It’s no secret that the harpsichord can be a viable, vital, and expressive voice in contemporary music. The instrument has inspired many fine new works, or, more accurately, “new-ish” works that tend only to get attention when enterprising harpsichordists like Jory Vinikour create an imaginative, well contrasted, and brilliantly produced recording such as the present release devoted to American composers.
All but three works constitute recorded premieres. More importantly, Vinikour’s impeccable technique, rhythmic vivacity, and ability to convey character in every bar help sell the idea that most of these pieces are worth getting to know. Mel Powell’s 1953 Recitative and ToccataRead more bears harmonic traces of Copland and Hindemith, although the carefree virtuosic passages evoke Powell’s deft jazz pianism at its mid-1940s peak. You wouldn’t associate the perpetual motion and unpredictable tonality shifts in the 1960 Ostinato as typical Henry Cowell, but the fact is that his music ranged far and beyond the clusters that clog up much of his piano music. Ned Rorem’s brief and dazzlingly-crafted showpiece Spiders fuels my long-held minority opinion that while this composer mainly gets attention for his art songs, his instrumental works often prove more interesting.
Craft is the operative word throughout Samuel Adler’s three-movement Sonata from 1982, where the lute stop gorgeously dominates the central movement. Over the years I’ve noticed how serious piano students turn to Robert Muczynski’s idiomatic and accessible scores when they’re obligated to play new music yet don’t really like new music. Certainly his two little 1982 Profiles are delightful, encore-type fare. Of the three movements encompassing Thomas Benjamin’s 1988 “Semi-Suite” I’m most drawn to the gentle concluding Toccata, whose asymmetric ostinatos and harmonic language channel Stephen Sondheim’s similar “vamping” textures.
Although I’m less enamored of Robert Moevs’ drier, more academic idiom, notice how his Saraband’s single line slowly evolves into denser, more intense terrain. Stephen Blumberg’s larger-scaled Gyre holds interest for its two-manual interplay and subtle mix of registrations, as do the sparse, declamatory sections of Patrice Morehead’s Toubillon Galaxy. Lastly, Harold Meltzer’s five short toccatas effortlessly navigate the genre with a non-formulaic outlook and fresh harmonic invention at all times.
Sono Luminus presents the program in both high definition surround sound and conventional two-channel playback. Both formats convey impressive ambient realism and tonal body. An outstanding release and an important contribution to the catalog by one of America’s greatest harpsichordists.