Consorting with harpsichords – Erin Helyard and Douglas Mews


Erin Helyard and Douglas Mews (harpsichords)

Adam Concert Room

New Zealand School of Music

Victoria University of Wellington

Sunday, 15th July 2012

One of a series of concerts entitled “Musicke for Severall Friends”, this one featured a close-knit partnership of two harpsichordists, playing both together and singly for the delight of a small-ish but dedicated Adam Concert Room audience. The “two-for-the-price-of-one” package featured two tutor-performers from the New Zealand School of Music, plus two instruments from the NZSM collection of keyboard instruments, copies of French (1769) and German (1728) harpsichords respectively. Both were two-manual instruments, the former made in the UK, and the latter built by Aucklander Paul Downie.

I’ve heard Douglas Mews perform many times on various keyboard instruments in an enormous range of repertoire; but I had never heard Erin Helyard play before. He’s currently period performance tutor at the NZSM and brings a wealth of experience as a performer and scholar to that position – however, what I found enchanting was the energy and vigour that he radiated while at the keyboard, both in partnership with his colleague, and as a solo performer. The pair worked well together, obviously sharing considerable musicianship within contrasting playing styles.

Erin Helyard visibly interacted with both his instrument and with the music as he played, bringing an element of physical choreography to the performance. Rather than finding this distracting, I considered such apparent contouring and visual delineation an added dimension to the music, an integral part of the ritual of a specific performance. That this was very much an individual rather than a standardised baroque musical process could be seen from Douglas Mews’ far less demonstrative manner at the keyboard – here one listened to the sounds and allowed one’s imagination to put flesh on the bones of the music in abstract. Not that Mews’ playing was unemotional or lacking in warmth – but the qualities of the music were expressed far more aurally than visually.

“Vive la difference”, as certain Continentals say; and Mews and Helyard brought their individualized responses to a wonderful synthesis with the Sonata in F by Wilhelm Friedmann Bach, which began the program in a most resplendent way.  I’d always considered Carl Phillipp Emanuel Bach the “stormy petrel” among the great Johann Sebastian’s composer-children, but Wilhelm Friedmann certainly demonstrated in this sonata a similar penchant for contrast, cheekiness and drama. In fact I thought at the finale’s beginning the players were using a kind of “janissary stop”, such was the irruption of percussive-sounding tones generated by the opening figurations’ rapid upward rolls. Elsewhere, the unexpected became the norm in places, the composer delighting in keeping his listeners guessing as to the various possible trajectories of the music.

After this the aforementioned CPE Bach was brought into the action on a single harpsichord, played by Erin Helyard.  via his 12 Variations on the Spanish Follia, the famous tune which has inspired well over a hundred composers to use it in their works (its origin has, in fact been ascertained as Portugese). True to reputation, Phillipp Emanuel’s florid, widely-ranging variations whirled us through incident and contrast aplenty, the composer’s use of the extremities of the keyboard anticipating Beethoven, and calling upon great reserves of virtuosity from the player, who was,in this case, equal to the task. In places the “Follia” theme was completely obliterated (at such points someone like comedienne Anna Russell would have said, “You’re making this up, aren’t you?”), though Phillipp Emanuel would adroitly return to something more recognizably connected to the original dance-tune. A dignified processional was followed by a whirlwind finale, at the abrupt conclusion of which the player straightaway got to his feet, with what felt like a spontaneous impulse of showmanship, very much in accordance with the music.

Relative sobriety settled over the ensuing performance of JS Bach’s French Suite, given by Douglas Mews. The Allemande was gracefulness itself under his fingers, the rhythms extremely pliable. The lively Cpourante was followed by another grave dance, the Sarabande, the performance here emphasizing a certain timelessness, a world within the sound-equivalent of a grain of sand, or eternity within a flower. Ample contrast came from the Gavotte and the following Bouree, energetic and engaging dances, which again threw the next movement, a Loure, into bold relief – this was a slow, waltz-like piece, offering ample space for elaboration, but with a certain piquancy of mood, perhaps emphasized by the constant dotted rhythm. I thought the player’s delivery of the final Gigue was masterly, a confident, even racy performance!

The programme’s final item was the Concerto in C for two harpsichords BWV 1061, the players swapping instruments for this piece. By now the performance profiles of each instrumentalist were sharply-defined in our minds, enabling us to relish both similarities and differences of phrasing, emphasis and gestural incident which the music of Bach occasioned. Antiphonal episodes gave each player solo-turns, though there were concerted passages as well where the rapport between the parts was beautifully, and teasingly suggested.A deeply-felt Adagio ovvero Largo (“ovvero” means “or rather” – couldn’t Bach make up his mind, here? – or was he thinking of what performers might do and was cutting them off at the pass, so to speak?) was followed by a sparking, festive-like fugue that reaffirmed the great man’s incredibly “hot-wired” musical mind for all of us lesser mortals, and done full justice by Douglas Mews and Erin Helyard.

We got part of a Vivaldi Oboe Concerto transcription as an encore and a palate-cleanser, and then (perfectly possible in a venue such as the Adam Concert Room) a closer look at those two exquisitely-beautiful instruments before they were carefully put away – a perfect conclusion to our little baroque feast!






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