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CD reviews

Music for one and two keyboards from the late 18th century

[I] "Glanzvoller Abschied" (Glorious Farewell)
Lisa Schäfera, Gregor Hollmannb, harpsichord
rec: March 2017, Münster, Musikhochschule (concert hall)
Ambitus 96 894 (© 2017) (70'34")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover & track-list

Johann Christian BACH (1735-1782): Duet in A, op. 18,5 (Warb A 19) [5]; Muzio CLEMENTI (1752-1832): Duet for two keyboards in B flat, op. 1a,6 [2]; Fugue in c minor, op. 6,4b [4]; Fugue in b minor, op. 5,6b [3]; Sonata in F, op. 1,4a [1]; Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791): Sonata for keyboard à 4 mains in B flat (KV 358 / 186c); Georg Joseph VOGLER (1749-1814): Sonata for two keyboards in B flat [6]

Sources: Muzio Clementi, [1] Six Sonatas for the Harpsichord or Piano Forte, op. 1, 1771?; [2] V Sonates pour le forte-piano ou le clavecin et un duo pour deux forte-piano ou deux clavecins, op. 1[a], 1780; [3] Trois Sonates ... et Trois Fugues pour le Clavecin, op. 5, 1780/81; [4] Un Duo et deux Sonates ... Trois Fugues pour le Clavecin, op. 6, 1780/81; [5] Johann Christian Bach, Four Sonatas and Two Duetts forthe Harpsichord or Piano Forte, op. 18, 1781; [6] Georg Joseph Vogler, Six Sonates pour deux Clavecins, 1794

[II] Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756 - 1791): "Music for Harpsichord Four Hands"
Basilio Timpanaro, Rossella Policardo, harpsichord
rec: August 6 - 9, 2013, Nicosia (Sicilia), Villa della Tenuta 'Il Pioppo'
Stradivarius - Str 37045 (© 2016) (70'20")
Liner-notes: E/I
Cover & track-list

Andante con variazioni in G (KV 501); Fantasia in f minor (KV 608); Sonata in C (KV 19d); Sonata in D (KV 381 / 123a); Sonata in B flat (KV 358 / 186c)

Today the keyboard music from the time between the baroque era and the classical period - roughly speaking the time of the Bach sons - receives more and more attention. The same goes for the keyboard music from the classical period by other composers than the big names Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven. This is a most enjoyable development, but there is one major drawback: more often than not that music is performed on instruments, which are inappropriate from a historical angle. True, most performers use a fortepiano, usually a copy of a historical instrument, but often that instrument is from a much later date than the time the music was written. And too often performers tend to turn to the fortepiano where a harpsichord would be a much more suitable option.

Recently I heard a performance of a keyboard concerto by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach from the 1740s, when the harpsichord was still the most common keyboard instrument for larger-scale music, such as solo concertos. The solo part was played on a Lagrassa fortepiano of 1815. Such a performance has nothing to do with historical performance practice. As far as I know there is not a single complete recording of Mozart's keyboard concertos available in which the early concertos are performed on the harpsichord. That is most remarkable, considering that Mozart played the harpsichord well into the 1770s. Moreover, most keyboard players use a copy of a Walter fortepiano from the 1790s, which is inappropriate for almost any keyboard piece from Mozart's pen. There is still much work to do.

The two discs reviewed here both include keyboard music from roughly the period between 1760 and 1790, played on one and two harpsichords. Lisa Schäfer and Gregor Hollmann focus on two composers whose keyboard oeuvre is almost exclusively connected to the fortepiano: Mozart and Muzio Clementi. They knew each other, and Mozart did not have a high opinion of his colleague. But he almost never did, and from that perspective his views have to be taken with a grain of salt. However, Lisa Schäfer in her liner-notes to the Ambitus disc, referring to the contest between Mozart and Clementi in Vienna in 1781, comes up with an interesting suggestion which could explain why Mozart was not impressed by the latter's efforts: "Mozart was not only familiar with the instrument used for the contest itself (a Stein fortepiano owned by Countess Thun), but also had considerably more experience with this type of instrument than the underdog Clementi".

Clementi composing for and playing the harpsichord is probably the biggest surprise of the recording by Schäfer and Hollmann. He is almost exclusively connected to the fortepiano, also because he was to become one of the main builders of fortepianos in Europe. It was only in 1780 that he became more thoroughly acquainted with the fortepiano. This instrument, and even more so the square piano, enjoyed a growing popularity among English music lovers, but at the same time the production of harpsichords also grew steadily. The latter had much to do with an increase in the number of people who could afford this expensive instrument. In contrast, the square piano was relatively cheap and was often played at the homes of the middle classes. However, Clementi's music did not fare that well on the early fortepianos, which were technically not very reliable, and his pieces were technically too complicated to be performed on square pianos. The latter were much better suited to Johann Christian Bach's keyboard works, which were easier and written in a more galant idiom. His set of six sonatas op. 5 may have been especially intended for the square piano.

Clementi's pieces may have been written for the harpsichord, they are not fundamentally different from later compositions in their technical requirements. The pieces recorded here attest to the fact that they are quite demanding. The Sonata in F shows some similarity with the keyboard oeuvre of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, whereas the two fugues attest to Clementi's knowledge of counterpoint. The programme opens with the Duet in B flat for two keyboards. It is mainly for historical reasons that the artists decided to perform it on two harpsichords, as it is included in a collection published in 1780/81. The title page mentions fortepianos and harpsichords as alternatives (in that order), mainly because on the continent (the set was printed in Paris) the fortepiano had already established itself at the time.

