Notes and Editorial Reviews
Keyboard Sonatas: No. 1 in g; No. 2 in B?; No. 3 in F; No. 4 in C; No. 5 in b; No. 6 in C
Barbara Harbach (hpd)
MSR 1241 (64:43)
Even among the ranks of obscure women composers, Anna Bon—who listed herself in her folios as Anna Bon di Venezia—is one of its greatest mysteries. Her parents were, apparently, successful theater people, her mother as an opera singer and her father as a stage designer. All three were employed by Prince Nikolaus von Esterhazy, who probably promoted the publication of her three
folios of music. These six sonatas, her op. 2, is the middle set of these. The album’s notes, apparently written by Harbach, give her date of death as 1767 only because that’s the last year anything was known of her, but she was only 27 years old at the time and the “last thing known about her” was her marriage to an Italian tenor.
I tend to cut women composers of any era before the end of the 19th century some slack for several reasons. With few exceptions (Fanny Mendelssohn probably being the most famous), they seldom had access to the same first-rate musical education accorded to men. Their music was expected, by nature of their being women, to be more elegant, more decorous, less cutting-edge than their male counterparts. And, of course, they seldom had access to music publishers unless they were truly exceptional figures of their age (such as Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre) or, in Anna Bon’s case, a powerful and high-ranking mentor.
What strikes the ear of the listener in these works is not much in the way of innovation or brilliance so much as a liveliness of spirit and a certain playfulness that I found charming. The left-hand accompaniments are particularly varied, ranging from single-note ostinatos to fully developed countermelodies in the style of Purcell or Handel. There are many unexpected flurries of 16ths and triplets in the right hand that are sometimes unexpected. Occasionally Bon ends her movements in the low range of the keyboard, introduces false recapitulations, or uses diminished chords or deceptive cadences. The problem, as I heard it, is that there is a great deal of repetition in these short works, but who knows how she might have developed? It’s important to remember that when she published these sonatas, she was only 17 years old! Aside from a transcendent genius like Mozart or Mendelssohn, how many 17-year-old composers do you know who could write pieces this good, even with their conventionalities?
The first one, the Sonata in G Minor, is in many ways the weakest and most repetitive, but the others all have interesting moments. More important, Barbara Harbach is a splendid musician whose commitment to excellence as a performer informs all of this music with not only Bon’s evident spirit of fun but also her contrasting moods of reflection and energy. In other words, she has taken fairly ordinary music with a few extraordinary moments and made it all sound rather excellent by virtue of her interpretive brilliance and total identification with the material. Just listen to the way she plays the closing Allegro of Sonata No. 2, for instance, or the unusual dragging sound she imparts to the Adagio of Sonata No. 3 (played with the damper on the strings of her instrument). This is extraordinary harpsichord-playing by any measure. I would buy this recording just to hear this woman play, almost regardless of musical quality, because she elevates every note and phrase into a realm beyond the written score. The recorded sound, close to the instrument but not unduly magnified, gives you the aural pleasure of being in her kitchen, so to speak.
This album is a triumph for Harbach and a vindication of her decision to record these works. I’m usually a sucker for good harpsichord-playing anyway, so for me to hear an artist of this high a caliber overcomes any reticence I may have towards the material.
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
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