Last night’s 8pm Boston Early Music Festival offering, a harpsichord recital by French virtuoso Pierre Hantaï, brought a surprisingly sparse crowd to Jordan Hall—next time, just TiVo the Red Sox, people—which perhaps added an extra modicum of wryness to Hantaï's already-wry demeanor. But the program—Bach and Scarlatti—was solidly within Hantaï's comfort zone, which resulted in the sort of casually risky, expansive performance that's best among a more intimate mob anyway.
The most notable thing about Hantaï's playing was his expert use of rhythmic variance in service of musical illusion. Playing an instrument with no actual legato and only manual-to-manual dynamic variance, Hantaï offered a world-class demonstration of how to fool the listener into thinking that legato and dynamic variance were everywhere. Much of this involved hairline gradations of delay: lagging one contrapuntal strand just behind the others to draw the ear to it, shaping a lyrical line with slightly sticky rubato to encourage the brain to fill in the decay. They're familiar expressive techniques to any keyboard player—even the comparatively fat sound of the modern piano requires a certain amount of similar sleight-of-hand—but coupled with Hantaï's overall improvisatory rhythmic cast, the manipulations become so organic to the music's flow that they almost vanished in plain sight. I kept thinking of Penn & Teller's cups and balls routine—somehow, knowing how the trick is done only enhances the effect.
Hantaï's programming reinforced the ruminative vibe. Two of Bach's English Suites—F major and A minor—and a quartet of Scarlatti sonatas were interspersed with a host of the little preludes and fugues Bach wrote for his students and children. Brief character pieces, they both allowed Hantaï to excercise his rhythmic fantasy and persuasively contrasted his sweeping interpretations of the larger works. In the suites and sonatas, Hantaï thought and played big; this wasn't an intricate, polished clockwork, but near-Romantic landscapes, profusely detailed with crisp ornamentation, the long-breathed rhythmic waywardness outlining grand conceptions. The piano is usually thought of as the more orchestral keyboard instrument, but Hantaï's prestidigitation just about put the harpsichord on equal footing.
This morning saw the inauguration of a new BEMF attraction, a day-long keyboard mini-festival to match the organ mini-festival that's now in its fourth go-round. Ensconced at First Lutheran Church in Back Bay, the venue provided some questionable Boston hospitality via the city's skinflint approach to parking—a meter maid was already lurking as I fed my quarters; the concert featured multiple announcements of which cars were in the process of being towed. But the new series started off strong, with fortepiano contributions from Andrew Willis and BEMF favorite Kristian Bezuidenhout.
Bezuidenhout was up first, tracing Franz Josef Haydn's gradual accommodation with the instrument from the 1770s (the Sonata in C minor, Hob. XVI:20) to the 1780s (an announced addition to the program, the C-major Sonata, Hob. XVI:48) into the 1790s (the F-minor Variations, Hob. XVII:6). With Bezuidenhout playing a copy of a mid-1790s Anton Walter instrument, one could immediately hear the astonishing variety of colors that must have won over 18th-century composers: from a muted hollowness to a buzzing, harpsichord-like edge, almost like taking a guitar amplifier from clean-toned jazz all the way to rock distortion. It's a larger palette than the modern grand, though, of course, the trade-off is in power—latecomers taking a seat in my row fairly drowned out a portion of the C-minor's Andante movement. Bezuidenhout's playing was a compelling mix of old and new, his ornamentation having the harpsichord's jewel-cut clarity, but the comparative ease of dynamic highlights allowing a more groove-like rhythm. He also seized on the music's dramatic touches, many seemingly inspired by the instrument's possibilities—the opening movement of the C-major Sonata casts the piano's varying registers as operatic characters, in a fluid series of recitative-like textures. The most magical moments revealed the possibilities for crescendo and diminuendo as a gee-whiz technological advance: Bezuidenhout let the close of the Variations toll ever softer, until it simply dissolved into the white noise of passing traffic.
Willis, playing a David Sutherland copy of a 1730s Florentine fortepiano, brought a string quartet to the stage with him for three of Bach's keyboard concertos. A damp and cold New England morning seemed to be wreaking havoc on everyone's tuning—you know you're at an early-music concert when the pianist is pulling out a wrench to tune between movements. But Willis's easygoing, dancing phrasing warmed up the chamber-sized dimensions of the playing, and once the intonation settled, in time for the bewitching Siciliano of the E-major concerto (BWV 1053), the group began to exude more confidence, and the closing Allegro had a happy brio. The fortepiano timbre didn't reveal any new secrets in the solo portions—Bach's writing is still very much modeled on harpsichord/clavichord virtuosity—but when providing a rippling accompaniment to the whole ensemble, the softer, subtler touch made for an invitingly plush sound.
Alas, the aforesaid parking situation (ars longa; meter brevis) meant I had to leave before one of my favorites, the BWV 1052 D-minor concerto. Next time, I'll make like Bach and walk. I imagine it's faster than rush-hour driving some mornings, anyway.