The 33rd annual Northwest Bach Festival ended Saturday at St. John’s Cathedral with a stunning survey of 160 years of keyboard music. Pianist Randall Hodgkinson brought a brilliant technique and probing musicality to this immense repertoire before, after and including Bach.
Hodgkinson began Saturday’s recital with William Byrd’s “Pavan and Galliard – Kinburgh Goodd” written sometime before 1591, a century before Bach. The pianist admitted that he had not known much of Byrd’s music at all before festival director Gunther Schuller asked him to learn the work. But Byrd’s music seemed like an old friend as Hodgkinson quickly established the somber mood of the Pavan followed by the springing step of the Galliard.
Byrd’s ornaments for the three sections of each dance never seemed fussily decorative, but were integrated easily into the flow of the music. Byrd’s music, and all the works on Saturday’s program, were intended for earlier keyboards such as the harpsichord or clavichord. But Hodgkinson made them convincingly beautiful on the modern concert grand.
Johann Sebastian Bach himself was represented by his well-known French Suite No. 5, written midcareer, and his seldom-performed Sonata in D major (BWV 963), written when he was 19.
A friend in the audience asked at intermission where Bach would likely have played his French Suites. “At home,” was my answer – a feeling confirmed by the intimate approach of Hodgkinson’s performance. Even the running scales of the Courante and the skipping rhythms of the Bourée and Gigue had the ease of being played in someone’s candlelit living room rather than the glaring light of a concert hall.
The early Sonata, Hodgkinson pointed out in remarks from the stage, was written in the format Bach would later turn to in his toccatas. Sections in chordal style alternated with parts where melodies overlay each other in fugues. Bach separates these sections with abrupt interruptions in slow sections in alarmingly distant keys. Hodgkinson made the interruption before the final fugue effectively humorous since the fugue’s melodies combine the repeated-note clucking of a hen and the call of the cuckoo.
Schuller had asked Hodgkinson to end Saturday’s recital with sonatas by two Iberian composers who wrote during Bach’s old age or after his death – the Portuguese prodigy Carlos Seixas and the Spanish priest Antonio Soler.
“The characteristic these sonatas have in common are their physicality,” Hodgkinson told the audience.
Sure enough, leaping hand crossings, flashy interlocking running scales and guitar-like repeated notes gave a flamenco vigor to these two sonatas. The mournful lament with heavy sighs in the slow movement of Seixas’ Sonata No. 17 was also redolent – another side of flamenco.
Soler’s Sonata No. 5 was written in the very unusual – for those days, at least – key of D-flat major. And it featured keyboard-spanning arpeggios that ended in a grumbling trill low on the instrument. This sonata contained lots more fun than one expects in a work by a priest, even one who worked at the royal court. Hodgkinson delighted in Soler’s flair; so did the audience.
Hodgkinson responded to the audience’s enthusiastic ovation with another of Soler’s sonatas, this one more delicate but no less difficult. The music’s variety of moods and the excellence of Hodgkinson’s performance made this a fitting capstone to this year’s Northwest Bach Festival.