Concerto da camera No. 4
About this work:
Concerto da camera No. 4 for harpsichord and strings is one of a series of chamber concertos begun in 1973, the others being for piano and chamber orchestra, violin and percussion ensemble, flute and strings, and piano and symphonic wind ensemble. The possibility of composing a concerto for harpsichord and strings occurred to me as I listened to the English harpsichordist George Malcolm perform several of Bach's concertos during a concert at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice in 1974. The difficulties that I had imagined in balancing the solo instrument with even a small body of strings seemed to evaporate in the acoustical environment of La Fenice and by how Bach had accommodated the allegedly weak instrument to the orchestra by manipulating textures and articulation. Having already composed Tre esercizi as well as two earlier works that included harpsichord in their ensembles, I set out in 1994 to write a more ambitious three-movement work based on the traditional order of fast-slow-fast.
As one might expect in a concerto, there is a friendly air of competition as each participant is given leave to do what it does best. The strings, for example, are often allowed to play long, sustained lines with many expressive changes in dynamics against the harpsichord's lively, running commentary. The harpsichord too has its own expressivity, different though it may be, and it achieves this by either thickening or thinning textures, varying registers, or by playing alone in brilliant cadenzas or lyrical meditations. On still other occasions both harpsichord and strings play in a percussive manner that many listeners might find atypical for these instruments. In such passages, particularly in the last movement, both participants often seem to contend with one another, yet finally agree to make up at the end.
The form of the first movement is a special amalgam of ternary form (ABA) in which the first A section is like the exposition of sonata-allegro form with its two theme-groups, and the third section is a development section similar to that also found in sonata-allegro form. The second movement is a variation movement but not in the familiar sense of a theme followed by a succession of restatements of that theme, the basic structure of which remains the same while the surface continually changes. The movement begins with the promise of being a passacaglia by stating an eight-measure theme in the bass. The harpsichord then enters as if to begin the first varied restatement over that theme, introducing, meanwhile, an ornamental neighbor-tone figure that will be frequently heard both now and again at the end of the movement in a section that sounds not only like a return-section but also like a coda. From here on, however, there is constant variation of the intervals contained in the first four measures of the bass theme but never again the clear presentation of a "theme." One might therefore more accurately refer to this movement as a set of "through-composed" variations, comparing it to songs that are neither strophic nor familiarly sectional but that respond throughout their lengths to the constantly fluctuating meanings of their texts.
Because of the way in which one dance-like theme always recurs, the last movement resembles the rondo of the classical sonata. The themes on which the intervening sections are based are also all more or less based on motives contained in that theme. What especially characterizes the treatment of the rondo-theme is the carefree manner in which motives are often tossed from orchestra to soloist and back again to orchestra as if the participants were playing a ballgame. It is only in this final movement, too, that both "players" are given extended passages to perform by themselves. The importance given to the harpsichord's solo makes this passage rather the center piece of the movement, suggesting perhaps that the harpsichord has won the contest between forces of apparently unequal size and power.
Score and parts available from Mira Music Associates. Contact: email@example.com
Recorded on Capstone Records CPS-8679
Reviews: "One disc that has stood out...is Music for Keyboard Instruments.... Brings shows his very impressive versatility on this disc as he appears in the roles of composer, pianist, conductor, and teacher, the last through his candid and very informative booklet notes for the CD."
"...a harpsichord concerto...that might well be the best American harpsichord concerto on the market today."
"There is a real composer's voice here with no padding, no filler, no unnecessary notes. He says what he has to say and then stops. No grandiose posturings or insincere gestures occur in this music."
"The five contrasting movements of [Five Pieces (1980)] are very idiomatically written for the piano and would definitely reward the pianist willing to undertake them. Their clear contrasts and appropriate length should make them attractive to audiences as well."
"Allen Brings seems quite comfortable composing for all types of keyboard instruments.... After the first hearing of the CD [Music for Keyboard Instruments by Allen Brings], this listener was exhausted and could only imagine the fatigue of the performers. The music possesses such an unyielding drive that, whatever the composer's intent, it may be lost on us before we ever get to the last work. But after several hearings Brings' voice became amazingly clear to me, and the gems in his music, not readily apparent upon first acquaintance, were now quite recognizable. For it's obvious that Brings looks back and takes classical forms as structure for his works. Although the harmonies he chooses are much more suited to this past century, his pieces seem to marry the past with the present to create an unusually perplexing offspring....
"...Brings delves into the past for his structure, searches the outer limits for his harmonies, and yet seems to shun the 20th century altogether when it comes to those impossible rhythms we pianists love to hate....
"The final work on this recording, Concerto da camera No. 4 for harpsichord and strings (1994), is by far the most passionately performed, rhythmically diverse, and harmonically compelling of all the works. While there are traces of that undying rhythmic uniformity in the harpsichord, the strings add long-awaited color changes, both sensuous and exotic....
"One can finally feel at ease with Brings' never ending quest to unite the past and present. This is clearly his most thought-provoking work, one that certainly makes this recording worth owning!"
New Music Connoisseur
Vol. 9, No. 2
"He has published dozens of rigorous and imaginative works for various instruments and ensembles in an 'avowedly late 20th-century idiom.'...Though Brings' contrapuntal textures [in Six Praeludia recorded on Music for Keyboard Instruments by Allen Brings] may not easily beguile the ear, these works do impress both on initial hearing and after repeated listening....The other compositions are worthwhile, too, and are also well performed."
The American Organist
"Despite the complexities often offered, there is something in Western music that suggests getting down to the basics when composing keyboard music. There are no color supplements or distractions (depending on the point of view). It's all about pitch and rhythm, line and harmony and form. So we're happy to report that Allen Brings brings the right stuff to the table when that table is full of keys—be they of the piano, harpsichord, or organ.
"The composer characterizes Five Pieces (1980) as pianistically 'serious divertimenti,' and he's got that paradox right. In the related piano Sonatine (1972), he worries that there 'have been many Kalkbrenners for every Chopin,' but, hey! perhaps another paradox is that the Kalkbrenners write pretty well, too. . .
Version: harpsichord & strings
Year composed: 1994
Ensemble type: Orchestra:String Orchestra with Soloist(s)
Instrumentation: 1 Harpsichord, 6 Violin, 2 Viola, 2 Cello, 1 Double bass
Instrumentation notes: The harpsichord used by Bradley Brookshire in his recording for Capstone Records was a single-manual instrument built by Philip Tyre in 1991 and copied from an instrument built by Christian Vater in 1731.
The string orchestra could be reduced with only minor loss to a string quintet of 2 violins, 1 viola, 1 cello and 1 double bass.