Fans of classical music may find it hard to believe that harpsichord virtuoso Richard Egarr is finally making his Mostly Mozart Festival debut at Lincoln Center this July 27 and 28 at 7:30 PM. The tireless leader of the Academy of Ancient Music records and tours relentlessly – one can only imagine that it’s his grueling schedule that’s kept him from being part of the festival until now. This time out he’ll join the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra and flute soloist Jasmine Choi in a program that includes Handel’s Concerto Grosso and Sonata à Cinque plus portions of his iconic Water Music suite. There’ll also be iconic Bach on the bill: the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D major, plus his Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major. As a bonus for those who can get to Lincoln Center early, guitarist Jiji opens the night at 6:30, playing works by Albeniz, Paganini, Marais and Bach. You can get in for $35.
Egarr plays with masterful baroque precision but also High Romantic ferocity. Those attributes are far from incompatible considering that the repertoire he’s so passionate about was radical in its day. To get a sense of his approach, give a spin to his epic double-cd recording of the Bach Partitas, BWV 825-830, streaming at Spotify. From the spiky curlicues of the ornamentation of the prelude that opens the first partita, to the majestic mathematics of the finale of the sixth, the way Egarr make the harpsichord sparkle and then whir is breathtaking. But Egarr doesn’t merely content himself with working up a storm on the keys. He’s gone inside the music to find the secret codes that the composer loved so much.
The most dramatic is the passion play in the sixth partita. As Egarr explains with considerable relish in the liner notes – after all, he’s solved the puzzle – Bach’s first clue is to provide the time signature as “perfect time” rather than a prosaic 4/4. The harpsichordist explains how the composer creates numerological Biblical imagery to illustrate a familiar tale that’s usually a very grim one – this ends with a triumphant flourish.
Within these bejewelled mazes of harmony, Egarr doesn’t limit himself to standard, metronomic rhythm, either, as you’ll hear in the lilting sarabande on the way to that big payoff. Although it’s less noticeable, he takes his time getting into the mighty anthem that opens the second partita before it goes scampering and brightens somewhat. And in the same vein as a jazz player providing a bonus outtake that was too hot to leave off the album, he offers two versions of the pouncing finale to the third partita. On the surface, a lot of this looks back to Bach’s mentor, Buxtehude, but the harmonic and rhythmic innovations are vastly more complex. For those with the cash, this weekend’s Mostly Mozart Festival program offers a real trip in time back to what was once the world’s cutting edge in serious concert music.