Various Artists, Frank Martin: Harpsichord Concertos and Ballades; Manuel de Falla: Harpsichord Concerto

John Schaefer

By John Schaefer

on 01.25.11 in Reviews

This recording, which was out of print for many years, features two woefully neglected concertos — neglect that probably stems more from the featured instrument than from a lack of respect for the composers. Frank Martin, from Switzerland, is a "discovery" waiting to happen. Without moving to the edge of the classical avant-garde, he nonetheless managed to create a sound that was both modern and accessible. He pioneered the use of the electric guitar as a classical instrument, and also looked back to then-unfashionable early music instruments like the harpsichord. His Harpsichord Concerto is a genial, colorful piece — intricately scored and with a Gallic charm that would normally make it the most likeable piece on the record.

Two woefully neglected harpsichord concertos

That is not the case here, though. Manuel De Falla's Harpsichord Concerto is one of the Spanish composer's most unusual and distinctive scores. Essentially a piece of chamber music, along the lines of the Bach Brandenburg Concertos, it opens with an Allegro that hurtles through a series of rapid, repeating figures with slashing interjections from violin and cello — a kind of early 20th-century Spanish classical version of arena rock's power chords. The slow second movement has a tolling bell-like quality, as if echoing some vanished medieval Passion Play. And the finale is a high-spirited dance, in the spirit of his famous dances from The Three-Cornered Hat or the Ritual Fire Dance.

The presence of two lovely ballades by Frank Martin add to the appeal of a disc that sounded great when it was first released in the LP era, and still sounds great today.