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Mitzi Meyerson at LoC

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François Couperin: Les Ombres Errantes, M. Meyerson

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Richard Jones, Sets of Lessons for the Harpsichord, M. Meyerson

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R. Jones, Chamber Airs for a Violin (and Thorough Bass), K.-M. Kentala, L. Pulakka, M. Meyerson
American harpsichordist Mitzi Meyerson is, in more ways than one, the successor of Wanda Landowska, the pioneer of the harpsichord revival. Meyerson holds a professorship of harpsichord and fortepiano at the Universität der Künste in Berlin, the first position of its kind when it was created for Landowska. As Meyerson showed at a Saturday afternoon recital at the Library of Congress, she is also the player to tame the Pleyel harpsichord-hybrid constructed to Landowska's specifications, now in the Library's collection. Around the time of Meyerson's 2012 recital, I spent some time speaking to her and watching her teach, as part of a feature I wrote for the Washington Post. Last week, as she prepared for this weekend's recital, we spoke about her assessment of the Landowska Pleyel and the program she had put together for this recital.

Meyerson told me that she spent a couple days just sizing up the Pleyel. “It was like an animal you have never encountered before,” she said with a laugh. “You don’t know whether to make eye contact. If you put out your hand, you are not sure how it will react.” The instrument’s registrations -- a 4’, 8’, and a decidedly un-harpsichord-like 16’, plus a very pretty buff stop and a nasal (“it sounds like the harpsichord has a cold”) -- are controlled by a series of pedals. “Some of them are on when you push them down and lock them to one side, but not all of them. Some of them are engaged when the pedal is up.” Landowska was known to play the instrument wearing hand-sewn velvet slippers. Meyerson realized that to control the pedals, especially mid-performance, she needed to be able to grasp the pedals with her toes. She could not do that while wearing shoes, so she decided to play barefoot. “I was hoping that Landowska’s slippers might be in the collection of the Library of Congress,” she told me, with a twinkle in her eye. “Then I could see what it was like to be in her shoes.”

Meyerson ultimately decided to use the Pleyel for two-thirds of her concert program. It was especially suited to the Bach pieces, where she could use the 16’ stop to give a sense of the tutti sound in a more orchestral texture. This put the Pleyel in the best possible light right from the start, Bach's harpsichord adaptation of a Vivaldi violin concerto (D major, BWV 972), with all sorts of different manual and registration shifts to create different combinations of sounds. The Bach piece on the second half was the BWV 998 Prelude, Fugue, and Allegro, a late work that features Bach's most thoroughly contrapuntal side -- analyzing the complexities of the fugue, Meyerson described it as "like one of those Chinese boxes with a secret drawer." The Pleyel's aptness for creating contrasts between solo and ensemble textures worked in two sets of Purcell grounds, as well, including one in E minor, added to the second half to take advantage of the sound of the buff stop, which featured the song Here the Deities Approve (a beautiful poem by Christopher Fishburn, which Meyerson recited from memory).

Meyerson did not want to use the Pleyel for suites by Couperin and Rameau, and she played them on a smaller harpsichord modeled on French instruments, because "this music is all about sonorities," as she put it. Not surprisingly, these pieces were the high point of both halves of the concert. The A minor suite, the first one in Rameau's first book of harpsichord pieces, was a delight, with its little whirring gigue in the middle of the prelude, and plenty of rhythmic freedom and lavish ornamentation added. She is a musician whose sense of fun, in music and in life, means she is most content if she has something to surprise the ear, as she did more than once in this set. Since the program was also an examination of two Baroque styles -- the quasi-improvisatory prelude and the style brisé (broken chords in imitation of the sound of the lute) -- she added a prelude from Couperin's treatise L'art de toucher le clavecin to the same composer's sixth ordre, again with a quirky approach to its evocations of birds, buzzing insects, scythe-wielding harvesters, and the always charming Les Barricades mystérieuses. As an encore, Meyerson played the C major prelude from the first book of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier with a shift of manual each half-measure, which created a hypnotic effect, both visually and aurally.

In the middle of her week with the Pleyel, Meyerson realized that she had actually met the instrument once before, when she was a student. On a visit to the Connecticut home of Denise Restout, Landowska’s assistant and companion, she had been shown the Pleyel for a brief moment. “The touch is completely different” from a harpsichord, she said. “Not only the size of the keys, which is like a piano, but it takes a lot of weight to engage the sound. When you add more stops, it gets even heavier.” For all of its quirks, she said that she has made her peace with the instrument. “I enjoy it now,” she said with a satisfied smile. “I would certainly look forward to playing it again."

1 comment:

David Boxwell said...

That beast of an instrument memorable defeated poor Trevor Pinnock a couple of years ago.