Pierre Hantaï at Grace Church

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Pierre Hantaï gave a sold-out recital Tuesday night at Grace Church in Georgetown, co-sponsored by the French Embassy. The program combined pieces by J.S. Bach and Domenico Scarlatti from the French harpsichordist's recent recordings on the Mirare label. In keeping with a trend in French performance of historical music, two candles and a small stand lamp provided the only light, and the resulting darkness and stillness, after a noisy heating system had been silenced, transformed the church into an ideal listening space.

The playing was graceful, with a well-articulated touch but not without the occasional imperfection. Hantaï is more a thoughtful, formal tactician than a heart-stopping, technical wizard, but his refined taste and analytical ear led to assured and sometimes revelatory readings. A set of four Scarlatti sonatas displayed the range of colors in these concise pieces, from trumpetlike motifs to a flamenco-tinged embrace of rhythmic flair and abrasive dissonance.

Hantaï opened with a set of preludes and fugues Bach composed for his students, a choice that emphasized the didactic concern that permeates Bach's music. Hantaï added embellishments on repeats in the suite movements, without being flashy, including a capable incorporation of Bach's written-out agréments in the sarabande of the A minor English Suite. Hantaï added further period touches by improvising a brief but elegant intonation to that suite and using the harpsichord's two manuals and various settings to create echo effects and other variations. The burlesca and scherzo of Bach's A minor Partita were particularly crisp and vivid.

-- Charles T. Downey

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