Mathematics professor Victor Hill demonstrates musicianship with harpsichord concert at the Clark

Last Sunday, harpsichordist and Williams professor of mathematics Victor Hill gave a recital at the Clark Art Institute. The program featured four Baroque dance suites from France and Germany. The first piece on the program was Georg Böhm’s “Suite No. 6 in F Major,” which Hill introduced as the “plain vanilla” of the pieces on the program, due to the fact that it keeps to a basic four-movement form.

The first movement, the Allemande, featured extensive ornamentation of the melodic lines and quick harmonic changes between major and minor chords. The rhythms were occasionally unclear, but this was due in part to the stylistic conventions of the music. The Courante was a livelier dance, with many fast trills and much interplay between the right and left hands. The Sarabande, the slowest of the suite, was filled with big chords that sounded beautiful on Hill’s harpsichord, which was custom-built for him by Richard Kingston of Asheville, N.C., in 1997. The Böhm suite finished with the Gigue, the liveliest of the four dances.

The next piece on the program was Jean-Philippe Rameau’s “Suite in E-Minor.” Hill noted that in the French school, it is traditional to add several character pieces to the dances ordinarily included in the suites to provide variation. Included in this suite were “Le Rappel des Oiseaux” (the bugle-call of the birds), “Tambourin” (a large bass drum) and “Villageoise” (village song). The opening Allemande had a very delicate and nimble sound, as Hill traversed all registers of the harpsichord with ease.

In contrast, the Courante provided a louder and stronger movement accented by numerous mordents. “Le Rappel des Oiseaux” was quite descriptive, featuring repetitive patterns in both hands ornamented by trills. Included in this suite was also a musette, a bagpipe dance, which used a drone bass to evoke the sound of the bagpipes. The “Tambourin” was rustic and fast-paced, with a rhythmic undercurrent. This movement was one of the most successful of the concert, played with a refined energy that at the same time evoked the character of the dance and the society for which it was written.

The second half of the program began with a “Suite in F-Major” by Jacques Champion de Chambonnières. This was the earliest work on the program, and, as Hill explained, was to be assembled by the performer as a buffet. The composer would publish a book of many works in the same key, and it was the duty of the performer to assemble the suite. He noted that one would usually include several Courantes, as that was the King’s favorite dance. Hill’s choice of dances worked very well and provided compelling contrasts. The Sarabandes were played beautifully, showcasing a broad sound. The Volte (Waltz) employed a repeated motif that moved between the two hands.

The final piece on the program was Bach’s “Partita No. 1 in B-flat major,” which extended the foundation of the original four dances with an added prelude and a pair of minuets. The opening prelude featured Bach’s signature ease with harmonic movement and polyphonic interlocking of melodic lines.

Again allowing for interesting harmonic changes, the Allemande featured fast-moving arpeggios in the right hand with a simple accompaniment. The Courante had a bittersweet sound, owing to the fast changes between major and minor chords. The slow and regal Sarabande featured shimmering grace note runs pulled off expertly by Hill. The Minuets moved a brisk pace, and when the first was repeated, Hill adjusted the quality of the sound to give it a rounder tone, a simple, yet effective way of differentiating the repeat. The Gigue was a fast-moving showpiece, using both the upper and lower keyboards of the harpsichord.

Hill closed the program with an encore by Domenico Scarlatti, one of the most prolific composers for harpsichord. An ideal encore, it featured exciting chromatic runs. The modern concertgoer encounters the harpsichord, if at all, mostly as a background instrument in baroque ensembles. Victor Hill’s solo harpsichord concert showcased both a rarely seen corner of the classical repertoire.