Wednesday 22 June 2022

The Lost Art of Frances Cole: recordings from the 1970s provide a glimpse of the art of the Black American harpsichordist

The Lost Art of Frances Cole: Bach, Scarlatti, Rameau, Gottschalk, Bartok, Ligeti, Howard Swanson; Frances Cole, Parnassus
The Lost Art of Frances Cole: Bach, Scarlatti, Rameau, Gottschalk, Bartok, Ligeti, Howard Swanson; Frances Cole, Parnassus
Reviewed 21 June 2021 (★★★)

Live recordings of a brilliantly eclectic recital by the Black American harpsichordist Frances Cole whose early death deprived us of a striking talent

The American harpsichordist Frances Cole (1937-1983) is not a particularly well-known name and her early death at the age of 45, after a long illness, did not help. Cole’s only commercial recording used her in a supporting role, Songs of Early Americans, featuring baritone Gordon Myers (Golden Crest RE 7020). But now the producer Leslie Gerber has resurrected private recordings that Cole made at Westminster Choir College in Princeton where she taught.

The Lost Art of Frances Cole on Parnassus Records' Black Swans (an imprint showcasing rare classical recordings by Black artists) features Frances Cole in a wide-ranging recital of music by Bach, Scarlatti, Rameau, Gottschalk, Bartok, Ligeti and Howard Swanson, all recorded live in 1974. 

Cole was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1937 and studied piano and violin, but became interested in the harpsichord in 1966, studying with Wanda Landowska’s pupil Denise Restout at the Landowska Center in Connecticut. Cole made her debut as a harpsichordist in 1971. She gained a reputation amongst harpsichordists, did some broadcasting and taught both at Westminster Choir College and at Queens College, as well as being an affiliated artist at Temple University. She established a Festival of the Harpsichord at Westminster. Harpsichordist Kenneth Cooper, who performed at the festival described her as "a spicy, adventurous and unconventional lady, sharp-witted and very generous, much fun to be with".

Certainly, the recital on this disc is somewhat unconventional, alongside six Scarlatti sonatas, the 'Gavotte avec six doubles' from Rameau's Suite in A minor, and Bach's English Suite No. 2 in A minor, there is her own keyboard arrangement of the 'Chaconne' from Bach's Partita for Solo Violin in D minor, Bartok's Romanian Dances and two of his Slavonic Folk Dances, and Ligeti's Continuum, a work she first played only four years after its publication. And there are lighter pieces too, Gottschalk's The Banjo and Swanson's The Cuckoo.

The recorded quality is poor, but the personality that shines through makes you regret that she never got chance to record the harpsichord repertoire commercially. As Leslie Gerber explains in the booklet notes, "sources for this release were very rare, one-of-a kind amateur recordings made on consumer equipment under suboptimal conditions. At the time it was assumed that at some point the artist would have had a chance to make recordings under studio conditions. With the hindsight of this not having happened, it is worth presenting this artistry of the highest level, despite the audio technical shortcomings."

Despite the shortcomings, and the limited sound-quality of the instrument she plays, her vivid personality shines through. Perhaps because of this, it is the more modern pieces that stand out. The Ligeti has a confidence that is striking, given the sheer rarity of the piece at the time, and it hits the listener with great vividness. Her account of the Bartok Romanian Dances is a remarkable re-creation, a transcription that works on its own terms and is a delight to listen to. The Slavonic folk tunes are less well-known but no less successful. 

Her own transcription of the Bach Chaconne is rich and vivid, played with strong tone and fearless in its approach to transcribing the music from solo violin to keyboard. In the Bach English Suite her speeds are apt and we can hear that she coaxes a finely mellow and expressive tone from the harpsichord. Her personality comes through despite the close, boxy sound. The Scarlatti sonatas provided a nicely contrasted group with the fast ones really dazzling, and she achieves striking clarity of texture despite the speeds. The Rameau gavotte takes us into a slightly different work, but Cole plays with elegance and a shapely feel for the music's style. The two lighter pieces are simply a complete delight.

Domenico Scarlatti: Sonata in D, K. 29
Jean-Philippe Rameau: Suite in A minor, RCT 5 - Gavotte avec six doubles
György Ligeti: Continuum
Béla Bartok: Romanian Folk Dances, Sz. 56, BB 68
Domenico Scarlatti: Sonata in A Major, K. 208
Domenico Scarlatti: Sonata in D Major, K. 29
Domenico Scarlatti: Sonata in D Minor, K. 32
Domenico Scarlatti: Sonata in D Minor, K. 141
Domenico Scarlatti: Sonata in G Major, K. 146
Johann Sebastian Bach (arr. Frances Cole): Partita for Solo Violin in D Minor, BWV 1004 - V. Chaconne
Béla Bartok (arr. Cole): Three Slavonic Folk Dances from For Children, Sz. 42, BB 51
Louis Moreau Gottschalk: The Banjo
Johann Sebastian Bach: English Suite No. 2 in A Minor, BWV 807
Howard Swanson: The Cuckoo
Frances Cole (harpsichord)
Recorded 19 June 1974, Westminster Choir College, Princeton, New Jersey

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