The Israeli harpsichordist Michael Tsalka was the featured artist at this concert at the Mosman Art Gallery, and what a coup it was for a small local group to perform with such an outstanding international artist.
Thorough Bass, under the leadership of Diana Weston (harpsichord), presented an interesting program, with their usual mix of early and modern music. The first half of the program had the Latin flavour of the title, the second was straight Baroque concertos.
From the outset, it was clear that the harpsichord was going to dominate this concert. The stage was filled with two of them and the first three items on the program were harpsichord duets. Tsalka and Weston started with the Australian composer May Howlett’s “Tilting at windmills”. Inspired by Cervantes’ Don Quixote, the instruments duelled with each other, alternating between dense and sparse textures, frantic activity and periods of catching one’s breath. There was hand clapping involved as the momentum built and the activity ramped up.
The next duet “3 Stukken a 4 Main” (3 pieces for 4 hands) was by the contemporary Argentinian composer Pablo Escande. The Capricho was rhythmically vibrant with lots of hammering chords and rapid repeated notes. The curiously named and less frantic “Naïve” featured a muted stop on one instrument and open sound on the other with may rising arpeggios. The final and more sophisticated Toccata was written many years after the first two movements, and featured, as expected, constant semiquaver movement. The sexy Latin flavour was here afforded by syncopated chords, descending glissandi and rising chromaticism. These pieces were a lot of fun.
Astor Piazzola’s “Fuga y mister” (Fugue and Mystery) got the metaphorical Latin tango hips gyrating with full chords, sustained sound and constant syncopation. The piece was quite dark really, but engaging.
The harpsichord pieces, in general, were musical and well rehearsed.
Arvo Pärt’s “Summa” was played by the strings (2 violins, viola and 2 cellos), no harpsichord. The piece is very like his vocal music, a gentle and sparse but frequently dissonant counterpoint based on Gregorian chant. Although there was no text, like all Pärt’s music the work felt religious.
After the interval, 3 harpsichord concertos followed by Baroque composers Georg Benda, Alessandro Scarlatti and JS Bach. Unfortunately, the performance was somewhat marred by quite a few intonation issues the strings, but the brilliant harpsichord playing saved the day.
The late Baroque Bohemian composer Breda’s Harpsichord Concerto II in G minor was squarely in the Italian Style. Again there were two harpsichords here, the larger sounding instrument playing the solo part and the other continuo. The rich solo instrument produced full and lush sound. Tsalka’s ornamentation and articulation were clean and expertly executed. Some of the solo flourishes, which I presume were extemporised, contained interesting harmonic twists and turns.
Unlike the other two concertos, the Scarlatti number IV only had the solo harpsichord played by Weston; there was no continuo. Weston’s playing was confident and strong. Especially interesting was the cadenza written for Weston by Ann Carr-Boyd.
Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto in E BWV 1053 again featured faultless harpsichord playing from both players. The tonal contrast of the two instruments was highlighted. The melismatic sections rippled like smooth silk.
The harpsichord playing really made this concert. It was wonderful to hear such a virtuoso of the instrument. Tsalka is performing again this Friday 4 May with the Sydney Consort in Balmain. I am looking forward to that concert too.