John Frayne: Performance struck a (harpsi)chord with me
Charlotte Mattax Moersch gave a very enjoyable faculty recital of Baroque harpsichord music on April 13 in the Foellinger Great Hall.
She is professor of harpsichord and musicology at the UIUC School of Music, and her program featured works by two French composers of the 17th and 18th centuries, and two pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach, who is generally recognized as the greatest composer of the Baroque period.
The Foellinger Great Hall is surely not the best venue for the harpsichord, which has distinct and pleasurable pallet of sound, but also has a limited dynamic range. But, in the quiet hall, Mattax Moersch's sensitive and accomplished playing came across with admirable clarity and precision.
The first composer to be heard was Jean Henry D'Anglebert (1635—1691), who held the post of harpsichordist to Louis XIV, the famous "Sun King" of France. His most important publication, in 1689, contained arrangements of pieces by Lully, the leading opera composer of the time. Mattax Moersch played D'Anglebert's "Second Suite," consisting of an opening Prelude, followed by a customary sequence of dances, such as the Allemande, Sarabande and Gigue.
As played by Mattax Moersch, these dances reflected a changing and contrasting series of moods, showing the grace and charm of the French Baroque style.
The second composer played was Armand—Louis Couperin, (1727—1789). If you think that the ancestors and children of Johann Sebastian Bach represented a multi-generational musical cartel of musicians, then glance at the family tree of the Couperins, in the Grove Dictionary.
Armand—Louis lived a few generations of Couperins after the most famous member of the family, Franois Couperin, "Le Grand" (1688—1733). Armand-Louis's life was made easier by his marriage to Elizabeth Blanchet (1729—1815), who was the daughter of the best harpsichord maker in France.
Elizabeth was an accomplished musician, and the third piece, played by Mattax Moersch, entitled "La Blanchet," was a bright and aggressive composition, free in form and brilliant in scales.
Mattax Moersch said this piece perhaps described Elizabeth improvising at the keyboard.
The second half of the program offered two pieces of Johann Sebastian Bach. Even someone not initiated to the arcana of counterpoint and fugue can tell how far J. S. Bach's genius outshines the other composers of the Baroque.
The first Bach selection was his own arrangement of the "Adagio" movement, in D major, of the "Violin Sonata in A minor." One hears Bach's keyboard music mainly played on the modern piano, but, in Mattax Moersch's performance of this music, the special ability of the harpsichord to isolate and clarify contrapuntal lines was very evident. In this "Adagio," the basic melody moved slowly, mainly in the left-hand, while speedy ornamentation spun out of the right hand.
The "Partita IV in D major," BWV 828, which concluded the program, opened with a powerful "Ouverture" and, among the brilliant dances which follow, the slow "Sarabande" unwinds its lovely melody.
Here, Mattax Moersch drew from the harpsichord especially beautiful sound. The harpsichord that Mattax Moersch played is a University of Illinois instrument, built by John Phillips of Berkeley, Calif., in 2009. It is a copy of a double manual French harpsichord, built by Nicholas Dumont in 1706.
As encore, Mattax Moersch played "Sarabande or Tombeau" from a 1702 compilation made by Charles Babel. This solemn, consolatory piece was a memorial offering, originally written by Marin Marais in the 17th century as a viola da gamba composition. Marais, you may remember, was the subject of the beautiful 1991 film, called, in English, "All the Mornings of the World."
John Frayne hosts "Classics of the Phonograph" on Saturdays at WILL-FM and, in retirement, teaches at the University of Illinois. He can be reached at email@example.com.