'Head-Banging': The Harpsichord Loses its Powdered Wig

Nov 14, 2019

Harpsichordist Jory Vinikour's recording "20th Century harpsichord concertos" (Cedille Records).
Credit Cedille Records / http://www.cedillerecords.org/albums

You might think the harpsichord is a mere historic novelty, an outdated baroque cousin of the piano and fit only for the powdered wig set. If so, the American harpsichordist Jory Vinikour’s most recent recording might change your mind.

That recording, 20th- Century Harpsichord Concertos (Cedille Records), features Vinikour as soloist with the Chicago Philharmonic conducted by Scott Speck. It shows the harpsichord navigating the urban-inspired terrain of progressive harmonies and agitated rhythms, of piquant lyricism and edgy, head-banging, off-the-hook minimalism that, frankly, just sounds cool.

Amid the wildly diverse sonic landscapes of these concertos by some of modern music’s biggest names – Ned Rorem, Michael Nyman, Walter Leigh and Viktor Kalabis – you won’t hear anything that really sounds like Bach’s music.

"I certainly don’t feel that I’m in a kind of bewigged, isolated place,” said Vinikour in a recent interview.


Bach is, indeed, not in Kansas anymore. And, despite playing an instrument most closely associated with the likes of Bach and other composers and performers of his era, neither is Vinikour.

The modern harpsichord repertoire breaks Vinikour and other harpsichordists out of what he calls the “baroque bubble” in which harpsichordists could easily live. That the harpsichord never died as a solo instrument, but instead became the solo instrument for which modernist composers like Francis Poulenc and Manuel de Falla wrote concertos, is a testament to the instrument’s staying power in the modern urban industrial world.

And 20th Century Harpsichord Concertos surveys musical territory well beyond the now classic works by Poulenc and Falla. As difficult as it might be to imagine “modern music” performed on a harpsichord, it’s more difficult, I think, to imagine British composer Michael Nyman’s Concerto for Amplified Harpsichord and Strings performed on any other solo instrument.

The piece feels less like a concerto, and more like rock ‘n’ roll.

The Finale of Michael Nyman’s Concerto for Amplified harpsichord and Strings:

“I’ve had a handful of performances of the work where I have the audience screaming, including at the normally very staid Lausanne Chamber Orchestra,” Vinikour said. “I mean, people were applauding me and I was followed out the stage door by people. It is a kind of head-banging rock-and-roll."

Nyman milks the harpsichord’s distinctive twanginess for all its post-1980s-synth-pop freshness in a minimalist harmonic texture and rhythmic language that gouge their way through time like a techno dance mix thumping through a rave.

In the interview above, Jory Vinikour talks about the harpsichord as a “modern” solo instrument and about his new recording of the concertos for it.

There’s also the refreshing lyricism and rhythmic energy of Walter Leigh’s Concertino for Harpsichord and Strings - the most Bach-inspired work on the recording – and the edgy, neo-classical vim of Rorem’s Concertino da Camera, presented on this disc in its first professional recording.

The first movement of Walter Leigh’s Concertino for Harpsichord and Strings:

There is an entirely different flavor to the hauntingly dark Concerto for Harpsichord and Strings by Czech composer Viktor Kalabis, who wrote the work for his wife, the Czech harpsichordist and Nazi Holocaust survivor Zuzana Růžičková.

Jori Vinikour speaks about the life of composer Viktor Kalabis and harpsichordist Zuzana Růžičková:

The modern harpsichord concertos on 20th Century Harpsichord Concertos offer unexpected and compelling alternatives to the harpsichordist’s bread and butter, which will likely always remain with the chamber music of the baroque era - still performed and enjoyed around the world.

As Vinikour notes, “In the world of chamber music, classical chamber music, the harpsichord has a very, very important place.” 




Jennifer Hambrick: I’m Jennifer Hambrick, midday host of Classical 101, WOSU Public Media, in Columbus. I’m speaking with harpsichordist Jory Vinikour about his recording 20th Century Harpsichord Concertos.


The harpsichord is a mainstay of baroque repertoire.  Give us a thumbnail sketch, if you would, of how the harpsichord came into vogue as a solo instrument in the 20th century.

Jory Vinikour: Yeah, this is a very, very interesting subject. It’s so tempting to say that the harpsichord entirely disappeared from the European musical scene at about the time of the French Revolution, earlier or later depending on the country.  There was always a little bit of interest here and there.  Beethoven’s competitor Moscheles, for instance, was known to play harpsichord. A couple generations later, the French pianists Louis Diémer also played harpsichord. But at the very, very end of the 19th, beginning of the 20th century, the Dolmetsch family in England began to build harpsichords. And shortly after this, Wanda Landowska, the polish piano virtuoso, became very passionate about the idea of performing Bach, especially Bach, on his instrument. So Pleyel, the piano company, built her a harpsichord, which was sort of a great big piano with a plucking mechanism. But she was so fascinating that composers such as Manuel de Falla, who wrote two pieces to her attention – the Puppet Show of Master Pedro and he wrote the harpsichord Concerto, that would have been in the teens, and Francis Poulenc who wrote his Concert Champêtre for her I think in the late ‘20s. It started really from there.  These pieces were actually among the first important examples in the 20th century. The instrument gradually caught on, and I can also affirm that tit has been heard in pop music over the last 50 or so years.


