Carmel Bach Festival 2018 – Bach and the Harpsichord

Harpsichordist Dongsok Shin

For the past five years fans attending the Carmel Bach Festival might have noticed that the festival seemed not to acknowledge that Johann Sebastian Bach, the festival’s namesake, was the greatest keyboard player and keyboard composer of the 18th century. A glaring omission in recent Festivals was the solo harpsichord recital. Since there was no solo harpsichord recital, representative works including The Well-Tempered Clavier, the Partitas, the Toccatas, the Suites, the Goldberg Variations, the Concerto in the Italian Style, and many other important works were much missed.

Yesterday afternoon the CBF took a significant step to rectify this omission by presenting an intimate harpsichord recital for a small elite audience in the foyer of Sunset Center — this concert will be repeated next week in this same venue. For this concert to have taken place we have to be grateful to Jerry & Christine Baker, whose support helped make this event possible. Chris Baker herself is a serious keyboard player and has a personal collection of two museum-quality, Flemish-style harpsichords, plus her newest keyboard acquisition, a replica of an 18th-century Lautenwerck, a lute harpsichord with gut rather than steel strings.

In this daytime Foyer Concert at Sunset Center, we had the pleasure of hearing harpsichordist Dongsok Shin present a program on a four-and-a-half octave harpsichord built by Kevin Fryer in San Francisco. This instrument is a faithful copy of the “Colmar-Ruckers,” built in 1624 by Ioannes Ruckers in Antwerp, which is actually a mate to one of the instruments owned by Chris Baker, at whose home Mr. Shin has been practicing this week. Since this instrument’s compass is limited to four octaves, its use in this concert precluded inclusion of any larger works requiring a five-octave instrument.

At first glance Mr. Shin’s program seemed puzzling since it only contained works by Bach and two of his contemporaries. Additionally, these two contemporaries, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg (not the inspiration for the famous “Goldberg Variations”) and Johann Caspar Ferdinand Fischer are relatively unknown, except to keyboard players specializing in 18th-century obscure composers. Shin slightly confused his audience by departing from the order in the printed program. His purpose was to pair works in performance that had a similarity of style or were treatments of the same composition. Thus, we heard performed together as a pair the Prelude and Fugue in E Major by Fischer from Ariadne Musica (1701) and the Prelude and Fugue in E Major by Bach from Book II of The Well-Tempered Clavier (1740). The pairing was effective in illustrating the stylistic difference between the two composers, while also revealing their kinship. The other pairing was the Polonaise in G Minor from Bach’s Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach (which Mr. Shin revealed in remarks before his performance most probably wasn’t composed by Bach) and the Polonaise in G Minor by Johann Gottlieb Goldberg. This turned out to be effective programing and doubly illustrated Shin’s skills as a performer and a musicologist.

The major event on this program was Shin’s keyboard performance, in an arrangement by Gustav Leonhardt (with a few additions by Mr. Shin), of the famous Chaconne from the Partita in D Minor for unaccompanied Violin, BWV 1004. This great work has so fascinated and inspired subsequent musicians so that the work also exists in successful arrangements for guitar (as made famous by Segovia), for solo piano in a great and formidable transcription by Busoni, and an arrangement for left hand alone by Brahms. This Chaconne, an intense 14-minute work, is absolutely mesmerizing, and almost all of us in the audience were hearing this work for the first time on a solo harpsichord. However, no matter how much we might be missing the unique sonorities of the violin, guitar or virtuoso piano treatments, Shin’s performance achieve high moments of conviction, relevance and charm. Eventually, when this arrangement for harpsichord appears in published form, we can be sure that a copy will wend its way to Chris Baker, and perhaps she will share it with us.

But, wait. There was more to come. We noticed that after this gripping performance of the Chaconne, there was one more work to end the program — a Passacaglia from “Uranie” from Musikalischer Parnassus by Johann Caspar Ferdinand Fischer. An unknown work by an unknown (to most of us) composer following on the heels of the great Chaconne masterpiece. I thought to myself, this is going to be about as exciting as a firecracker on the 5th of July. Well, I was wrong. This piece took us on a brief but fascinating journey and charmed us with its harmonic and chromatic twists and turns.

Let’s hope we see Mr. Shin returning to CBF 2019.

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Archived in these categories: Baroque, Carmel Bach Festival, Harpsichord.
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