musica Dei donum
"The World's First Piano Concertos"
David Owen Norris, square pianos
rec: Dec 10 - 11, 2002, Hatchlands, Surrey (U.K.), Music Room
AVIE - AV0014 (79'57")
CF Abel: Concerto in B flat, op. 11,2; JC Bach: Concertos in E
flat, op. 7,5 & in G, op. 7,6; Ph Hayes: Concerto in A; J Hook:
Concerto in D, op. 1,5; WA Mozart: Concerto in D (KV 107,1) (after
JC Bach, Sonata in D, op. 5,2)
Monica Huggett, Emilia Benjamin (violin), Joseph Crouch (cello)
In the second half of the 18th century the new fortepiano gradually pushed the
harpsichord onto the sidelines. Alongside the grand piano used on the
concert platform, other kinds of piano were developed, which were mainly
used in private rooms and salons. Such an instrument is presented on this CD:
the square piano, also called table piano. This instrument,
which could be used both as a side table and as a musical instrument, was
especially popular in England. One of the main builders of the instrument,
Johannes Zumpe, was born in Germany but left his country for Britain in 1761.
The instrument used here for most of the items is a piano built by him in 1769,
exactly the year the Concerto in A by Philip Hayes was composed, presented
here as the 'first piano concerto' in the history of music.
In Britain the square piano became very popular, and by the end of the 18th
century huge numbers of instruments were sold. But during the 19th century
the square piano lost ground to the upright piano, the 'home version'
of the concert grand. Until the end of the 19th century square pianos were
David Owen Norris implicitly questions the generally held view that square
pianos were mostly used in private homes and by amateur musicians, and were
inferior to the grand pianos for 'serious' music making. One of the
characteristics of the square piano is described by Mr Norris: "... the
dampers were raised, not by a sustaining pedal, but by two hand levers, one
for the bass and one for the treble. This meant that notes rang on until a
hand was free to 'change' the lever". This situation was unchanged at the
end of the century. It was different on the continent: the famous piano
builder Anton Walter also built square pianos; they had a knee lever to
operate the sustaining mechanism. And in Vienna, composers and professional
musicians took the square piano very seriously.
David Owen Norris states that for more than two centuries, the fact that
square pianos in Britain had only hand levers "has been perceived as a fatal
disadvantage, ruling out Zumpe's Square as a serious instrument: a puzzling
verdict in view of its enormous commercial success."
He also refers to the fact that a highly respected composer like Johann
Christian Bach acted as an agent for Zumpe and performed on the instrument
in public, which he wouldn't have done if he had considered the square piano
a kind of toy. Mr Norris closely studied the music by Johann Christian Bach
and believes some of the characteristics of his keyboard music have been
generated by the peculiarities of the square piano. Some of the harmonies
only have an effect if the strings ring on. And he also believes that
"the need to avoid blurring forced him to avoid writing too many notes". He
concludes that Johann Christian turned the peculiarities of the instrument
to musical advantage.
The result as can be heard on this CD has convinced me. I have heard the
concertos by Johann Christian before, and was never impressed; I often
wondered where his reputation came from. For some reasons, I found the
keyboard concertos, in particular if played on the fortepiano, bland and
rather uninteresting. Having heard the performance here I have changed my
mind. All of a sudden the concertos become quite dramatic. The other pieces
on this recording are equally interesting and musically satisfying. Mr Norris
has found in these concertos several characteristics that seem to refer to
the square piano as the instrument that the composers had in mind. On this
instrument they seem fully developed concertos in their own right and not
just predecessors of the 'real' classical piano concerto.
All concertos are performed with two violins and cello. Any larger ensemble
would drown out the square piano. That a performance with such a slight
ensemble was common practice is proven by the three concertos by Mozart, all
arrangements of keyboard sonatas by Johann Christian Bach. It is very likely
that Mozart himself played on a square piano by Zumpe, as an instrument
signed by Johann Christian Bach and built in 1778 has been found in France
near the village where Johann Christian and Mozart met in 1778. It is an
additional bonus that this very instrument is used here in Mozart's Concerto
But this recording isn't only interesting from a historical point of view.
The performance by David Owen Norris and Sonnerie is excellent: lively and
dramatic, with great expression in the slower movements. The choice of tempi
is very satisfying: most middle movements are marked 'andante', and they are
played as such, not as 'adagios', as so often happens. Sometimes the tempo
is held back for a moment - for example in the andante of Mozart's Concerto
in D - which has a great dramatic effect.
I would strongly recommend this recording which brings together a hardly-known
instrument, fine music and excellent performances.
Johan van Veen (© 2003)
David Owen Norris