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Davitt Moroney at the Smithsonian

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Byrd, Complete Music for Keyboard, D. Moroney

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Le Clavecin Français: Marchand and Clérambault, D. Moroney
On Sunday night, Davitt Moroney brought the series of concerts leading up to the Westfield Center International Harpsichord Competition to its close. In the previous three recitals, by Arthur Haas, Mitzi Meyerson, and Charlotte Mattax Moersch, we had heard only two harpsichords, both large, double-manual instruments from the 18th century. Moroney, an English-born harpsichordist who now teaches at the University of California at Berkeley, played on all four of the historical instruments from the Smithsonian collection during his recital at the National Museum of American History. The program was a survey of music by English and French composers, but Moroney did not necessarily choose the instrument on which he played each selection according to the date of the instrument or the nationality of the instrument builder. As he explained it, in droll and charming introductions to each piece, the most important thing one learns from playing on historical instruments is that the instrument dictates some of the decisions in how to approach music played on it, rather than the other way around.

Thus he began with Henry Purcell's D major suite, published posthumously by the composer's wife, on a little virginal built by Andreas Ruckers (Antwerp, 1620). Last week, in preparation for my preview article on the competition for the Washington Post, Kenneth Slowik gave me a quick introduction to these precious historical instruments, including the two virginals in the collection. One of these virginals has the peculiar feature, not uncommon in early keyboard instruments, of cleft chromatic keys -- that is, the G♯ and A♭ are tuned to different frequencies, and the player activates them by playing on the upper or lower part of the key, which is split in two. (There are examples of this in early organ pedal boards, too.) The virginal that Moroney played does not have that feature, but it was designed for a quinte tuning, meaning that it sounds a fifth higher than the keyboard indicates. The instrument, played with the musician standing up, has a beautiful, fragile, slightly tinny sound, with a limited compass on the keyboard, to which Purcell's little suite was well suited.

Thomas Wolf, the Washington-area harpsichord builder who has been at all the concerts -- his wife, Barbara, an expert in her own accord, has been tuning all the instruments used for the concerts and competition -- has been telling me some wonderful stories about what instrument builders go through to keep these instruments in shape. The Ruckers has apparently not been played in a concert for a few years, and it had to be re-quilled for this event: the old mechanism uses quills, generally from a crow or similarly sized bird, to pluck the strings. These quills need to be replaced periodically, which causes some issues in how to acquire the wings of recently killed crows. After encountering some problems in this area, Wolf got into touch with the Texas Crow Patrol, which helps control the crow population in the agricultural fields of Texas. As it turns out, Wolf's contact at that organization has a son who is an organist.

Moroney matched Louis Couperin's E minor suite and three dances by William Byrd to the single-manual instrument built by Nicolaus de Quoco (Florence, 1694). When Kenneth Slowik showed me this harpsichord, he directed me to smell the interior of the box as soon as he opened the case: sure enough, lingering there was the smell of the cypress wood used 300-some years ago to build the instrument. Moroney gave the Couperin set some beautiful embellishments, not allowing the Sarabande to drag at all, and following a practice in France, created a gigue-like variation of the Allemande for this suite that does not have a concluding Gigue. (He explained this performing choice for the sake of the competitors seated in the first few rows, some of whom may have prepared these pieces for the competition, so that they did not panic about this Gigue not in their scores.)

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Stephen Brookes, Davitt Moroney showcases the harpsichord’s eloquence (Washington Post, August 14)
We heard the later composers of the second half on the Smithsonian's two 18th-century harpsichords, beginning with the eight preludes from François Couperin's L'Art de Toucher le Clavecin on the Benoist Stehlin instrument from 1760. Composed in the keys of Couperin's pieces and at a range of difficulty levels, these pieces allowed Moroney to give the Stehlin a workout of sorts, selecting a range of registrations, in a way that did not sound like an academic exercise. The 1745 Dulcken from Antwerp gave voice to the D minor suite by Louis Marchand, the French virtuoso who was infamously tricked into a losing keyboard showdown with J. S. Bach. The instrument has a more puissant but not at all unpleasant tone, although the nazard stop, featured throughout the Sarabande, is a little much for anything more than an echo or accent effect. All in all, Moroney's playing was clean and varied, not quite as finished as Mattax Moersch the previous night and not as well thought out as Mitzi Meyerson the previous weekend, but excellent listening.

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