In Music Of Our Time, Venerable Harpsichord Speaks In New Accents

Luca Quintavalle plays harpsichord music by female composers on his new CD. (Photo by Angela van den Hoogen)

Musickè: The Art of Muses. Harpsichord music by contemporary female composers Augusta Read Thomas, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Graciane Finzi, Karola Obermüller, Misato Mochizuki, Sofia Gubaidulina, Santa Ratniece, Tania Léon, Errollyn Wallen, and Ursula Mamlok. Luca Quintavalle, harpsichord. Brilliant Classics 96476.

DIGITAL REVIEW — Italian harpsichordist Luca Quintavalle wrote the booklet essay for his recording Musickè: The Art of Muses on Brilliant Classics, a collection of modern harpsichord works by women. The essay’s opening is pretentious and academic, averring that “truly feminine art, which is able to think in its own language, emancipates the perspective of the Other,” before going on to quote Jacques Derrida. Happily, the recording itself and the pieces Quintavalle chose are not at all pretentious or academic. This collection offers an eye-opening exhibit of music we didn’t know we were missing.

The title, Musickè, is an anglicized spelling of the Ancient Greek word mousikē; in fact, the Brilliant Classics website uses the Greek spelling in its entry for the recording, even though it doesn’t match the cover. Mousikē does not mean “music,” but rather the realm of all the arts governed by the Muses (there’s an excellent book of articles on this topic, edited by Penelope Murray and Peter Wilson). In his essay, the keyboardist points out visual and scientific inspiration in some of the works, which perhaps explains the vastness of the title.

Nor are all the works originally for harpsichord. In this regard, Quintavalle cheats a bit, providing his own harpsichord transcriptions for four of the works, although he insists he did so “in accordance with the composers [sic] intentions.” Among those he transcribed are Misato Mochizuki’s 2003 Moebius-Ring, which uses the instrument’s bass notes as thudding percussion, ringing slightly out of sync against treble dissonances. He also made a harpsichord piece out of Augusta Read Thomas’ 1996 Fire Waltz – Homage to Béla  Bartók, the second in her series of piano etudes dedicated to favorite composers. The punctuated right-hand chords, moving polymetrically against the walking left-hand bass, buzz like a Moog synthesizer.

Cuban composer Tania Léon’s Tumbáo, written for piano in 2003, is the other transcribed piece. It is named after an Afro-Cuban pattern of harmonic rhythm, which León infuses into a lively dance that, in Quintavalle’s new version, takes advantage of the slight timbral difference between the harpsichord’s two keyboards. As with all the tracks, Quintavalle’s playing is confident and raw; Derrida aside, this music is not just some intellectual exercise to him.

Augusta Read Thomas is one of nine living female composers highlighted on Luca Quintavalle’s recording. (Photo by Anthony Barlich)

Among the ten works presented here are several that have never before been recorded on any instrument. Karola Obermüller’s four-movement Suite des femmages is the newest piece, composed in 2022. Its movements’ evocative titles — “Tolling,” “Thundering,” “Piercing,” and “Fast” — are vague but powerful aids in listening; “Piercing” turns the harpsichord into a haunted musical house, with acidic dissonances and knocking on the instrument’s wood. Another premiere is Errollyn Wallen’s Louis’ Loops, from 1999, a jaunty tribute to Baroque harpsichord conventions interspersed with jagged modern chords.

Inspired by astronomy, Santa Ratniece’s 2018 Mira is also enjoying its first recording. It is named after a variable star, meaning one whose brightness changes. Mira constantly pulses and grows, a fact Ratneice reflects in the ever-growing complexity and weight of her piece, from single-line twinkling to virtuosic cascades of sound. It’s a shame that Three Bagatelles, written in 1987 by the late German-born American composer Ursula Mamlok, has never been recorded before. The second movement, marked Very Calm, is especially well constructed, reminiscent of the piano music of Ernst Krenek. Quintavalle gives a melancholic reading, bringing human pathos to atonal passages.

There are a couple of famous names among the obscure ones. Quintavalle plays Sofia Gubaidulina’s Ritorno perpetuo (1997) with a gentle earthiness in the bass-focused opening and patient, exploratory phrasing in the mostly treble middle section. When the two ranges combine, it seems to create an entire ecosystem. The other big name is Icelandic master Anna Thorvaldsdottir, who contributes a short work called Impressions (2015); the harpsichordist is called on to use extended techniques: strumming and plucking directly on the strings, apparently using various materials as picks for contrast. There are also eerie, sustained sounds, electronically synthesized.

(Photo by Maja Arglakijeva)

In conjunction with the clarity of purpose in Quintavalle’s playing, this recording is boosted by superior sound quality. Producer and digital editor Anton Langer captures the high-frequency fire of the quill-plucked harpsichord without ever allowing it to sound shrill.

Quintavalle deserves thanks for finding, transcribing, and recording these little-known works, both for the insight they give us into their composers and for the reminder that the harpsichord is not just for old repertoire. No abstract feminist philosophy is needed to understand this music.