Discovering the Piano

Linda Nicholson reproduction 1730 Cristofori-Ferrini pianoforte
Passacaille 1024
Music by Alberti, Giustini, Handel, Paradisi, Platti, D. Scarlatti & Soler

It is not clear whether the ‘discovering’ of the title relates to the early days of the piano or to the specific instrument used for this splendid CD. The latter is certainly something of a discovery for at least this listener. I imagine most readers of EMR will be aware that the piano was the invention of Bartolomeo Cristofori somewhere around 1690. During the first two decades of the 18th century his invention gradually became established and known in musical circles; after his death in 1732, building continued under his assistant and eventual successor, Giovanni Ferrini. The present recital is played on a copy by Denzil Wraight of an instrument built by Ferrini in 1730. There is an excellent introduction to it by Wraight in the booklet. It was once owned by Queen Maria Barbara of Spain, who bequeathed it to the great castrato Farinelli, it apparently becoming his favourite instrument. There is therefore a direct link to the Domenico Scarlatti and Soler sonatas included on the present CD.

Like other Cristofori pianos I’ve heard, this example is distinguished by its rounded warmth of tone and richness of bass, which – as the Scarlatti Sonata in G, K.547 amply demonstrates – can take on a chunky meatiness when required. Again, as is customary with Cristofori, there is an overall unity to the sound across the gamut, quite different to the deliberate contrast of tonal colours found in later fortepianos.

The repertoire chosen by Linda Nicholson to show off the instrument is an interesting collection that with one exception was composed relatively shortly after the ‘birth’ of the instrument. The exception is of course Handel, the well-known Suite in F (HWV 427) having been published in a set of eight in 1720. Nicholson mounts a convincing argument that Handel was almost certainly aware of Cristofori’s instruments, which he would have met with during his sojourn in Italy, conjecturing that the ‘cembalo’ part of the famous competition with Domenico Scarlatti may even have been played on the Cristofori owned by Cardinal Ottoboni. The works by the lesser-known composers, a Sonata in G minor of 1732 by Ludovico Giustini, one of the first works specifically written for the piano, two-movement sonatas by P. D. Paradisi and Alberti, and Platti’s Sonata in G minor, op 1, no. 4, all occupy mid-century galant territory to a greater or lesser degree, all sounding thoroughly idiomatic on this Cristofori-Ferrini.

That they do is in no small measure due to the performances of Linda Nicholson. Never one to seek celebrity status, Nicholson has nevertheless long been one of our finest early keyboard players. Here her playing is informed by clean, precise fingerwork and a technique capable of encompassing the most virtuosic passagework, as she demonstrably proves in the Presto e alla breve (II) from the Platti sonata, to cite but one example. But above all it is the sheer musicality of Nicholson’s playing that makes the CD such a joy. Tempos throughout are beautifully judged, rubato is judiciously employed and there is a sensitivity and unfailing response to the instrument’s characteristics and capabilities. I’ll restrict myself to a single, but exceptional example, Scarlatti’s Sonata in B minor, K. 87). Here the nocturnal mystery of the piece attains a magically intimate quality, the playing perfectly weighted and dynamically graded to produce a performance of compelling sensitivity. There is much else that could be written in similarly glowing terms, but I’d rather urge readers to discover this exceptional disc for themselves.

Brian Robins