Cates's Harpsichord Fills the Bill

Monday, April 25, 2005

The delicate sounds of the harpsichord are best heard in small settings. The 500-seat Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress borders on too big. It was fortunate then that harpsichordist David Cates had such a resonant instrument for his Friday night recital. The five-octave, two-manual harpsichord was made by local instrument makers Thomas and Barbara Wolf, based on a French design from 1707.

Cates played an all-Bach program ranging from familiar masterworks such as the "English Suite" No. 3 and the Partita No. 4 to pieces routinely heard on guitar these days -- the Prelude, Fugue and Allegro (BWV 998) and the Suite in E Minor (BWV 996).

Cates's playing was not always spotless, but it was undeniably expressive. In the Adagio (BWV 964), important notes lingered in the air, proving that good harpsichord playing is as much about the release of the key as it is the attack. The way Cates stretched and caressed phrases in the slow-moving Allemande and Sarabande from the Partita added a reflective yearning that was both irresistible and tasteful.

In Bach's denser music it's important to be able to hear how the piece is built. The opening Prelude from the "English Suite" nearly bursts at the seams, but Cates kept the interlocking relationships between bold bass lines, and the harmonies and melodies were transparent. The urgency in his playing made you wonder where Bach was going to turn next. And for an old-fashioned box of wood and strings, it's a kind of quiet flamboyance that perhaps only Bach and a good harpsichordist can deliver.

-- Tom Huizenga

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