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Quartet explores introspection

John Gibbons' performance last Sunday of J.S. Bach left me unsatisfied, but I had a hard time figuring out why. I think it is largely because solo harpsichord music is just not well-suited to concerts like this one.

First of all, the harpsichord is an instrument better suited to the drawing-room than the auditorium. The sound did not fill the hall, and although completely audible, was very thin. I know harpsichords are supposed to sound thin, but, in a small room the reverberations add fullness.

Although I like my harpsichord records, I realized Sunday that in a concert, where one gives the music undivided attention, the absence of any dynamic range makes harpsichord music a little wearying.

The third reason I was disappointed was that I had heard several of these pieces in versions for organ or for an ensemble, and by contrast, the harpsichord versions sounded emotionless and uninteresting.

The program began with the Toccata in E minor, BWV 914, which although not memorable, was pleasant and well-played. It started peacefully, increased nicely in complexity, and ended with an energetic fugue.

Next came the Prelude and Fugue in A minor, BWV 894, which suffered by comparison with the later version written for flute, violin, harpsichord, and strings. In this early version, there was no slow movement. The two movements here were difficult but played with a driving intensity which was impressive. The color and emotion of the later version were almost completely absent, though.

The final piece before intermission was the famous Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, BWV 903, which was originally written for the organ. I think Gibbons played it a little too fast; some of the richness of the organ version would inevitably be lost, but the speedy tempo resulted in more lost than was necessary.

The second half opened with Capriccio on the Absence of his Beloved Brother, six short movements in B-flat major, BWV 992. This seems to be the earliest of Bach's surviving compositions, written when he was 19. Surprisingly, it was the only piece of the afternoon which conveyed any emotional impact; this may be due to the programmatic nature of the work. (The movements have titles like "A representation of the various accidents which might befall him abroad" and "Fugue in Imitation of the Post".)

Next came the Prelude in E-flat major, BWV 998, which was pretty and nicely done. Then came the Fantasia in C minor, BWV 906: very fast and complex. The program ended with the three-part ricercar from the Musical Offering, which again lost a little in the translation to harpsichord (It is practically the only piece of Bach's that we know was written on the piano; it was actually an improvisation on a theme given to Bach by Frederick the Great in 1747).

All in all, the concert was worth listening to, and John Gibbons did a reasonable job, but I don't think I'd ever pay to see a harpsichord concert in the future.

Joe Shipman->