Some of the most highly regarded harpsichordists in the world are gathering in Washington this week to serve on the jury of the Westfield Center International Harpsichord Competition. American harpsichordist Arthur Haas opened the events on Saturday night with a recital in the Hall of Musical Instruments at the National Museum of American History. A prizewinner at the Concours International de Clavecin de Paris in 1975, Haas has gone on to a distinguished performing and teaching career.
At four concerts this week, some of the Westfield jurors are performing on precious historic instruments from the Smithsonian’s collection. Haas played a selection of French music from the 18th century on a harpsichord built by Benoist Stehlin in 1760, one of only three Stehlin instruments surviving in the world today. The instrument offered a wide range of registration possibilities for the E Minor Suite by Jean-Philippe Rameau, with which Haas gave a twittering of birds to “Le Rappel des Oiseaux,” a mellow resonance in the “Musette en Rondeau,” and a more percussive touch for the “Tambourin.”
Haas’s fingers were not always quite as sure as they may once have been, strongest in the flashy “Chaconne” by Jacques Duphly and the toccata-like “La Lugeac” by Claude Balbastre. The latter composer’s dramatic fantasy on “La Marseillaise” was equally heavy on the fireworks, ending with a victory celebration to the tune of “Ah! ça ira,” a revolutionary song inspired by the words of Benjamin Franklin.
A set of pieces by Antoine Forqueray, originally for viola da gamba, took advantage of the Stehlin’s powerful bass register, with plucky pizzazz in the “Mandoline” movement. The wandering tune of “Les Baricades Mistérieuses,” offered as an encore, filled in the big name missing from the program, François Couperin.
Downey is a freelance writer.