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20th Century Harpsichord Music / Barbara Harbach

Rosner / Pinkham / D'amour / Harbach
Release Date: 01/08/2013 
Label:  Msr   Catalog #: 1443  
Composer:  Arnold RosnerDaniel Pinkham
Performer:  Barbara Harbach
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

ROSNER Musique de Clavecin. Sonatine d’amour. PINKHAM Partita for Harpsichord Barbara Harbach (hpd) MSR CLASSICS 1443 (64:11)

This disc is the reissue of a 1990 CD that originally came out on the Gasparo label (I found only one link that dated Gasparo as far forward as 2005, but could not find conclusive evidence that the label is now defunct). Both are works by modern American composers for the harpsichord: one written essentially for the Read more composer’s own satisfaction to portray certain women he knew through his chess club correspondence or friends’ wives, the other commissioned as background music for a public television show in Boston that never aired. Moreover, the styles of the two composers could not be more different. Rosner’s music is eclectic but essentially tonal (in this case, however, most of it sounds very Eastern, like Turkish or Arabic music) while Pinkham’s is decidedly atonal or at least multi-tonal. Also, Rosner’s music is much more mood-oriented while Pinkham’s is more complex in construction.

To go into more detail, the Rosner suite—composed in 1974—is divided into five parts: “Rondeau: La Dame du Seigneur, ” which the composer says refers to a woman who “had a great love of baroque music and, despite her youth, an intense bitterness about life altogether, though she was also capable of great warmth”; “Danse: La Walewska ,” referring to a piano and music theory student of Polish heritage who, sadly, died in a plane crash in August 2012; “Fantaisie: La Celeste ,” describing a woman with “jet-black hair…exceedingly beautiful…though the compelling look in her eyes was at first alluring and later frightening”; “Noel: Les Suzannes, ” so named because several of his friends “had married women named Susan”; and “Passacille: La douleureuse, ” referring to another chess club member, a “doctoral candidate in French” who “was passionately physical and possessed of unusual vitality and energy.” In some passages, I felt that Harbach’s harpsichord was recorded a bit too close, as the thumping sound it produced seemed to me a bit heavy-handed for the music’s intended purpose, but the performance is splendid. This was followed by a shorter Rosner piece, Sonatine d’Amour, which he wrote specifically to evoke the “special sensuous vibrancy in the sound of the harpsichord.” In all of the Rosner pieces there is an unusual quality that is extremely difficult to describe. The closest I can come is to compare it to the odd harpsichord music in the background of Ernie Kovacs’s half-hour comedy classic, Eugene. But it’s good stuff.

Daniel Pinkham’s Partita for Harpsichord was commissioned as a repeated half-hour of music to run behind WGBH’s proposed series on “A Layman’s Guide to Modern Art.” The film series was never accepted for distribution, but WGBH gave Pinkham permission to release his pre-recorded performance on Cambridge Records in 1962, and it also became a concert piece for him. His music is much more formally constructed, using such typical baroque structures as a toccata, fugue, three different canons, a rondo, a fantasia, scherzo, and a last section mysteriously marked “Envoi.” Less emotionally effusive than Rosner’s music but no less fascinating, Pinkham creates some truly fascinating rhythmic-harmonic structures. For the most part they are tonal, but they often veer into sideways harmonics and, at times (like in the Andante ), the rhythm really swings, coming close to jazz without really mimicking it.

One of the more fascinating aspects of this CD is the manner in which Harbach, who is herself a composer, manages to elicit a tremendous range of moods from the harpsichord. Since the dynamic range of her instrument is rather circumscribed by comparison with a piano, she manages to do this by means of registration changes and inserting pauses in the musical line. I found her touch and style endlessly fascinating to listen to even though, as noted earlier, some of these passages were recorded a little too close to the mike for my taste. This is not easy listening music for your next Sunday brunch or “party with a purpose”; the music is often too complex, demanding of the listener, and even somewhat dark in mood to serve that purpose. All for the better, because this is one of the most fascinating discs ever to come my way for review.

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
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Works on This Recording

Musique de clavecin, Op. 61 by Arnold Rosner
Performer:  Barbara Harbach (Harpsichord)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1974; USA 
Sonatine d'Amour for Harpsichord, Op. 83 by Arnold Rosner
Performer:  Barbara Harbach (Harpsichord)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1987; USA 
Partita for Harpsichord by Daniel Pinkham
Performer:  Barbara Harbach (Harpsichord)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1964 

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