Jennifer Hambrick: Other than the fact that the piano was invented later than the harpsichord and has obviously really taken root as the keyboard instrument most frequently encountered, as well as the one that many people lean to play as kids, what brought about the decline in currency of the harpsichord as a solo instrument? And here I have in the back of my mind the harpsichord works – like Walter Leigh’s Concertino – that you mention in your notes were given performances on piano, despite the fact that they were composed in the 20th century specifically for harpsichord.

Jory Vinikour: I think that the sheer dynamic desires of composers led to the demise of the harpsichord. For instance, in England in the latter part of the 18th century, the harpsichord remained, and British builders like Kirkman and Broadwood tried to enlarge the harpsichord, give it all kinds of gadgets to increase the sound, to increase the contrasts that were possible in creating dynamics. At the same time, we find the early pianos possibly growing as an offshoot of harpsichord, possibly growing as an offshoot of clavichords. And the idea – pianoforte, or fortepiano – is that on one keyboard just through the control of touch the performer could create sounds ranging from soft to loud, or louder. And the piano, of course, went through so, so many iterations before arriving at what most of us would think of as a modern piano today that it’s very difficult to place our thumb on a piano throughout history and say, This is the new instrument.


Jennifer Hambrick: In your notes to your recording, you write that you have performed Walter Leigh’s Concertino with baroque strings. And this I find very interesting since, like the other pieces on this recording, Leigh’s concertino is from the 20th century and, so, long after the baroque era. However, it really is difficult to listen even to the first movement of the concertino and not hear Bach.


The very first beat or two does texturally sound like Bach …


… and the virtuoso cadenza near the end of the first movement is really reminiscent of the harpsichord cadenza in Brandenburg Five.


To be clear, your recording with the Chicago Philharmonic does not use baroque strings. But could you talk about your decision sometimes to perform this modern concertino with baroque strings? Is there something about this particular 20th-century harpsichord work that you think lends itself to performing with baroque strings?

Jory Vinikour: You know, I may or may not be absolutely the only one. But the piece is written for – let’s say, the string orchestra is not written for a London Philharmonic. It’s written for a group of amateurs, basically. The string are easy and very modal. So Bach or not, it’s not as complex as playing Bach. The strings parts are very sweet, very pastoral for the most part. And the idea that it could sound well on baroque strings, one performer to a part, occurred to me nearly 10 years back, and I think I’ve had three occasions where I’ve tried this. And the most recent with wonderful musicians from the Chicago area was so satisfying that I had a little bit of regret that I didn’t do it this way for the recording simply to vary the sound. But what Chicago Philharmonic with Scott Speck did wonderfully is, of course, really what we had in mind.  So whether or not he would have enjoyed these vibratoless baroque strings, I simply don’t know. I think it sounds wonderful. 


Jennifer Hambrick: Your recording is the first commercial recoding of Ned Rorem’s Concertino da Camera. You mention in you notes that Rorem wrote this piece in 1946 and that it went unperformed until 1993, when it was performed at the University of Minnesota. You also include in your notes an extended quote from something Rorem wrote just earlier this year in which he says that you “found the piece in the Ned Rorem archives at the Library of Congress” and “brought the piece to light” by performing and now recording it. So, how did you come across this piece, and I’m also curious about what happened with this piece between the 1993 performance and when you to your hands on it. Did no one really perform it during that time?

