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Recording

Beethoven: Piano Sonatas, op. 10

Daniel  Tong
61:31
Resonus RES 10307

Daniel Tong here plays a copy of an Anton Walter fortepiano of 1805 built by the prolific Paul McNulty. In his informative note, Tong makes a number of points regarding the advantages of playing Beethoven on a fortepiano, correctly observing that it brings both the ‘player and the listener closer to Beethoven’s sound world’. Strangely, among other well-made points, he doesn’t mention what to me is always one of the principal advantages of playing the music of this period on a fine fortepiano, which this example unarguably is. That is the deliberate contrasts of tonal colour in the various registers of the instrument, one of the key differences to the modern grand piano, which aims for homogeneity across the spectrum. This seems to me particularly on display in the opus 10 sonatas, where one senses time and again that Beethoven is deliberately exploiting the contrasting sonorities of the instrument. This exploitation is especially potent in such imitative passages between treble and bass (much exploited in these sonatas) as the coda in the Presto of the D-major Sonata.

The three sonatas that constitute opus 10 were published in 1798 with a dedication to Countess von Browne-Camus, the wife of one of Beethoven’s wealthy patrons, one of several dedications of his publications to both count and countess. As Tong notes, the sonatas follow a pattern that applies to almost all of Beethoven’s publications in threes, aiming at works of considerable diversity and one work in a minor key (No 1 in C minor). The one thing all three have in common is their evident intent to provide above all music for Beethoven the virtuoso pianist who wowed the aristocratic salons of Vienna during the 1790s. This is particularly the case with the D-major Sonata, the only one of the three with four rather than three movements and at once the most ambitious and the most technically demanding for the pianist. Tong meets these demands admirably, articulating the virtuoso passagework of the Rondo finale with nimble fingers and great clarity.  He is also capable of extracting poetry from the music where required, as for example in the final bars of the Largo e mesto of the same sonata, where the dynamics are exquisitely controlled to bring the movement to a close of perfectly attained peace. Neither is wit absent from Tong’s playing of a movement like the mostly playful Allegro of the F-major Sonata, where Beethoven uniquely in this set asks for the repeat of the development and recapitulation.

Overall these are admirable performances, enhanced by a recording that presents the instrument itself in the best light, its lovely bell-like treble admirably set off by a characterful middle register and richly resonant bass notes.        

Brian Robins 

Categories
Recording

Byrd: Pavans & Galliards, Variations & Grounds

Daniel-Ben Pienaar (piano)
154:59 (2 CDs)
Avie AV2574

This is an intriguing double album: 39 of Byrd’s 101 surviving works for keyboard, composed for the contemporary harpsichord, but played here on the modern piano. The contents include all ten of the great Nevell pavans and galliards alongside the Quadran and Salisbury pavans and associated galliards, the three titled Grounds, his eight most famous settings of popular songs of the day, and three works which also qualify as grounds: The bells, Qui passe and, perhaps the only singular inclusion, the Hornpipe. Several of these pieces have been recorded by other pianists, the greatest overlaps occurring on the albums by Glenn Gould and Kit Armstrong (Sony B8725413722 and DG 486 0583 respectively; my review of the latter was published on 25 August 2021), but not forgetting Joanna MacGregor’s take on Hugh Ashton’s ground (Sound Circus SC007) and more recently Karim Said’s Qui passe (Rubicon RCD1014). Pienaar eschews the fantasias and voluntaries, plus (understandably) the works based around plainsongs which, with their many sustained notes, Byrd obviously intended (or at least preferred) to be played on the organ. So, where do these versions sit among the other substantial recordings of Byrd’s keyboard music played on the piano? What is there to be said about Pienaar’s interpretations of the pieces? And what do Pienaar’s interpretations contribute to the debate about performing these works on the modern piano, the emergence of which was still at least a century away in the future?

Playing this repertory on the piano raises a host of issues. Given the stratospheric status and quality of Byrd’s keyboard music, it is essential that it is accessible to as many people as possible. Nowadays there is a plethora of instruments based on keyboards, both traditional and electronic. To date, commercial recordings, broadcasts and public performances have been given either on the harpsichord and related instruments (hereinafter simply “harpsichord”), or the organ, or the piano. The last thing any sensitive reviewer would want to do would be to discourage performances on the piano, or to patronize pianists over their choice of instrument. While not quite an elephant in a room, the fact remains however that the music was composed for the harpsichord and/or organ, and it is at least arguable that had the piano been available to Byrd, he would have composed his pieces idiomatically to that instrument. And that matter of idiom – that a work composed for the harpsichord might not sit so well upon a different albeit similar keyboard instrument – can be a stumbling block, whether this is because the piano has a different mechanism from the harpsichord, or because a different technique is required for playing either instrument, or because it simply does not sound right to the listener. Pienaar’s recording throws up all these issues (and more – how long have you got?), which is unsurprising given the quantity and quality of the chosen music.