The same is the case with Johann Christian Bach's Op. 18, a collection of four sonatas for keyboard and transverse flute or violin and two duets for keyboard à quatre mains. It was published in London in 1781 and here the harpsichord is mentioned first, with the fortepiano as alternative. Many years ago Christopher Hogwood recorded this set with Nicholas McGegan on the transverse flute and with Colin Tilney as his partner at the fortepiano. The recording of the first of the two duets on the harpsichord by Schäfer and Hollmann is an interesting alternative and shows that this piece does just as well on the harpsichord as on the fortepiano. It is a typical piece in the galant idiom, and that makes it quite different from Clementi's Duet in B flat.

In comparison Georg Joseph Vogler is little-known. That is to say: he has become rather well-known as a theorist, under the name of Abbé Vogler, but his compositions are hardly ever performed or recorded. He also was the subject of derogatory remarks by Mozart. The list of his writings is long, and his compositional oeuvre in almost any genre in vogue in his time is extensive. The Sonata in B flat is part of a collection of six sonatas for two keyboards, which was printed in 1794 in Darmstadt. It is notable that the title page only mentions the harpsichord, despite the year of publication and despite Vogler's own remark in a book of 1778 that, although "when a harpsichord is well maintained, its tone is the finest (...), [the] large fortepiano surpasses all others, not only in price, but also in quality". These facts raise the question how literally a prescription like "harpsichord" has to be taken. If a performer would play these sonatas on a fortepiano - and would choose the historically 'correct' instrument - I would not complain.

Lastly, Mozart. He is represented with the Sonata in B flat for keyboard à quatre mains. It is one of the relatively few pieces for this scoring or for two keyboards. It dates from 1773/74, and that seems to justify a performance at the harpsichord. That brings us to the second disc, which is entirely devoted to this part of Mozart's output. Basilio Timpanaro and Rossella Policardo play the same sonata KV 358 and the Sonata in D (KV 381), which dates from two years earlier, meaning that this piece is also from Mozart's 'harpsichord period'. In addition they play the Sonata in C (KV 19d), which came into existence in 1765 in London, when Mozart and his sister Nannerl performed in public in the English capital and met Johann Christian Bach. The latest piece is the Andante con variazioni in G (KV 501), which dates from 1786 and therefore may have been intended for the fortepiano rather than the harpsichord. It was originally conceived for two keyboards, but published as a piece for keyboard à quatre mains. Lastly the two artists play the Fantasia in f minor (KV 608), which was conceived for a mechanical organ, but is today often played on a large organ. It is from Mozart's last year, 1791. It is played here in an arrangement for keyboard à quatre mains, published in 1799 in Vienna.

Both recordings use the harpsichord, but the artists play different instruments. In the booklet to the Ambitus disc Gregor Hollmann discusses several aspects of performance practice, among them the choice of instruments. "On their travels, Bach, Clementi, Mozart and Vogler, were all guests in the major music centres of the 18th Century. (...) Which harpsichords, which tuning pitch, and which tuning system did they prefer? A reliable answer cannot be provided today!" Add to that the fact that, for instance, the pitch was sometimes different from one city to the other and even within one city sometimes different pitches were used, and one may understand that it is virtually impossible to establish the pitch and tuning and the 'ideal' instrument to perform the pieces selected for these recordings. Schäfer and Hollman follow a kind of 'middle road'; they use French and German instruments; the latter almost certainly is the most appropriate for Mozart, as the Mozart family in Salzburg owned an instrument by Christian Ernst Friederici. In the case of Clementi, one may probably prefer an English instrument, but the fact that his music was published, and therefore intended for the international market, can be used as an argument that the choice of harpsichord probably does not matter that much. Therefore the choice of a copy of a Dulcken harpsichord by Timpanaro and Policardo can probably be justified as well, although I prefer the stronger sound of the instrument used by Schäfer and Hollmann.

Their disc is a true ear-opener as it brings music which is little known and approaches the repertoire from a rather unconventional angle. It is refreshing that they have taken the historical developments in the field of keyboard making into account. The harpsichord has held its ground much longer than one is inclined to think. It is telling that the guitar virtuoso Mauro Giuliani composed a romance for his patroness, Empress Marie Louise, wife of Napoleon, which was scored for voice and guitar or harpsichord. The latter suggests that in the higher echelons of society the harpsichord was still in use. The two artists deliver outstanding performances, which make the choice of the harpsichord completely convincing. The pieces by Clementi shed light on his early works, which are seldom performed, and certainly not on the harpsichord. The differences between the more demanding pieces and the lighter stuff also comes off nicely.

I have enjoyed the performances of Timpanaro and Policardo as well, although they tend to exaggerate the tempi in the fast movements. Some are so fast that the speed goes at the cost of a clear articulation, which is ironic, considering that Timpanaro, in his notes on the performance, emphasizes the importance of a clear articulation. The inclusion of the little-known Sonata in C and the version for keyboard à quatre mains of KV 608 makes their disc an important addition to the catalogue.

In short, these are enjoyable and substantial releases which lovers of keyboard music of the 18th century should consider adding to their collection.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

Relevant links:

Basilio Timpanaro

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