About this Recording
8.573146 - RUTTER, J.: Suite Antique / GLASS, P. / FRANCAIX, J.: Harpsichord Concertos (Lewis, West Side Chamber Orchestra, Mallon)

John Rutter (b 1945) • Philip Glass (b 1937) • Jean Françaix (1912–1997)


The three Harpsichord Concertos were composed by three composers of different generations and nationalities over the space of four decades. It may be safe to assume that each composer was attracted by the natural beauty of the harpsichord’s historic timbres and aware of the magnificent precedent of JS Bach’s seven complete concertos for a single harpsichord (BWV1052–1058), as well as his other concertos for two or more harpsichords (BWV 1060–1065).

Thus three composers of the twentieth century have attempted the delightful fusion of the harpsichord’s characteristics with modern tonalities and instrumentation. The results prove to be amazingly varied and rich in musical inventiveness with the solo instrument able to revel in contemporary expressiveness. Of course Manuel de Falla’s Harpsichord Concerto (written 1923–1926), composed in response to Wanda Landowska’s request for new works for the harpsichord, was a further significant precedent for creating a twentieth-century musical context for an essentially baroque instrument, as well as similar concertos by Walter Leigh (1934), Frank Martin (1951–52), Roberto Gerhard (1955–1956), Bohuslav Martinů (1935), Michael Nyman (1995), and Jean-Jacques Coetzee (2008/2009), among others who have used the harpsichord in their work for textural purposes.

John Rutter is a prolific British composer, conductor, editor and record producer. A graduate of Clare College, Cambridge, he became director of music at the college from 1975 and under his guidance the choir soon achieved an international reputation. He founded the Cambridge Singers in 1981 and recorded with them on the Collegium Records label. Illness restricted his composition activities between 1985 and 1992 but over the years since then, particularly as a choral composer, Rutter has become internationally renowned.

In 1979 John Rutter was commissioned to write an instrumental work for the Cookham Music Festival, Berkshire, England. The concert programme for the event included a Brandenburg Concerto and thus the composer chose to pay homage to Bach and to ‘the forms and styles of Bach’s day’ by writing a Concerto. Rutter’s ‘homage’, however, is full of surprises with many varied moods and textures. The work might well be considered as more of a concerto for flute than for harpsichord, but the elegant presence of the latter endows the music with distinctive colours. Thus the composer can offer homage to the great Baroque maestro from a twentieth-century perspective but with subtle nuances of ‘early music’ atmospherics.

Prelude opens with a slow tempo and presents a rich flute theme with the harpsichord in figurations delivered in a witty style. The contrasting Ostinato begins with an upbeat repeated bass line which ushers in an animated flute solo that could well have been written for a modern musical. Aria is a gently sombre slow interlude where the flute performs a plaintive haunting theme in minor mood. The jazzy Waltz which follows brings forward a catchy and energetic melody more reminiscent of Brubeck than Bach. After an introduction by the harpsichord the Chanson introduces a further lovely flute theme. The strings too have their moment here before the reprise where the harpsichord provides an arpeggiated accompaniment as the piece proceeds. The vigorous, dance-like Rondeau concludes the work, and includes, at last, some moments of solo harpsichord as well as some lively interplay between flute and harpsichord backed by the omnipresent strings.

Philip Glass, one of the most eminent and influential composers of the late twentieth century, was born in Baltimore, Maryland, and represents the second generation of Jewish immigrants from Lithuania. He studied at the Peabody Conservatory of Music, the University of Chicago, and The Juilliard School of Music, and in 1960 took lessons with Darius Milhaud. Between 1964 and 1966 Glass studied with Nadia Boulanger on a Fulbright Scholarship in Paris. Later, while working on a film score, he was influenced by the music of the great sitar player, Ravi Shankar, and in 1966 went to India. On returning to New York in 1967, Glass changed his compositional orientations once more after hearing the music of Steve Reich, which stimulated him to write in ‘minimalist‘ concepts, though the composer dislikes this label. Since that time his massive output has encompassed operas, instrumental music, concertos, symphonies, theatre and film scores, and choral works.

The Concerto for Harpsichord and Chamber Orchestra was finished in the spring of 2002 and given its première by the soloist Jillon Stoppels Dupree, who also made the first recording of the work, in the Benaroya Hall, Seattle on 21 September of the same year. Glass has commented about the concerto as follows: Several years ago I was invited by Charles and Diana Carey to compose a work for harpsichord and chamber orchestra to be performed by the Northwest Chamber Orchestra in September 2002. I found the invitation intriguing for several reasons. For one, I have always been an admirer of the literature for harpsichord and studied some of the music from the Baroque period quite thoroughly, and have played a bit of that music myself. Secondly, I knew that the modern day harpsichord was capable of a fuller, more robust sound than was available in ‘period’ instruments and might make a handsome partner to a modern chamber orchestra…

I came up with a traditional three movement work…Concertos always are a tricky affair…The best result is always when the soloist and the orchestra both have had the chance to shine in the musical spotlight. I will be delighted if this new work in some manner succeeds in that way.

Glass’s Concerto for Harpsichord and Chamber Orchestra certainly does succeed in its vigorous blend of contemporary harpsichord sounds with the driving power of the orchestra. From the opening entry by the harpsichord in the first movement, followed by the energies of both ensemble and soloist together, to the virtuosic concerto writing of the third movement, the composer provides an exciting experience of instrumental blending and solo expressiveness. The second movement treats us to a lyrical quasi-Baroque theme in an extended dialogue between the two partners of the concerto form. The presence of the harpsichord has stimulated the composer to give the instrument its full potential both as a reminder of past musical glories and as a living medium in the modern age.

Jean Françaix began writing music at the age of six and also developed his talents as a very accomplished concert pianist. Like Philip Glass (only many years earlier), Françaix studied with Nadia Boulanger. His career was successfully launched in 1932 when his Piano Concertino was acclaimed at the Baden-Baden contemporary music festival. By the end of his life he had written some two hundred works including film and theatre scores, oratorios, symphonies, concertos, chamber music, ballets, ensemble pieces and instrumental works. Françaix composed mainly within the neoclassical tradition preferring to steer clear of atonal experimentation however fashionable it was for much of his career.

The wit and elegance of Françaix’s style are evident throughout his Concerto. The first movement, Toccata I (Allegro) is energetic with perpetual activity with repeated chords from the harpsichord while Toccata II features a Bach-like harpsichord solo with accompaniment from plucked basses. Andantino, the slow movement, begins with harpsichord against the orchestra in gentle tones before the progression to a faster, more excitable, tempo. Some poignant themes make their presence felt here leading towards a serene finale. Minuet begins with a simple statement from the soloist before the orchestra replies. The following dialogue between harpsichord and orchestra, each with concise entries, build in intensity like an extended conversation. The Finale is a lively discourse between soloist and partners in vivacious and felicitous mood.

Graham Wade

Cover image
The harpsichord pictured on the cover is a reproduction of a 17th-century Flemish original and was built to special order by Zuckermann Harpsichords International. The lid art is by Tanyna Nivina, inspired by a Guardi view of Venice. The glass ‘Split Wall’ sculpture, behind the instrument, is by Danny Lane of London. The photograph is by Drew Kelly.

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