That chosen music is all, within the context of Byrd’s oeuvre for keyboard, familiar apart from the impressive Hornpipe of which there is only one other commercial recording – on the harpsichord – currently available (Friederike Chylek, Oehms OC1702). So, to look at that aspect from a critical perspective, we are being invited to listen to nearly forty of Byrd’s best-known pieces being played on the anachronistic piano when they are all easily accessible on recordings where they are played on the authentic harpsichord (noting that such recordings sometimes use harpsichords the designs of which postdate Byrd’s compositions). Or … we are being invited to listen to a large swathe of Byrd’s keyboard repertory played on an anachronistic but similar instrument which requires no alteration to a single note that Byrd has written, and which might, in the right hands, offer new insights into the structure and meaning of this incomparable corpus of works.

Pienaar’s performances are unapologetically those of a pianist, not of someone trying to make his instrument sound like a harpsichord. This is good in that it links Byrd with later composers for the piano such as Chopin for whom counterpoint is an important structural element, besides the rhetorical use of chordal passages (another penchant of Byrd’s, also noticeable in his vocal works, e.g. famously the A flat chord near the end of Infelix ego). This means that Pienaar can sound a bit precious in some of the pavans, but his essay in the accompanying booklet is an assertive justification for using the piano against those who show “moral outrage” at such a decision. Indeed, his rendition of Walsingham which is timed at an extraordinarily fast 6’39” (all other current versions whether on harpsichord or piano are over eight minutes, in one case nine) seems almost to be an aggressive demonstration of the capabilities of the modern piano and an exhibition of the technical capabilities of the pianist. And while this is one of Byrd’s most intense works (see for instance Bradley Brookshire’s article “’Bare ruin’d quires, where late the sweet birds sang’: covert speech in William Byrd’s ‘Walsingham’ variations”, in Walsingham in literature and culture from the Middle Ages to modernity, edited by Dominic Janes and Gary Waller, Farnham, 2010, pp. 199-216), Pienaar seems to be invoking the tune’s modest status as a popular song and, through his performance, provoking thoughts of Byrd’s passionate reaction to this place of mediaeval pilgrimage and to its destruction as a Catholic shrine by Protestants in 1538. Yet elsewhere his interpretation of O mistress mine, I must brings out all the light and sheer beauty in Byrd’s setting, making it sing in such a way as to persuade listeners that this music might actually have been composed for the piano.

So we have a choice. We can purchase the recording for what it is. We can purchase it as an experiment or a novel experience and enjoy finding out which performances work and which do not. Or we can decide that Tudor keyboard music on the piano is not for us. For this reviewer (and I did indeed buy a copy before I was invited to review it!), among some tracks that are dances that don’t (not all the Nevell pavans and galliards “take off”), or where Byrd’s momentum and polyphony are clogged by too many spread chords (ditto), or where something other than Byrd’s self-explanatory genius is being exhibited (virtuosity in John come kiss me now, another fastest version on disc), there are many performances that are decorous, thought-provoking or challenging (for instance Qui passe, The bells, and those three titled Grounds, plus the mighty Quadran pavan and galliard) and have made that purchase worthwhile. When I first encountered this repertory I had no access to a harpsichord and played through Byrd’s entire keyboard output on the family’s piano, so please, any pianists reading this review, please do play and perform Byrd’s keyboard music on your pianos, especially in this quatercentenary year.

Richard Turbet

Categories
News

Podcasts from Paris

Fans of the French Baroque are in for a real treat if they visit https://expodcast.cmbv.fr/en – six podcasts have been produced by the Centre de Musique Baroque Versailles. To a rich musical backdrop, all sorts of information is shared (either in English or French) from the golden era of Louis XIV to the dawn of the Revolution. These are highly recommended!

