbara Wolf copy of an early 18th-century Nicholas Dumont instrument was as charming as anything I've heard from a harpsichord, and I have, courtesy of my uncle who, apart from being a harpsichordist also built concert harpsichords, heard a few. Added to this was the considerable skill of Mr. Baumont. Gustav Leonhardt, Kenneth Gilbert, Davitt Moroney, and Igor Kipnis have nothing on him. That the harpsichord spoke so vividly to me because of this connection I have to it is well possible. But this bias would only have amplified splendor, not made splendor!

Louis-Claude Daquin's Deuxième Suite in D from 1735, the next piece in this (almost) chronological progression of music, continued to move me, though it may not have been the strongest piece of the night. The successive chords in L'Hirondelle, the last piece of this suite, are a first sign of the harpsichord vernacular's horizon widening, but they appear only twice, quickly, never to appear again. Early keyboard pyrotechnics, perhaps.

Favorite pieces of Thomas Jefferson, Mr. Baumont told the audience, made up the second half of the program. Handel, J. C. Bach, and Reinagle harpsichord pieces, we were told, had a prominent place in Jefferson's library. The Handel Suite IV in d minor, HWV 437 (in the 1733 edition), was close to sublime. A richer palette of sounds than the preceding pieces (even the younger Daquin piece) added a richness where so far had been but fleetness. (Mr. Baumont's discography on Erato is, for the most part, sadly out of print. For the Handel, fortunately, there is always the sublime Keith Jarrett in his marvelous ECM account of seven Handel suites for keyboard.)

Johann Christian Bach (the "London Bach") takes us from early and high baroque to the dawn of the classical style. His influence on the young Mozart is well known and audible even in Bach's own works. More virtuoso-oriented than in the earlier pieces, Mr. Baumont continued to play admirably, even if he had his first few slips of the evening in this Sonata in D major, op. 5, no. 2. The Bach is indeed a most delightful piece of music with moments of pure glory (they remind me of a particular work, but I can't quite put my finger on which one), and I'll be damned if I won't go out looking for a recording thereof as soon as possible—perhaps Harald Hoeren's recording of the six sonatas for pianoforte or harpsichord for CPO.

The Reinagle, after J. C. Bach, was a quaint and plain letdown. The Scot's music sounds a bit like American revolutionary pipe music transcribed for harpsichord. It is repetitive and even in its more boisterous variations it is lacking substance, originality, and even craftsmanship. The little whimsical end, however, redeems the piece, in that it seems to state what it is: not much. Endearing. The following pieces, James Hewitt's Battle Pieces ("The Battle of Trenton" in D major), dedicated to General Washington and with spoken interludes, had rightly been dug out of obscurity in the course of the resurgent interest in American music. Outside that context, however, I am afraid they are lacking too much musically. No better place (other than across the river at Mt. Vernon) than Washington, D.C., to perform these pieces so strongly bound to locale, personage, and circumstance. The programmatic comments were spoken right into the musical vignettes, some no longer than a few seconds. Since it was "Attack, Attack, Attack" and “Cannons, Cannons, Cannons," Mr. Baumont did his utmost, bent over the keyboard to pull break-neck tempi off, while the commentary and the music got more and more amusing. A worthy undertaking indeed, one where the word quaint applies without the connotations of damning with faint praise.

Rosslyn Castle (?) and Grieve of the American [sic] for the Loss of Their Comrades Killed in Engagement are somber hymns to the battle-wounded. Yankee Doodle on the harpsichord, too, is interesting, though probably not a must-hear. The last section (General Rejoicing) was a good introduction to the audience's reaction to the concert. Much too seldom heard, the harpsichord in action was responsible for one of the most delightful concerts in my six years in Washington. Indeed, one that I shall be thinking of for many years to come. Stupendous!

But not only that: Mr. Baumont had encores ready. Michelle Corette (1709–1795) with L'Etoile (?) was much appreciated after the battle stuff. Back to the French harpsichord style that had so delighted in the first half, this piece was endowed with everything one expects from it. Coaxed into playing another encore ("the last one!" he announced jokingly), Mr. Baumont purled a piece by Jacques Duphly (1715–1789) off the black keys in front of him, quite a difference from the usual Brahms lullabies or assorted flights of bumblebees. The afternoon cup of tea of concerts, rather than the steak dinner (usually overcooked, anyway).

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