Sharp-Faceted Fire Opals
By Jon Randall
If you are moved at all by Glen Gould's paying, you'll flip over Jonathan Woods Play Harpsichord. I can't believe I never heard of this great artist before! He died of AIDS in Dallas in 1989, after doing quite a bit of recording. All profits from sales go to AIDS services in Dallas. But that's not the reason you should seriously seek out and try to get this CD. The playing is extraordinary unique.
For three centuries before the arrival of the modern piano, the harpsichord was the preeminent keyboard instrument. Its sound is absolutely nothing like the modern piano. The strings are plucked by quills instead of struck by felt hammers. This creates a twangy, silvery transparency -- like a mandolin gone to heaven. There's a sensuous sparkle to the sound.
Aside from the hypnotic eleven minute opening Fandango (which sounds much like improvised Spanish Flamenco) most pieces are around four minutes. So this CD is a perfectly painless introduction to classical music -- there's not a boring or austere moment, as with the Goldberg variations. There are infinite varieties of profundity and of brilliance.
The casket of these ancient treasures does not contain faint, faded perfumes, but a scintillating kaleidoscope of sharp-faceted fire opals.
This music should be played loud!
Most harpsichordists have the temperament and mental attributes of an antiquarian. They tend to be moldy, figgy, fusty, stylistically prim and overcautious in their outlook. But Woods came directly out of the 19th century Jewish virtuoso pianist tradition. (Vladimar Horowitz is the best example). He took the transcendental technique and passion of the grand Russian tradition and applied it to the vast repertoire of harpsichord music.
The result ranges from extreme beauty and inwardness to flat out slam-bang hair-raising performances. His sheer finger speed is phenomenal -- truly exhilarating.
"Long ago I gave up playing for savants and purists," Woods commented in an interview in 1977. "They don't interest me. Don't misunderstand -- I am as scholarly in my preparation and as well-versed in performance practices as any academic. But I am more adventurous in the use of my knowledge. So many in my field fail because they are limited by musicological rather than musical minds."
The CD should be order-able from Pickwick Allegro Records, if it's not in stock at a Tower Record store near you.
This article originally appeared in Goblin Magazine