Brian Clark

Categories
Recording

Handel: Organ concertos op. 4 & op. 7

Martin Haselböck (op. 4), Jeremy Joseph (op. 7), Orchester Wiener Akademie
164:00
Alpha Classics Alpha 742

In 2014 Martin Haselböck and his Orchester Wiener Akademie put themselves on the musical map with their Resound Beethoven project, which involved performing and recording the complete Beethoven symphonies on period instruments in Viennese venues where they had been premiered or performed in the composer’s lifetime. As the programme note to this 2-CD boxed set candidly admits, this project is very different in that the magnificent acoustic of the Goldener Saal of the Musikverein provides these organ concertos by Handel with a very different context from the composer’s own performances. While the Musikverein’s 2011 Rieger organ provides many of the stops available on a Baroque organ, again the context is very different, while the forces fielded by the Akademie are much smaller than those available to Handel for his performances, often in the wider context of an oratorio or an opera. And yet, these are utterly mesmerising performances, musically intelligent, technically superb, and wonderfully effervescent. While the Resound Beethoven project reminded us that the acoustic of the original venues is a factor in any attempt to reconstruct how music originally sounded, it is possible to produce an utterly convincing and engaging performance just by calling upon superlative musicians and placing them one of the finest acoustics in the world. If just occasionally I felt that an organ stop belonged in a later period, these are thoroughly enjoyable accounts with Haselböck himself at the keyboard for the op 4 concerti and Jeremy Joseph taking over for the op 7. For a generally more convincing period sound, the excellent 1996 set by Paul Nicholson on Hyperion with Roy Goodman and the Brandenburg Consort which uses an organ Handel himself is known to have played, and which gives us the op 4 no 6 on harp as originally intended as well as supplying the Alleluia chorus conclusion to op 4 no 4 (mentioned in the booklet notes for present recording but not performed) is probably for you, but I did very much enjoy these Viennese accounts.

D. James Ross

Categories
Recording

Pachelbel: Organ Works volume 2

Matthew Owens
76:20
resonus RES10303

When I reviewed Vol. 1 of Matthew Owens’ excellent Pachelbel Organ Works a year ago, I wondered whether all the subsequent discs were to be recorded on the Queen’s College Frobenius, where he had been organ scholar, pondering that Pachelbel’s diverse compositions might be better served by a richer, more South German tone. And here is Vol. 2, as rich a mix as Vol. 1, and recorded on the colourful 2015 Bernard Aubertin organ in a private house in East Sussex last November! This is the organ that Stephen Farr used for the Resonus recording of Bach’s early Chorale Partitas, and here they make an equally good technical job of capturing both the carefully voiced organ and Owens’ neat articulation and phrasing.

Every track has its registration noted carefully in the liner notes, to be read against the specification of the instrument on the page opposite, which is a great delight to this reviewer at least. The Aubertin organ (Aubertin trained in Alsace and works in the Jura, and his organs have a blend of French and lower German/Austrian quality to their voicing) in Fairwarp has that rich and colourful quality that suits the middle-south German style of writing so well. Some of the shorter numbers, like the variations on the Chorale Partita Christus, der ist mein Leben, are played on single ranks: one on a 4’ flute only and we also hear the robust Voix Humaine paired with the 4’ flute on the Grand Orgue. The 22 Fugues on the Magnificat Primi Toni also give us a chance to experience the wonderful variety and subtle phrasing of this delicately voiced instrument – where flute and principal ranks can be combined together to shade the tone – as well as alerting us to the fact that Pachelbel worked in both Lutheran and Catholic traditions.

Owens’ playing is elegant, fluent and well articulated. There is a lot of Pachelbel to come – the last complete Pachelbel organ works, recorded two decades ago by Antoine Bouchard on a 1964 Casavant organ in Quebec, ran to 11 CDs – but the series promises well. I look forward to the next volume keenly: what organ will Owens choose for the next tranche?

David Stancliffe

Categories
Recording

Dieupart: Suites de Clavecin

Marie van Rhijn (+Tami Troman violin, Héloïse Gaillard recorder/oboe, Myriam Rignol gamba, Pierre Rinderknecht theorbo)
64:58
Château de Versailles Spectacles CVS060

The front of this CD package will lead you to expect a straightforward performance of these relatively well-known suites in their solo harpsichord guise. However, this is not what happens. These suites were originally published in two versions, for solo and for treble instrument and continuo. In addition, there is a 1702/3 notice for a London performance of ‘Mr Dieuparts Book of Lessons for the Harpsichord, made in Consorts’, and all of this leads our current performers to arrange the music for combinations of harpsichord, violin, oboe, various recorders, viol and theorbo. In addition, some movements are interpolated from other suites. In short, these are arrangements, or – in the current jargon – ‘re-imaginings’.

I don’t mind this too much when a suite retains a clear identity with a consistent scoring throughout but here not even movements enjoy this luxury, with changes of sonority being imposed at double bars or even more frequently. So, despite the commitment of the players, this is not for me and I do not think it can reasonably be described as HIP.

