musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Jacob KIRKMAN (1746 - 1812): "Lessons and Sonatas"

Medea Bindewald, harpsichorda, square pianob; Nicolette Moonen, violinc

rec: Oct 5 - 7, 2015, Goudhurst (Kent, UK), Finchcocks Musical Museum
Coviello Classics - COV 91616 (© 2016) (63'52")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover & track-list

Lesson I in B flat, op. 1,1a; Lesson VI in e minor, op. 3,6a; Sonata I in B flat, op. 8,1ac; Sonata II in F, op. 8,2bc; Sonata III in A, op. 8,3bc; Sonata IV in V, op. 14,4b

Six Lessons for the Harpsichord or Piano Forte, op. 3, 1785?; Three Sonatas for the Piano-Forte or Harpsichord with an Accompaniment for the violin, op. 8, 1789; Four Sonatas for the Piano Forte, op. 14, 1795

The music written in England during the second half of the 18th century is not often performed. Two composers who were active during that period are rather well represented on disc: Johann Christian Bach and Carl Friedrich Abel. They were both from Germany, knew eacher other well from early on, and cooperated closely in England in the Bach-Abel concerts. However, especially Johann Christian is still not fully appreciated, and the attention given to his oeuvre is rather one-sided. We are still waiting for really satisfying recordings of his output. That even goes for the keyboard sonatas, the best-known part of his oeuvre. Too often it is played on instruments which are not very suitable. Performers should take the recording under review here as a model of how it should be performed.

Medea Bindewald sheds light on a composer who is an almost complete unknown quantity. However, the name Kirkman is pretty familiar among keyboard players and lovers of keyboard music. Jacob Kirkman was England's most prominent maker of harpsichords. He was from the Alsace region northeast of Strasbourg, where the family was known as Kirchmann. He settled in England in the early 1730s and started to work for Hermann Tabel, a harpsichord maker of Flemish origin who moved to England around 1700. When he died, Jacob married his widow and continued his business. He was joined by his nephews Abraham and Jacob. Whereas the former became his uncle's business partner, Jacob developed into a keyboard player. In 1773 he became an apprentice to John Keeble, organist of St George's Hanover Square. Kirkman succeeded him in this position after Keeble's death in 1786. In 1802 his regular absence led to his resignation.

It is a token of the lack of interest in the lesser-known composers from this period that Kirkman is not mentioned as a composer in New Grove. It includes one entry about the Kirkman dynasty, which entirely focuses on their keyboard making members. Jacob's activities as a composer are completely ignored. Fortunately the booklet to the present disc includes a link to an article about Kirkman in an issue of Sounding Board, the journal of the British Harpsichord Society. It includes a list of his printed music. The seven collections are all for one or two keyboards; some pieces for one keyboard are à quatre mains. One of the includes Voluntaries which can also be played at the organ. The Op. 8 is the only collection of pieces for keyboard with an additional instrument. Lastly, it is interesting to mention that Kirkman, together with Keeble, wrote Forty Interludes to be played between the verses of the Psalms. It is a token of the neglect of his oeuvre that only a few separate pieces atre available in modern editions.

The Sonatas op. 8 represent a genre which was quite popular at the time. Until the early 18th century the keyboard in an instrumental ensemble was reduced to the role of an accompanying instrument. That was going to change when Johann Sebastian Bach composed his sonatas for harpsichord and violin and the French composer Jean-Joseph Cassanéa de Mondonville published his sonatas op. 3 for the same scoring. The latter had a strong influence on Jan-Philippe Rameau, who then composed his Pièces de clavecin en concerts. In these pieces the harpsichord takes the lead, and is joined by two instruments, to the discretion of the performers. In the next decades several composers published pieces for keyboard with an additional part for violin. The latter's role is different. Sometimes it is given an independent part, but often its participation is ad libitum, meaning that it can be omitted. Such pieces are included in the third book of Pièces de clavecin by Jacques Duphly. Often the violin's role is a bit of both within a piece or a collection. In Kirkman's sonatas the violin's role is confined to that of colouring and adding dynamics to the right hand of the keyboard. How that works is nicely illustrated in the opening of the second movement (allegro spirituoso) from the Sonata in A, the last of the Op. 8 sonatas.

Here Medea Bindewald plays a square piano, and that brings us to another interesting aspect of this recording. Until the mid-18th century the harpsichord was the dominant strung keyboard instrument, alongside the virginal and the clavichord. The first token that this was going to change was Bartolomeo Cristofori's development of the gravecembalo col piano, e forte around 1700. It took some time before it had reached a state which allowed it to establish itself as an alternative to the harpsichord. In England it was embraced relatively early. In 1766 Johann Christian Bach published his keyboard sonatas op. 5, which were the first to mention the fortepiano as an alternative to the harpsichord. The earliest surviving square pianos date from that same year. Such instruments were especially popular in domestic music making, and there can be little doubt that Bach himself played this kind of instruments when he participated in concerts in the salons of the higher echelons of society. It would be a much more appropriate instrument for recordings of his keyboard sonatas than, for instance, copies of a Walter piano of around 1795. Medea Bindewald has selected such an instrument for two of the sonatas from Op. 8. These pieces are certainly intended for domestic performance, and very likely written for amateurs as they are not technically demanding. The latter goes for both the keyboard part and that of the violin. It works wonderfully well here. Although the dynamic possibilities of the square piano are obviously limited, they can be exploited effectively as is demonstrated here in the presto from the Sonata in C from the Op. 14.

The Lessons op. 3 are of a different level. Here we find pieces of various character: the Lesson VI has the form of a suite, opening with a prelude, which is followed by a fugue and three dances (allemande, courante, gigue). Stylistically it belongs to the baroque period, whereas the sonatas, among them the Sonata in B flat, are more modern, and, as was common in music of a galant character, in two movements. This work is a bit top-heavy, as the opening allegro lasts ten minutes, whereas the second movement (menuetto en rondo) takes 3'34". The allegro includes several sudden pauses, which shows the influence of the Sturm und Drang.

That is emphasized by Medea Bindewald's playing, who fully explores the dramatic features of this piece. She treats the tempo with some freedom, sometimes slowing down a little to increase the tension. Here and elsewhere her playing is outstanding, and in the best rhetorical tradition, which also comes to the fore in several of the dances in Lesson VI, such as the courante. She plays an appropriate instrument: a two-manual harpsichord of 1756 by Kirkman. He also made square pianos; the first extant instrument dates from 1775. Here Medea Bindewald plays a square piano by Broadwood and Son, built in 1795. That seems the right choice for music published in 1789 and 1795 respectively. Nicolette Moonen plays the violin part in two of the Op. 8 sonatas just right: she carefully doses dynamics, but is not afraid to add some bold strokes to the Sonata in A.

This is a highly interesting and compelling disc, which sheds light on an unjustly neglected composer and shows how to do justice to music of this period, using the historically correct instruments.

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

Relevant links:

Medea Bindewald

CD Reviews