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David Cates at the Library of Congress

David Cates, harpsichordistHaving laid my hands on more than one harpsichord, I can attest to the special technical approach needed to play them, naturally quite different from the piano and organ, which are themselves different from one another, too. Pressing the keys causes little plectra to pluck the strings, so the instrument's action is often more difficult to control than a piano's. Consequently, I am always impressed by people who play the harpsichord well, because it requires restraint and accuracy. One of the top American harpsichordists, David Cates, played a concert at the Library of Congress on Friday night, April 22, and showed how it is done. Cates calmly entered and left the stage in an unassuming way, usually clasping his hands behind his back. Dressed casually in a shirt and jacket with no tie, his hands were a study in economy of movement, playing in an efficient and sometimes understated way. There were inevitably a few slips, which are generally more exposed to the ear on the harpsichord than on the piano, where there is a sustaining pedal to gloss over the occasional missed note. These did not distract from what was a masterful performance.

The Coolidge Auditorium was sparsely populated, which happily allowed me to waltz in a few minutes before curtain and be assigned an unused seat (which I upgraded to the front row in the second half, where I was about 6 feet from the harpischord). The concert did attract a large number of harpsichord players and enthusiasts, including one man next to me in the second half who followed along in his Kalmus miniature score when he was not drifting off to sleep. The program was organized in honor of a local benefactress of the arts, Mae Wechsler Jurow (1907–2004), who was interested in harpsichord performance and gave money to other arts interests, too.

For the occasion, Cates selected a series of works all by one composer, J. S. Bach. He began with one of the most varied and interesting performances of the evening, the Suite in E Minor, BWV 996, an early work dated around 1708. According to Cates's program notes, "it may have been the only piece ever expressly composed for the Lautenwerk (lute harpsichord)," and it was the only time in the recital that Cates used the harpsichord's lute stop, in the Courante of this suite, which produced a fragile lute-like sound that was charming. (Lutenists also play this suite, from the tablature.) In a remarkably clean style of playing, he was careful of each note, sustained as well as struck, and repeated most sections of the binary dances, with embellishments in keeping with Baroque practice. The jovial Bourrée had a dancelike rhythmic vitality, with hands split on the two manuals, because it is essentially a two-voice movement.

Cates played this recital on a harpsichord inscribed with the words "Wolf, Washington, 1990," presumably built by Thomas and Barbara Wolf, who are instrument makers here in Washington, a business that they started after leaving their jobs as curators of the instrument collection at the Smithsonian. The instrument is painted in a sort of rust red color, with gold trim, and although it is not visually ornate, it produced a clear and delicate sound. Although the concert began about ten minutes late, there was still a seating of latecomers after the first suite, for which Cates paused considerately, shielding his eyes from the stage lights to make sure that everyone found a seat. Two other pieces followed, the Prelude, Fugue, and Allegro in E-flat Major, BWV 998 (1740, also played by lutenists)—see the analysis of the unusual fugue by David R. Walker—and the Adagio in D Minor, BWV 964, which is a transcription/arrangement of the first movement of the A minor sonata for solo violin, BWV 1003.

The meat of the program was a most welcome virtuoso reading of the third English Suite in G minor, BWV 808, a piece that I love to play. As a specialist in Baroque keyboard music and Bach, in particular, Cates recognizes how Bach mastered all the forms and genres that he could get his hands on, by making transcriptions of French and Italian works. The prelude of the third English Suite is a concerto, complete with a Vivaldian ritornello that alternates with solo passages (as discussed by Gregory Butler), which he took at a very exciting, brisk tempo and rendered as orchestrally as possible on this instrument. Cates combines an intelligent understanding of form with excellent technique, giving us lively dances in the Courante, a détaché Gavotte, and a smooth folk dance Gavotte that Bach subtitled "La Musette."

The Sarabande of this suite has a repeat of both sections, with Bach's embellishments written out, which gives player and listener alike a rare look into the best ornamentation practice of Bach's Weimar period. Not surprisingly, these embellishment were far more difficult and interesting than anything else Cates invented himself, made all the more so in the incredibly chromatic harmonic maze of the B section. It is a good reminder of just how ornate Baroque embellishment probably was, in the best performances. In the Gigue, Bach used the sort of chiasmus device that is often found in his binary dances, by which he inverts the basic motive of the A section as the motive for the B section. This makes the triadic figure of this Gigue, at Cates's breakneck tempo, hard as hell, but Cates gave an excellent rendition.

The final work, reserved as the only piece for the second half, was the Partita No. 4 in D Major, BWV 828, a piece that shows Bach at the height of the mastery of the keyboard suite genre. Here the style brisé, the broken chord idiom that keyboard composers brought into the suite from the lute, the instrument that had dominated the genre in earlier centuries, and extravagant Baroque phrases alternate with Bach's evocation of the more and more important style galant (in the Aria and stately Menuet, both somewhat foreign to the suite). Far from being the retrogressive and parochial pedant, as his contemporaries and later critics have sometimes characterized him, Bach was an encyclopedic master of most current styles, and although he may not have traveled widely, we know that he got his hands onto all the scores he could find. In response to the audience's warm and richly deserved applause, Cates played an encore from the second book of The Well-Tempered Clavier, the prelude in F major. It was another rewarding evening at the Library of Congress.

Also see the review by Tom Huizenga, whom I met after this concert, Cates's Harpsichord Fills the Bill (Washington Post, April 25).

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