The booklet (in French, English and German) is at least honest about what we hear.

David Hansell

Categories
Recording

J. S. Bach: Harpsichord Concertos

The Hanover Band, Andrew Arthur director and harpsichord
69:07
Signum Classics SIGCD 710

This fine first CD – the second will include the other three harpsichord concertos and Brandenburg V – was recorded in the admirable acoustic of St Nicholas, Arundel and uses a harpsichord by Andrew Garlick, built in 2009 and after Jean-Claude Goujon, 1748 and tuned in a 1/6 comma circulating meantone at A=415.

What is particularly good is the splendid balance between the single strings of the Hanover Band’s A team and the harpsichord – a resonant and singing instrument, well able to hold its own. What is very odd is that the experienced and skilled leader of the Hanover Band, Theresa Caudle, is not mentioned at all in the liner notes, which list the violin II, viola, violoncello, double bass and harpsichord together with details of their instruments. This reflects poorly on Signum’s production team.

It is now largely accepted that using single strings is the best way to balance these exquisite concerti, the majority of which had earlier lives as concerti for violin before being re-scored for a six-instrument ensemble for Bach’s concerts in Zimmermann’s coffee-house. The fascinating detail of their reworking for keyboard can be studied in NBA VII.4, where you can see how the articulation in the cembalo part frequently differs from the identical line in the first violin, as well as seeing how the left hand of the keyboard part often varies from the basso continuo part, with its suggestive flourishes frequently hinting at the polyphonic overtones of Bach’s writing. Sometimes, the articulation of the sections is enhanced by suppressing the 16’ in some parts, as in the Adagio of BWV 1054 where only a violoncello plays the continuo line.

But these subtleties aside, what is so beguiling about these performances is the absolute integration of the players with one another. Not one player fails to contribute and the way the first violin and the right hand of the harpsichord play in complete sync – even when negotiating slight inégales in the rhythms – is so elegant and makes for that fluidity which only one-to-a-part can give.

Although the excellent performance by Francesco Corti and Shunsuke Sato uses a second harpsichord to play the continuo of BWV 1055 for All-of-Bach, this marvellous performance beats it for natural clarity and for the way all the players – even when they appear to be just filling in the realisation of the continuo – shape their lines to make them sing in response to one other and to the free but perfectly rhythmic playing of Andrew Arthur.

This is not only a very ‘correct’ textbook version that I shall enjoy returning to for a long time, but it is fluid, inventive and utterly musical. You should get it, even if you have Conti’s performances with Il Pomo d’Oro. Andrew Arthur is not a soloist in the modern sense of the word – out to stamp his personality on this music: he is content to help the ensemble to listen to each other and above all, to listen to Bach. There are no grand gestures or extremes of tempi. This is the best we are likely to get and I look forward to the second CD immensely.

David Stancliffe

Categories
Recording

Elizabethan Organ Music

Gustav Leonhardt at the Schnitger organ, Zwolle, Holland
Paradizo PA0019
48:34

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For goodness’ sake do not do what I initially did, and dismissively assume that this is another re-hash of Leonhardt’s greatest hits. It is a unique recording, it is an historically significant recording, it is a superb recording, and anyone with an interest in early keyboard music will be delighted that this recording has been resurrected and made generally accessible. As Skip Sempé explains in the booklet, it was originally made for a niche American recording company in the spring of 1962, in a pressing of only a few hundred copies, available only in the USA. Now anyone and everyone can buy it, and the quality of the music and of the performances makes this a cause for rejoicing.

Sempé states that Leonhardt subsequently re-recorded only three of these eleven pieces: two for harpsichord and one for organ. The two harpsichord works are Farnaby’s Fantasia, and Gibbons’ Fantasia MB XX/6, both currently on Philips 4381532. The third re-recording that I have traced is Byrd’s Clarifica me pater III (on the CD it retains the superceded title that was current back in 1962) which Leonhardt plays on the claviorgan (Alpha 073); either Sempé has taken this performance to be on an actual organ, or I have missed a commercial recording of one of these pieces, played on an organ by Leonhardt. Either way, this is a release additionally to be treasured for these unique renditions by Leonhardt of eight fine Elizabethan pieces.

The organ which Leonhardt uses is in San-Michaelskerk, Zwolle, Netherlands, built by Arp and Frans Caspar Schnitger, 1721. Some Elizabethan music ostensibly composed for the virginals or harpsichord can sound strident at one extreme or reedy, even weedy, at the other when played on early organs. The Zwolle instrument sounds beautiful, though it does of course date from over a century after the repertory on this disc was composed. The choice of music is excellent, intermingling folk material with the rigours of plainsong fantasias, and free fantasias (and a prelude) with the discipline of a ground. The fantasias by Byrd and Philips are particularly well chosen, not only because they are both masterful compositions, but also because Philips, a pupil of Byrd, uses the same theme as his teacher. Their respective working out of the material makes for an enthralling comparison.

