Harpsichordist Hamada brings Couperin, contemporaries to vivid life

Mon May 24, 2021 at 12:14 pm
Aya Hamada performed a streamed recital for Music Before 1800 on Sunday.

With the Covid-19 pandemic waning in New York City, Music Before 1800 is in the middle of an abbreviated, remote 46th season—four Sunday afternoon concerts in May and June, streaming to ticket buyers at their website and available as an archive afterward. This past Sunday, for the second of these concerts, Aya Hamada played the harpsichord in a performance recorded at Corpus Christi church.

Music Before 1800 specializes not only in the baroque era, and those that preceded it, but in themed programs. For Hamada, the theme was “Portraits et Caractères” offering pieces from the French baroque. More than that, these were musical character pieces, composers forming portraits in sound of their peers, friends, and mentors. This is a device to both honor other musicians and to build forms that has likely been around since people first started to learn music from each other, and extends all the way through Morton Feldman spelling out C-A-G-E in For Philip Guston. It likely reached its apotheosis in both narrative expression and formal method under the hands of the composers Hamada chose: Couperin, Boismortier, Rameau, and more.

This is some of the most stylish music ever written, pieces where the movement from note to note is utterly beguiling. Hamada didn’t skimp on the pure sound of the music, but her focus was on meaning, expression, and forward motion. In the program, she translated Couperin as saying, “..the titles reflect ideas which I have had; please exempt me from explaining them further…the pieces which bear them are a type of portraits which, under my fingers, have on occasion been found to have a fair enough likeness.” Hamada’s fingers brought Couperin’s words and music to life.

From him, Hamada played La Superbe ou la Forqueray, fièrement, sans lenteur, which came second after opening with Prélude non mesuré en mi mineur, by Couperin’s less accomplished uncle, Louis. As the title indicates, the piece has no measure markings, encouraging a free-flowing but, well, measured interpretation from the performer. Hamada set her consistent mark for the concert, playing it with rich expression but without manner or indulgence.

The younger Couperin’s piece was a portrait of his contemporary Antoine Forqueray (who was also represented on the program with three of the Pièces de viole mises en pièces de clavecin), in the style of an allemande, and Hamada’s sure, graceful left hand held down the dance rhythms. Her playing in all the music had a technical assurance that set aside everything for the experience of the beauty of the notes fitting together.

Her instrument was a two-manual harpsichord, tuned down to A-415. This gave it a rich bottom end, full of overtones that were so well captured on the recording that one could hear the adjustments from modern equal temperament. Following after Rameau’s ideas, the fifths were less prominent while the thirds were emphasized, adding expression and illumination to movement from minor to major keys. When she played the second manual by itself, it had a tangy timbre, and one found substantial pleasure in hearing the pitches of chords bounce against each other as they faded away in the reverberant space.

As character pieces, the music was less about contrapuntal structures than narrative impressions. On top of the sure dance rhythms in pieces like François D’Agincourt’s Allemande La Couperin, Hamada played with a careful and musical placement of notes within the bass line’s spaces, and with a dialogue between the two hands that shaped the music into Couperin’s “fair enough likeness,” with a palpable emotional quality that mixed regard and regret. This was a beautiful piece and one of the high points of the concert.

The other peak was the concluding music from another less familiar name—three sections from Troisième livre de pièces de clavecin, by Jacques Duphly. Duphly’s career came at the latter end of the baroque, the composer dying the day after revolutionaries stormed the Bastille. He was a harpsichord teacher and his discography appear to be limited to his keyboard music, including Hamada’s own debut album of selections from his livres. In the mix of names on the program, one of the three works was dedicated to “La Forqueray,” and the balance between explorations of harpsichord technique and expressive beauty was superb, and right in line with Hamada’s concept and her playing.

Hamada also played music by Boismortier, impressionistic pieces capturing not peoples but places and moods, and four of Rameau’s Pièces, including the famous “Les Cyclopes” and “L’Entretien des Muses” (Rameau was the subject of one of Antoine Forqueray’s pieces), also music about ideas, not individuals. As fine as these performances were, they set in relief the satisfaction of Hamada’s program, which was imaginatively made, superbly played, and at its best when the composers honored each other.

This concert stream is available until July 15. Peter Sykes plays “German Harpsichord Music Not By J.S. Bach,” 4 p.m. Sunday, June 13. mb1800.org

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