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Charles BURNEY (1726 - 1814): "Sonatas for piano four hands"

Anna Clemente, Susanna Piolanti, square piano

rec: April & Sept 2016, Florence, Oratorio della Confraternitą di San Francesco Poverino
Brilliant Classics - 95447 (2 CDs) (© 2017) (1.22'00")
Liner-notes: E
Cover, track-list & booklet
Scores Sonatas 1777

[Book 1] Sonata No. 1 in F; Sonata No. 2 in D; Sonata No. 3 in B flat; Sonata No. 4 in C [1]; [Book 2] Sonata No. 1 in E flat; Sonata No. 2 in G; Sonata No. 3 in D; Sonata No. 4 in F [2]

Sources: [1] 4 Sonatas or Duets For 2 Performers on 1 Piano Forte or Harpsichord, 1777; [2] A 2nd set of 4 Sonatas or Duets, 1778

"Burney's compositions are competent and reflect his activities as a performer, impresario and church musician. None has achieved lasting fame, although the link to Rousseau's Le devin du village has attracted attention to The Cunning Man. Late in life he described his own music as negligible." This is all New Grove (edition 2001) has to say about Charles Burney's compositional oeuvre. Apparently the author of the article has taken to heart Burney's own judgement as described in the last sentence: he has neglected his music.

Burney is one of the best-known characters in the history of music, in particular because of his publication A General History of Music from the Earliest Ages to the Present Period, in two volumes, printed in 1776 and 1782 respectively, and reprinted several times since. It is a rich source of information about composers and performing musicians from the second half of the 18th century. One of its assets is that the information is not based on hearsay: he extensive travelled across Europe and met most of the composers he descibes personally. That said, it is necessary to adopt a critical attitude to his often explicit personal opinions on the quality of performers and compositions.

Burney was the son of a dancer and violinist. He received most of his musical education from the organist of the cathedral in Chester; here he soon contributed to the musical part of services. In 1744 he became apprentice to Thomas Augustine Arne and in 1745 became acquainted with Handel who engaged him to play in his orchestra in several oratorio performances. It resulted in his obtaining a regular place in the orchestra of the Drury Lane Theatre.

Burney's output as a composer is rather limited. The first opus was a collection of six trio sonatas for two violins and basso continuo which was printed in 1748. In the next decades he published several collections of music, mostly chamber music or keyboard works, and some vocal music. Among his largest works are a set of concertos for strings, an Ode for St Cecilia's Day (which is lost) and an adaptation of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's opera Le devin du village.

In 1751 Burney published a set of Cornet Pieces and a fugue for harpsichord, followed by six sonatas in 1761. A sonata for three hands on one keyboard dates from around 1780 and the last collection of keyboard music from circa 1787 comprises preludes, fugues and interludes for organ. The present production includes the two collections of four sonatas each, which were printed in 1777 and 1778 respectively. They are called Sonatas or Duets and are scored for 'for two performers on one Pianoforte or Harpsichord', as the first set puts it on the title page. In his preface Burney claims to be the first composer to write music of this kind. He was wrong, as Elena Previdi rightly points out in her liner-notes. In the early 17th century Nicholas Carlton and Thomas Tomkins had composed pieces for "two to play". That said, Burney was the first to compose such pieces in 'modern times'. It reflects the growing popularity of domestic music making, and it is telling that Burney's two collections were followed soon by comparable pieces from the pen of Johann Christian Bach and Muzio Clementi. The former published his Op. 15 in 1778, including four sonatas for keyboard and transverse flute and two keyboard duets, one for two keyboards and one for one keyboard ą quatre mains. It was followed in 1781 by a comparable set of pieces; this time both duets were for four hands on one keyboard. Clementi's Op. 3 was also a collection of sonatas for keyboard and a melody instrument (flute or violin) and three keyboard duets ą quatre mains; this was published in 1779, and was followed by several collections of comparable pieces in the 1780s.

The fact that this kind of music was not intended for performance in public concerts, but in the privacy of the homes of the higher echelons of society, explains their diverting nature. This manifests itself in the fact, that they comprise only two movements, and that these are almost exclusively in fast or moderately fast tempi. The sonatas by Burney played here include only one slow movement: the largo which opens the Sonata No. 1 in F from the first set. The fact that all the sonatas are in major keys is also no coincidence.

However, that does't mean that this kind of music is only easy listening stuff. The opening movement of the Sonata No. 3 in B flat from the first set is called affettuoso and the Sonata No. 4 in F from the second set opens with an andantino con espressione. Some movements also include some dramatic episodes. But overall these pieces reflect the galant idiom which was so popular at the time.

The performers have captured that character quite well, not only in the way they play these pieces, but also in their choice of instrument. They use a square piano, certainly the most popular keyboard instrument at the time and often used for domestic performances. This seems to be the most appropriate instrument for much of the keyboard music written at that time, including most of Johann Christian Bach's solo sonatas, much better than, for instance, a copy of a Walter. Unfortunately square pianos are seldom used, and therefore the choice of such an instrument for these sonatas by Burney is an additional argument for this production. The instrument played here was built in 1800 by Joseph Kirckman.

This is entertainment of good quality, and Burney's sonatas are served well by interpreters and instrument.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

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Anna Clemente

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