Sunday, December 7, 2008

Music review: Chiara Massini, harpsichordist

By Greg Stepanich

DELRAY BEACH — In a brief American debut before a small audience Saturday night at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Delray Beach, the Italian harpsichordist Chiara Massini offered a program of 17th- and 18th-century music that showcased a strong technique and a freewheeling interpretive approach.

Massini's recital included music by J.S. Bach, J.J. Froberger, Alessandro Scarlatti and Francois Couperin, with excerpts from Bach's Goldberg Variations being perhaps the best-known piece, and the work she chose to close the hourlong evening of music. Massini, 37, has recorded the variations (CDs of that performance were available at the concert for a donation to a St. Paul's children's charity), and her playing here showed a deep familiarity with it.

She began the opening Aria at a very slow pace that sped up a bit towards the end, sort of like a mechanism starting up and then working out the kinks, and followed that a short time later with steady-motor readings of the third and fifth variations. She also took on the 13th variation, with its elaborately decorated melodic line, but played it somewhat straight, declining, though many other keyboardists do, to make much of the closing phrases of each section, with their delicate touch of minor key amid a field of sunny G major.

Massini also did well with another Bach selection, the early E minor Toccata (BWV 914), where her precise playing and intuitive sense of the music's drama made this a vivid performance. The same was true for a toccata in A major by Alessandro Scarlatti, a strong piece that deserves to be heard more often, and in still another toccata (No. 2, from the 1649 collection), a vivid and engaging one by the influential German keyboardist and composer Johann Jacob Froberger.

All three of these works are demonstration pieces in which the player is expected to keep her listeners dazzled and expectant, and Massini did just that for her enthusiastic St. Paul's crowd. The harpsichord itself sounded like a good one, and the sanctuary proved to be a hospitable home for the instrument's distinctive soft sound.

With four pieces by Francois Couperin — Les Moissonneurs, Les Bergeries and Les Baricades Misterieuses, from the Sixth Order (in B-flat); and La Menetou, from the Seventh Order (in G) — Massini took the greatest interpretive liberty. The Frenchman's work is very different from the other pieces on Massini's program in its tuneful straightforwardness that transcends its fussily ornamented style.

But that doesn't turn the music into Romantic music, and here Massini went a bit too far afield for my tastes. Les Baricades Misteriueses, likely the most familiar of Couperin's keyboard works, was played with exaggerated tempo shifts with each strain, and ended with a big anachronistic low B-flat at the end. I think it's good for the music and for musicians to allow musical whim to take hold on the spot in mid-performance, but I don't know that it works with this music.

All the Couperin pieces — and her approach to La Menetou was similar — seem to me to benefit from a steady rhythmic pulse rather than a freestyle one. Some of the charm of the music is lost when it appears to be stopping and starting , rushing and slowing, all the time. At least Massini sounded confident in her choices, and that gave the pieces profile.

I should also note that Massini's physical approach in performance is that of the Romantics as well (and Lang Lang for that matter). She makes many facial contortions as she plays, and leans in and out of the keys, rocking back and forth. I found it somewhat distracting, though I don't doubt that it's her honest response to the music, and actually helps her play it.

It's not too often that South Florida hosts a U.S. debut for a rising specialist musician, and Chiara Massini will be worth watching. Her work could help revive interest in the earlier music of the great keyboard composers of the distant past, such as Froberger, and there's plenty of good material there worth rediscovery.

And here is an artist who evidently has the intellectual curiosity to seek it out.

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