Monday, 2 November 2015

Harpsichordist Christopher D Lewis brings superb precision and articulation to his performances of 20th Century Harpsichord Music using an impressive restored 1930’s Pleyel harpsichord on a new release from Naxos

From the 1880s there was a revival of interest in the harpsichord with the great virtuoso Wanda Landowska (1879-1959) taking this interest into the 20th century. Between 1905 and 1912 she assisted in the development of a harpsichord built by Pleyel of Paris, bringing about an entirely new design quite different from the traditional instrument. This new Pleyel used a heavy case including a cast-iron frame with two manuals, or keyboards, equipped with a deep register called a sixteen-foot that sounded one octave below normal pitch. It also had two eight-foot registers, a coupler, and a lute-stop. The instrument was effectively a hybrid between a piano and a harpsichord, in effect a plucked piano.

Harpsichordist, Christopher D. Lewis  has recorded a new disc for Naxos , entitled 20th Century Harpsichord Music that features solo works by Poulenc, Françaix, Martinů and Durey played on a 1930s Pleyel harpsichord, known as the Eaton Pleyel, having been purchased by the Toronto Eaton Auditorium . In 2013 the Eaton Pleyel harpsichord was extensively restored in Cleveland, Ohio, by Philip M. Cucchiara, shortly before the instrument was set up in its new home in San Francisco.


It was for Wanda Landowska that Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) wrote his Concert Champêtre. His Suite française was originally for 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, percussion and harpsichord. It is performed here in a version for solo harpsichord. What a terrific opening Poulenc gives us to the Bransle de Bourgogne, an old tune given a 1920’s treatment. Lewis provides a rhythmically sprung performance with lovely use of the harpsichord’s varied tones. There is a lovely slow Pavane making the most of the instrument’s various textures and tones, Poulenc providing some lovely dissonances. The lively Petite marche militaire has this harpsichordist showing just how much projection his instrument can give, building some terrific passages.  

Lewis picks out a lovely little melody in the Complainte that is slowly developed through some fine passages before ending on a single discord. After a rhythmically pointed Bransle de Champagne there is a gentle, rocking Sicilienne with some lovely varied textures. A bright and breezy Carillon rounds off this suite in fine style.

There are many tunes here that will stick in the mind, not least the last one.

Christopher D. Lewis brings the first of two world premiere recordings with Jean Françaix’s (1912-1997) Deux Pièces pour clavecin. No. 1 Grave brings some unusual harpsichord tones as the music makes its way slowly forward with some incredibly deep notes and unusual textures. With No. 2 Vivace, Lewis launches into a contrasting piece that really bounces ahead freely, bringing a buoyant end to this strangely appealing little work.

The interest in the harpsichord as a contemporary instrument continued when Bohuslav Martinů (1890-1959) wrote his Deux Impromptus for the Swiss harpsichordist, Antoinette Vischer who had commissioned works from Luciano Berio, Earle Brown and John Cage. The Allegretto of No. 1 brings a lovely breadth with this soloist revealing so much of what this magnificent instrument can do. There is a lovely slower passage before the opening theme returns for the coda. No. 2 brings a rhythmically sprung, really attractive piece that slowly works its way through some fine development.

Martinů’s Sonate pour clavecin was also written for Antoinette Vischer. In three movements. The Poco allegro opens with a flowing theme that doesn’t seem to be able to settle. There are varying rhythms with some lovely ideas and variations.  A slow expansive Poco moderato cantabile has Lewis finding some attractive little details, extracting some fine textures and timbres from the Pleyel. The lively Allegretto moves around the keyboard building in strength and direction to the whimsical coda.

Louis Durey (1888-1979) is a name not likely to be known to many. His compositions include songs, orchestral, chamber and piano works as well as film music. Christopher D. Lewis brings another world premiere recording with Durey’s Dix Inventions, piano transcriptions by the composer of works written for a variety of instruments. No. 1 Très calme brings a light textured, slow flowing piece that moves through some lovely harmonies. The rhythmic No. 2 Allegretto brings some lovely textures as it weaves around before racing to the end. No. 3 Très modéré is a leisurely piece that develops beautifully and subtly through some remarkably fine passages, Lewis finding some fine sonorities. No. 4. Lent et grave is a rather haunting piece that meanders around the keyboard finding more fine harmonies. 

No. 5. Tranquille equally wanders around finding little rhythmic moments on its way before a nicely pointed little No. 6 Animé et rythmé that shifts around tonally. This soloist finds some lovely sounds from his instrument in No. 7. Modéré, a gentle piece that is quite beautiful. No. 8. Décidé has a fine spring in its step as it moves off quickly before Lewis brings a lovely breadth to No. 9. Modéré (mélancolique), finely phrased. Finally, No. 10 Très animé builds some very finely woven passages to conclude this attractive collection of pieces.

Martinů’s Duex Pièces pour clavecin (1935) concludes this disc. They were written for another harpsichordist, a pupil of Wanda Landowska, Marcelle de Lacour (1896-1997) .

Low chords on the instrument bring a tragic feel to No. 1 Lento before a gentle, restrained flow is found, rising in mood a little for a rather more florid coda. A buoyant No. 2 Allegro con brio arrives with lovely discordant harmonies before moving through some fine, free flowing passages full of terrific invention to a decisive coda. This is a really riveting piece.  

Christopher D Lewis’ technique is very fine with superb precision and articulation. Some may find the impressive sound of the 1930’s Pleyel harpsichord a little strident and powerful but wow is it impressive.  

The recording is first rate. Indeed, the impressive instrument could be in one’s own room. There are excellent notes from Graham Wade with information about the instrument which is pictured on the cover of the booklet. 

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