Dazzling. Sensual. Penetrating.

© Wilfried Hösl
© Wilfried Hösl

Not all modern performers on the harpsichord can employ the instrument’s powerful range of expressive techniques. Jory Vinikour, however, wowed audiences with spectacular displays of virtuosity and subtle dramatic expression in a solo harpsichord recital at the Yale University Collection of Musical Instruments on Sunday 16 October.

The program offered a grand tour of works by the great 17th and 18th-century keyboard masters; Bach, D. Scarlatti, Handel, L. Couperin, F. Couperin, and Rameau. The opportunity to hear Mr. Vinikour, one of the most sought-after harpsichordists today, on original instruments made Sunday’s performance an exceptional delight. Not surprisingly, the concert was sold-out, and several were turned away when trying to grab seats minutes before the performance began.

In the first half of the concert, Mr. Vinikour performed Bach’s Toccata in D Major , a selection of Domenico Scarlatti sonatas, and Handel’s grandiloquent Chaconne in G major (HWV 435). The entire first half was performed on a two-manual harpsichord by Johann Adolph Hass (Hamburg, 1760). The Bach Toccata was rendered with sparkling precision, and Mr. Vinikour made effective use of the instrument’s two manuals and various stops in order to highlight contrasts in the music.

Mr. Vinikour selected a fine sample of works from Scarlatti’s enormous breadth of harpsichord sonatas. While we often associate Scarlatti with pyrotechnic effects, Mr. Vinikour performed the slow B minor sonata (K. 87) with exquisite subtly, revealing both shades of sadness and seductive eroticism within the piece. Upon repeating the first section of the B minor sonata, Mr. Vinikour played with even more refined-yet-intense emotional energy than when he began the work. This effect is necessary to perform this repertoire, which nearly always contains repeats of large sections, but is one which few musicians can actually realize.

The two sonatas that followed, in D major (K. 119) and D minor (K. 120), showed Mr. Vinikour’s ability to deftly negotiate Scarlatti’s devilish hand-crossings. The delightfully dazzling display that results from such rapid hand-crossings allows audiences to visualize the richness of Scarlatti’s sumptuous counterpoint, creating striking orchestral effects. Indeed, through K. 120 we hear the harpsichord aping the guitar, and even castanets. The audience could hardly resist toe tapping once Mr. Vinikour issued a few firm stomps in time with the music, while never losing a sense of grace and aplomb like an upright Spanish dancer.

One can only wonder what Ralph Kirkpatrick, the great Yale Scarlatti scholar, would have thought upon hearing Mr. Vinikour’s performance if he were alive today. Certainly, Vinikour offered a very different interpretation of Scarlatti than one might’ve have heard in the 1950s when Kirkpatrick published Scarlatti’s complete works. Most come to the sonatas as begrudging students of the piano, but after hearing Vinikour perform K. 119 one can only crave to hear them played on the instrument for which they were intended.

The Handel Chaconne in G major that concluded the first half of the program was an absolute treat. Mr. Vinikour included this piece as the final bon-bon to what has quickly become the definitive recording Handel’s harpsichord suites. The Chaconne contains nearly two-dozen variations in both major and minor which span an expansive eleven-minutes. Mr. Vinikour’s performance of this piece Sunday perhaps exceeded the quality of the recorded version – no easy performance to top.

After the intermission, Mr. Vinikour played Louis Couperin’s Suite of Pieces in F Major and selections from Rameau’s Pièces de clavecin on a two-manual harpsichord by François Etienne Blanchet the Elder (ca. 1740). The contrast in timbre between the French and German instruments was immediately apparent. After hearing the brilliance of the Blanchet instrument, it is easy for modern audiences to appreciate why French harpsichords were (and are) often the most preferred instruments by leading performers.

The works of many French baroque composers are scarcely known, sadly, to American audiences, and still remain the domain of connoisseurs. Yet, the American-born Vinikour has fully absorbed the French baroque style in his twenty-odd years working in Paris with today’s leading interpreters of this repertoire. Vinikour is arguably one of the most sensitive performers of French baroque keyboard music in particular, and perhaps the only criticism one can make is that he has not recorded enough of these pieces. Yet, his extremely active schedule of live engagements in the world’s most prestigious halls and opera houses probably affords him little time in the studio. On Sunday, Mr. Vinikour imbued his performance of Couperin and Rameau with a lyricism that could only be achieved by someone who has spent considerable time collaborating with towering vocal artists such as Cecilia Bartoli and David Daniels.

The audience clearly didn’t want the afternoon’s enchantment to end, and he concluded the concert with an encore by François Couperin, a character piece called Les barricades mystérieuses. However, one could also see Mr. Vinikour wanting to savor his last few moments with this stunning instrument, as if parting with a newfound friend, (or an old lover) uncertain when the two should meet again. The encore encapsulated the entirety of the performance; subtle and sophisticated yet sensual and accessible.

The concert was broadcast live online by the Yale Collection in order to make this glorious music performed on original instruments available to all.