Jory Vinikour: Yeah, it’s a fascinating thing. Absolutely not. And I’d even go farther and dare to say that this is really something that happened between ’46 and now, 2017 or ‘18. So, I didn’t and it directly in the Library of Congress. I saw the work mentioned in a biography of Rorem, I think possibly even in Grove, and wrote to – oh goodness, I think I actually wrote to the Library of Congress. I was put in touch with Ned Rorem’s executor, who is his niece, Mary Marshall. And she was under the impression that the work had never been performed. But this is rather interesting: she did the necessary legwork to get me a copy of the piece, which was written in Ned Rorem’s actually very beautiful handwriting, so it’s wonderful to have this. I was preparing this with the Chicago Philharmonic. Jim Ginsburg was excited about the idea of creating a world premiere of a major work of Ned Rorem. I was excited, the director of the Chicago Philharmonic was excited. But guess what: we found out that it had been given a school performance in 1993. So the one that you evoked, with Alexander Platt at the university – this is not a professional performance, there is no recording trace mark. So I’m assuming that alexander Platt himself maybe went into the Rorem archives at the Library of Congress. I’ve not been able to find more information. There just seems to be no trace whatever of this performance. So our performance is the first professional performance given of the work and the recording 100 percent the first professional recording of this. And I can’t exactly tell you why. Rorem insinuated at one point that he wrote it when he was about 21 or 22 years old. I think he had hoped that Wanda Landowska would be interested. When this somehow didn’t work out back in 1946, he shelved the piece. He just simply put it away and forgot about it. And I’ve got to say, Jennifer, I was interested – maybe the piece would be something of juvenilia or otherwise not interesting. This is just not the case, as any listener can hear. This is among the most fine and the most enjoyable pieces of Ned Rorem’s chamber music. It’s very funny. And Rorem, who is not I think 96 years of age, he has the habit over the last many decades as I unfortunately discovered in trying to find vocal music of his which I love, if he would get sick of something, he would take it out of his catalogue. So for something like this harpsichord concerto, which wen unperformed when he was a very young guy, unfortunately this was not in favor of the work being performed here and there by chamber music societies. And again it is quite, quite challenging. The string writing is very difficult, the harpsichord writing itself is terribly challenging.


Jennifer Hambrick: The harpsichord concerto by Viktor Kalabis has a very interesting story because of the people involved. Kalabis was married to the Czech harpsichord Zuzana Růžičková, and after she had survived internment in there Nazi concentration camps and she and her husband managed to defy the Czech Communist authorities and live to tell about it – in the 1970s, Kalabis wrote his harpsichord concerto for her. What do you hear in this piece and what you do experience in it, from your perspective as one of its performers?

Jory Vinikour: This is fascinating. A dear friend of mine, whom I’ve actually never met in his physical person, but this fellow is Robert Tifft, who is a great lover and I think he would dislike the word authority, but he is an authority on 20th-century harpsichord music and had a great fondness for Růžičková and her husband, as well as various other figures. And he and I both hear in this a very dark story. So where Kalabis at one point actually mentions that he thinks the work should be playful – I do, of course, perceive something very playful in the first movement, the first quick part is quite joyous – but there is always an undercurrent of worry, sometimes of dread.


And the second movement – I don’t know that it tells a programmatic story as such, but it is very, very, very dark.


It’s a very dramatic piece. The harpsichord is just one of the players. I think the string writing is so masterful. The way Kalabis uses the harpsichord both virtuosically or expressively is really second to none, and this what brought me to the work finally.


Jennifer Hambrick: Michael Nyman’s Concerto for Amplified harpsichord and Strings is the final work on your recording, and it strikes me as head-banging stuff.


Should we hear it in the same tradition as baroque woks for harpsichord, or is the instrument in this piece – and maybe on any of the others on this recording – really being treated as a different instrument from the one Bach knew?

Jory Vinikour: Oh yes, head-banging, indeed. I’ve had a long history of playing the piece – so, I think nearly 10 performances – and we harpsichordists live in, as you pointed out earlier, in a basically baroque bubble. And I’ve had a handful of performances of the work where I have the audience screaming, including at the normally very staid Lausanne Chamber Orchestra. I mean, people were applauding me and I was followed out the stage door by people.


It is a kind of head-banging rock-and-roll. It’s a great deal of fun. It’s an absolute finger breaker and, worse yet, I think, a wrist breaker. But it’s a great, great deal of fun. And despite the rock-n-roll minimalist kind of thing, it is awfully difficult. It is a very challenging work to put on, both for the harpsichord soloist as well as the string players.


Jennifer Hambrick: So where does the harpsichord stand now, today, in concert music? Are people catching on, or it is a bit of a tough sell because of its baroque powdered-wig image?

Jory Vinikour: I certainly can only speak finally for myself, but I was fortunate enough to make my debut at the Ravinia Festival in Chicago approximately one month ago. And of course I’m not playing in the pavilion.  I would wish that; the harpsichord would net be well heard there. But in the Bennett Gordon Concert hall, I played to a sold-out hall. So this says something about it – that certain harpsichordists, including myself, have created audience and desire for this. I certainly don’t feel that I’m in a kind of bewigged – what would be that word? – isolated place. So in the world of chamber music, classical chamber music, the harpsichord has a very, very important place. And I feel very fortunate. So important music for the harpsichord is heard all over this country as well as, of course, in Europe.


Jennifer Hambrick: I’m Jennifer Hambrick, midday host of Classical 101, WOUS Public media, in Columbus/. I’ve been speaking with harpsichordist Jory Vinikour about his most recent recording on the Cedille label, 20th Century harpsichord Concertos. Thank you so much.

Jory Vinikour: Thank you, Jennifer.  Thank you so much.