Philip Glass – Harpsichord Concerto Lewis Fallon Naxos

Transparent Mechanical: Lewis and West Side Chamber Orchestra Perform Glass, Rutter, and Françaix

Philip Glass - Harpsichord Concerto Lewis Fallon Naxos

Sure, it’s sort of a bromide, but it’s apt: what was once old is new again. Along with a resurgence in recent years for composing for period instruments, the harpsichord as acted as an unlikely phoenix during the 20th and 21st Centuries. Having fallen into disuse from the Classical period until the Interwar period, the harpsichord continues to find composers attracted to it, drawn to its strange delicacy and penchant for technical floridity. In the 1920s, Poulenc and de Falla composed landmark concertos for the instrument, and over the past few decades, a slow but steady parade of composers has put forth their offerings. A Naxos release (8.573146), the Harpsichord Concertos album features works by Philip Glass, John Rutter, and Jean Françaix – an unlikely grouping on the face of it, but a successful combination of performances from the West Side Chamber Orchestra under Kevin Mallon, featuring flutist John McMurtery, and, of course, a collection of scintillating performances by a young Welsh virtuoso in Christopher D. Lewis.

Glass’s Concerto for Harpsichord and Chamber Orchestra dates from 2002, though its opening, free arpeggiated motif seems much more at home in a Scarlatti or Rameau work. This is not where the references to the Baroque stop, however – and why should they? An opening trilled figure gives way to a melodic series of passages, encapsulating Glass’s synthesis in his “third age:” melodic fragments and melody-accompaniment passages intertwine with more “Glassian” arpeggios and chordal passages. Glass’s music already lends itself to a mechanical precision and a unique persistence – I find myself asking why Glass took so long to write for the harpsichord in a grander fashion. The first movement sees the harpsichord taking on all of its roles as continuo, providing ritornellos for the ensemble, being the voice for a wind soloist recitative, and on, touching on the commonalities of the 17th Century keyboard. Midway through the movement, there is quite a shocking passage: a purely tonic-dominant progression that bears a slight but not accidental resemblance to a certain Purcell aria. (This is followed up by what could only be characterized as a witty sequence on thirds, showing more than a flash of Poulenc.) The second movement features the harpsichord by itself, in perhaps the most melodic writing Glass has ever produced. Musical touchstones are still apparent, though subdued. The final movement, jaunty, crisp, dance-like in 7/8, is more dialogic, and full of verve. Christopher Lewis handles the harpsichord’s twists and turns of the Glass concert with the comfort of an inveterate Formula One driver, hugging the corners, making agile leaps, whose performance is aggressive, sinewy, yet controlled and tender.

The opening of Rutter’s Suite Antique is reminiscent of any number of televised serial dramas on Channel 4 during the 1990s: mysteriously elegiac, murmuring, foggy, slowly wending through an early morning passageway in a village near Coventry. The work, overall, is as one would expect of Rutter: transparent, structurally conservative, harmonically charming, with the general gentleness Rutter has made his calling card. Illinois-based flutist John McMurtery performs the prominent flute part in Suite Antique, and gives us a clear, rather present tone with just a hint of whisper set against a highly complementary orchestra. In what is a rarely technically-showy yet highly-lyrical part, McMurtery demonstrates total control, though seems to peek just over the precipice of Rutter’s very English restraint with just the tiniest amount of edge. Lewis easily provides an apt foil on harpsichord while blending nicely with the ensemble, moving leisurely and gently against the lyricism of McMurtery’s performance.

Christopher Lewis - Photo by Anna Wu

Christopher Lewis – Photo by Anna Wu

Françaix’s Concerto for Harpsichord and Instrumental Ensemble (Concert pour Clavecin et Ensemble Instrumental) dates from 1959 and is drenched in Françaix’s witty, neoclassical voice. Transparent, harmonically witty while remaining fresh, quaint and charming, the West Side Chamber Orchestra and Lewis do ineffable justice and bring a feathery joy to the work. Lewis provides a winking, dry wit that underscores and perhaps belies the technical prowess needed for the work: while Françaix’s works, for better or worse, are commonly brushed off as fluffy, they are – perhaps surprisingly – rather technically demanding. One of my favorite Françaix works is his early Concertino for Piano: I often wish I had its outer movements extrapolated onto much-longer structures and durations. In Lewis’s rendition of Françaix’s harpsichord concerto, my strange wish is almost met.

The WSCO deserves special praise under Kevin Mallon – balance is always an issue with a harpsichord (even by itself), but those instances in this recording are scarce indeed. The orchestra is never too delicate, nor is it too hefty. Mallon deftly elicits warm, evocative performances from the orchestra while preserving the interplay, dialog, and cohesion of each work. There are moments, particularly in the Glass, when the orchestra seems ready to swamp the harpsichord – Mallon never lets this happen, and instead the natural bounciness and precision of the harpsichord is more than lovingly realized in these compelling performances.

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