The distinguished Canadian harpsichordist, teacher and editor Kenneth Gilbert reversed the order of his recital program Saturday, playing music by the French clavecinistes in the first half, and Bach's contrapuntally intricate Sixth Partita in the second. To explain the switch, Gilbert told the audience that he wanted to introduce them to the special qualities of the French-style harpsichord he was playing, an instrument he had "grown rather fond of" while preparing for this recital.
Created for the Smithsonian's collection in 1980 by William Dowd, it is an entirely handmade copy of a harpsichord built by Blanchet circa 1730. Dowd even reproduced the instrument's defects -- including its out-of-kilter keys -- as well as its virtues.
Despite its charms, the Dowd instrument is not really suited to a hall the size of the Museum of Natural History's Baird Auditorium. The notes were audible but the punch was absent, even to those sitting on the acoustically preferable tail side of the instrument.
Gilbert was not at his best in the Bach. He played from the score, and read the work instead of elucidating it. A number of blurred passages suggested less-than-sufficient rehearsal time. Normally Bach holds no fears for this artist, who has recorded the entire "Well-Tempered Clavier" for Deutsche Grammophon. Of the French works, the real treat was the overture and three dances from Rameau's opera "Pygmalion," transcribed with Lisztian e'lan by one of Rameau's pupils, Claude Balbastre, and played by Gilbert with tremendous gusto.