Friday, December 25, 2009

The Face-Off

The Great Contest: Bach, Scarlatti, and Handel
David Yearsley plays the Op. 85 Fisk organ (1984) at Memorial Church, Stanford University
Loft Records LRCD-1028; 2002


This is an intriguing concept: a CD that mimics the dream concert of the 18th Century, a meeting between Domenico Scarlatti, George Frideric Handel and J.S. Bach. All were born in 1685 and died in the 1750s, and the three together represented the state of musical and keyboard arts of the day (by any objective measure, the year 1685 must count as one of music history's most momentous). Scarlatti and Handel did meet, I believe, and held a kind of contest; as I recall, the "decision" was said to go to Handel for the organ and Scarlatti for the keyboard. Very judicious. But neither man ever met Bach in person. This CD gives us a taste of what such a meeting might have sounded like. Or at least it stacks their compositions up side-by-side, even if we can't know how each man's performances might have illuminated his own works.

Scarlatti's sonatas are not often heard on organ, being conceived mostly for the harpsichord (though pianists often play them). They don't suffer at the organ, certainly, though the instrument puts Mr. Scarlatti at a bit of a disadvantage since this is not how we expect to hear his works. And it rather makes inevitable a direct comparison with Handel and Bach, both of whose works are much more commonly heard on the organ. But none of these three composers is painting with the same brush as the others, and hearing Scarlatti on the organ sandwiched by the other two kind of shines the wrong type of light on him.

And in this setting the great Handel sounds rather like a transitional figure toward the Next Big Thing. A bit more expansive, perhaps, than Mr. Scarlatti, and with his toe dipping in the galant. Handel has a wonderful fluidity, a pastoral beauty which is so often heard in his string writing. It's just a different aesthetic than Bach and Scarlatti.

But Bach is the party crasher here. That at any rate is how this little experiment sounds to me: Scarlatti and Handel give us delightful and engaging music, and Bach makes everyone else sound almost like a warmup act. To my ear he just overshadows everybody with his singular and towering musical genius. Part of it is a question of complexity, I guess. Handel's sounds are sparser--less dense, less wrought with detail--and Scarlatti seems at home with the small, finite statement. He is remarkably inventive--over 550 keyboard sonatas!--but it all exists within a very narrow sphere. But in Bach we find something altogether more expansive and beyond easy categorizing. His Duetto No. 1 BWV 802 from the Clavierübung III (an uncharacteristically spare piece for Bach) sounds like it might have come from Scarlatti's pen, but by the time we get a chorale prelude (Allein Gott in der Höh' sei Ehr', BWV 676) one senses the other two would have looked on in stunned awe. His Toccata, Adagio and Fugue (BWV 564) is in its own league entirely. He's like a helicopter landing in the town square in the 1700s.

David Yearsley teaches musicology and performance at Cornell University. He has chosen for this recording the very felicitous 1984 Fisk organ at Stanford University, a vibrant and thrilling-sounding instrument that puts its tones before us almost like a 3-D hologram. His tempi are lively and the performances felicitous and sprightly. (I see, as an aside, that Dr. Yearsley writes a regular column for the online political magazine Counterpunch. The two I happened to stumble upon seemed like thinly-veiled Obama-hatred pieces, though the rest seem to be writing about more general musical matters. In any case, the playing on our present disc is delightful.)

As is so often the case, this Fisk instrument also merits a bit of mention. Here's another instrument from the hallowed Gloucester shops that plays with temperament (this time a bit like Martin Pasi's great Op. 14 instrument from 2003 in the Cathedral of St. Cecilia in Omaha). From the Fisk website:

By means of five additional pipes in every octave, a large lever can switch the Werk, Ruckpositive, Seitenwerk, and Pedal divisions from a Renaissance fifth-comma meantone to a well-tempered tuning like those J. S. Bach knew. The Brustpositive and the Brustpedalia are fixed in meantone and offer two sub-semitones, or split sharps, per octave, D sharp/E flat and G sharp/A flat.

I love these experiments, first for their glorious sound and second for the mechanical daring and sheer, whimsical expense. It says something good about our species that we can prioritize a device like this one. No A/B comparison between temperaments is on offer on this disc, but the instrument is noticeably not equally-tempered.

The sound from Loft is superb.

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