The Georgian Concert Society: Bach and French Music Back

Evidence in orchestral adaptations and rescoring of multi-instrumental works highlights the popularity in the eighteenth century of music for two harpsichords in domestic performances. As a result, it was common for chamber works featuring wind and string instruments to be adapted for keyboard solo or duet. Such flexibility of a work’s instrumentation was crucial to a composer’s business model, maximising a work’s longevity and ensuring further opportunities for exposure to audiences and patrons. It is also likely that such works could be used for technical exercises in a student’s study in both performance and composition.

This performance by Edinburgh-based harpsichordists John Kitchen and David Gerrard marked the first performance of The Georgian Concert Society’s 2018-19 season. A programme for two harpsichords, it presented some of the most celebrated acquisitions by Edinburgh University’s collection of historical instruments: the 1769 harpsichord by Pascal Taskin and the Jean Goermans-Paul Taskin model of 1764 (rebuilt in 1783-84). Equally matched in dynamic power, Goermans-Taskin with its opulent red, gold and black oriental-inspired case was employed as the weightier bass, providing a profound depth to the texture in an effective imitation of the orchestral string bass. Its lid remained open to aid with projection of both instruments as manuals were aligned parallel to each other ensuring close communication between players. The green Taskin was used for sweeter melodic lines – without lid, it blended well with its older sibling, melding in a rich wash of sound. Two of the finest examples of French harpsichords, they are known for their richness of tone and assertive quality. As John Kitchen was quick to observe in his introduction: “There’s only one sound better than a French harpsichord and that’s two French harpsichords!”

Kitchen and Gerrard have worked closely as performer-researchers in the St. Cecilia’s keyboard museum and their close association as colleagues certainly radiates in their shared approach and humour in concert. Opening with the densest of textures, a transcription by Pierre Gouin of Bach’s Orchestral Suite no. 2 in B minor BWV 1067 proved a meaty handful of contrapuntal lines for both players. While it is difficult to separate the timbral colour of the original instrumentation, when performed in this duet style, it requires players to consider the shaping and direction of melodic instrumental lines, particularly those initially composed for solo winds. A similar approach was required during the Trio in G BWV 1039, where the original, adapted from an earlier viol de gamba sonata, was republished by Bach as a chamber work for two flutes and continuo. A reduction of stops employed and overall pace, the music proved no less intricate for either performer. The textures of such chamber music and the Prelude and Fugue in G BWV 541 lend themselves very well to duet treatment. The sustaining and dynamic power of the Goerman-Talkin brought out the magnificence of the imitation organ pedals with great clarity of line and seamless crossing of parts between the instruments.

Couperin’s 1722 collection, Concert Royale was intended for solo harpsichord with the possible augmentation by other instruments playing contreparties. Slightly adapted for duet playing, the dance-based movements of the third suite were presented as four solos and two duos, giving further shape and contrast to the double harpsichord sound. The triumphant concluding chaconne displayed the building and release of tension and textures before withdrawing to a quieter finish.

Similarly, Rameau’s Pièces de Clavecins en concerts were initially intended to be performed as chamber pieces with optional strings, again highlighting the flexibility of a composer’s work. In this duet context, one player took the fully-notated harpsichord part while the second elaborated and adapted the auxiliary instrumental parts as necessary. Rameau’s works are always suspiciously satirical, presenting themes, caricatures and observations of society that may only have been noticed by the attentive listener or even performer alone. David Gerrard’s showmanship in well-controlled glissando runs during La Pantomime delighted and impressed listeners.

A great evening of music, the coordinated virtuosic playing, consensus of interpretation, and on-stage chemistry between Kitchen and Gerrard made a very entertaining, if not highly indulgent, performance.

The first performance of the Georgian Concert Society 2018/19 season took place on 13th October 2018 at St Cecelia’s Hall and Museum, Edinburgh.