These compositions from a golden age are performed superbly. Leonhardt had a particular respect for Byrd, and there is the added frisson in hearing works of the first great composer for the keyboard being played by arguably the greatest modern performer on early keyboard instruments: it would be hard to imagine finer performances of either piece. The same can be said of the other nine pieces. Whether you own one, some, most, all, or none of these tracks, this is a recording that simply recommends itself: it is a major discographical event.

Richard Turbet

Categories
Recording

Krebs: Keyboard Works volume 2

Steven Devine harpsichord
77:17
resonus RES10100

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Steven Devine continues his splendid performances of Krebs’ keyboard works with this volume which comprises the substantial Overture in the French style (Krebs-WV 820), the Partita in B flat major (Krebs-WV 823) and the Sonata in A minor (Krebs-WV 838) – in all over 77 minutes of expert and beguiling playing.

Devine’s chosen instrument for this recording is a double-manual harpsichord by Colin Booth (2000) after a single manual by Johann Christof Fleischer (Hamburg 1710) at a=415Hz and tuned to Werkmeister III. The singing quality of this instrument is perfectly suited to the music – by turn lyrical, adventurous and complex, and for which Devine is a persuasive champion.

Bach’s favourite pupil, Krebs spans the shift from the essentially florid style of the toccatas and contrapuntal writing of the late 17th century to the gallant and appealing tunefulness of the 18th century. The Preludio and Fuga (tracks 10 & 11) in the B flat Partita give a good idea of the starting point of Krebs’ style, with the bold chromatic modulations, but for his more ‘modern’ leanings listen to Devine’s stylishly elegant Corranta (13). However, it is the genuinely post-Bachian music that is the most interesting to me. The inclusion of the A minor sonata gives us a foretaste of where music was heading with a modern, “Sturm und Drang” opening movement followed by a very grazioso middle movement and a finale full of classical gestures.

As you would expect, the playing is incredibly neat and stylish and blessedly free from those eccentricities which make repeated listening to some player’s recordings so irritating. Devine does us all a great service in producing this collected edition which couldn’t be bettered.

David Stancliffe

Categories
Recording

J. S. Bach – Works for Flute and Keyboard

Sonatas, Fantasias, Improvisations
Toshiyuki Shibata flute, Anthony Romaniuk fortepiano
58:30
Fuga Libera FUG 792

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These two artists met in the summer gap in the 2020 lockdown in Antwerp, and agreed to get playing together. Both were baroque musicians and also jazz players, used to improvising. The result is this CD centred on Bach’s Flute Sonatas in E, E minor and B minor, for which Shibata commissioned a flute after Quantz as well as one after Eichentopf from around 1720. The harpsichord used by Romaniuk is by Detmer Hungerberg while the fortepiano after Silbermann used in the B minor sonata is by Kerstin Schwartz-Damm and has an intriguing variety of stops and makes an ideal partner to the Quantz flute. The pitch they play at is 402Hz after Quantz, which gives a lovely relaxed and unhurried feel to their playing.

In addition to their Bach sonatas, they introduce their improvisations, observing that often a piece was preluded in the 18th century, and that a baroque score was often more akin to jazz lead-sheets, where not only was a degree of ornamentation expected but in realising the basso continuo sometimes an additional melodic line was contrived more in the style of the right hand part in BWV 1030.

Before the purists sniff at this performing style, I urge them to listen to the results of this collaboration and decide whether this style of music-making does not have a good deal to teach the most HIP of practitioners, even if we might do it slightly differently. Bach was celebrated for being able to improvise an extra voice to a complex polyphonic structure whether in the right hand of a keyboard continuo instrument playing in a sonata or a violin descant to a chorale, as in many of the Weimar period cantatas. I have learned a lot about his compositional style by watching him at work in these modes as he crafted the organ chorale preludes, which, like the solo keyboard compositions, most likely had their origins in improvisations in preluding a chorale for Lutheran worship.

So while I put this CD aside while I made room for other more obviously attractive discs I had been sent, I am grateful for having heard it, and glad of the stimulus as well as the opportunity to eavesdrop on two able and thoughtful musicians at work as they ponder the place of what is now called improvisation in the performance of the high baroque.

David Stancliffe