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CD reviews

"Instruments from the Rodger Mirrey Collection"

John Kitchen, clavichorda, fortepianob, harpsichordc, virginald

rec: Dec 17, 2008, July 13 - 14, 2009 & Jan 7 - 8, 2010, Edinburgh, St Cecilia's Hall, Niddry Street
Delphian Records - DCD34057 (© 2010) (75'48")

anon (Neth, 16th C): Almande pryncea; Fusi pavana pianaa; Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Suite in f minor (BWV 823)a; John BLOW (1649-1708): Mortlack's Groundc; William BYRD (c1540-1623): Pavan: Bray and Galliard (MB XVIII,59)c; Louis COUPERIN (1626-1661): Suite in Cc; Girolamo FRESCOBALDI (1583-1643): Toccata IXc [1]; Johann Jacob FROBERGER (1616-1667): Partita in C (FbWV 612): Lamento sopra la dolorosa perdita della Real Msta. Di Ferdinando IV, Ré de Romania; Franz Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809): Adagio in G (H XV,22)c; Fantasia in C (H XVII,4)c; Felix MENDELSSOHN-BARTHOLDY (1809-1847): Lied ohne Worte in E, op. 30,1 (2nd version)c [2]; Lied ohne Worte in c minor, op. 38,2c [3]; Lied ohne Worte in A flat, op. 38,6c [3]; Bernardo PASQUINI (1637-1710): Alemandad; Corrented; Henry PURCELL (1659-1695): Suite of Lessons in C (Z 665)c; Alessandro SCARLATTI (1660-1725) Toccata X in Fc

Sources: [1] Girolamo Frescobaldi, Il secondo libro di toccate, 16372; Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, [2] Lieder ohne Worte, op. 30, 1835; [3] Lieder ohne Worte, op. 38, 1837

Recordings demonstrating the sound of historical instruments do not appear all that often. Things were different in the 1960s and 1970s, when the use of period instruments was still far from common. Today most music-lovers are acquainted with the sound of historical instruments. Such recordings can still be very useful: most historical instruments - in particular keyboard instruments - are preserved in museums or are part of collections and are seldom used for recordings, let alone live performances.

This is the third disc to present keyboard instruments from one of the world's largest and most interesting collections which is owned by the University of Edinburgh. The largest part of it is called the Raymond Russell Collection, and John Kitchen presented some of these instruments on two discs. In 2005 the University received a collection of keyboards from Rodger and Lynne Mirrey which they had built up over several decades. Among them are instruments by little-known builders and some anonymous instruments. John Kitchen presents nine specimens from what is called the Rodger Mirrey Collection. The oldest instrument is a harpsichord from 1574, the latest a fortepiano of 1805.

The disc begins with a suite by Louis Couperin which is played at a French harpsichord of 1755. This instrument's sound is rather different from that of better-known harpsichords of that time. Interestingly it was not built in Paris - as most French harpsichords which have been preserved - but in Burgundy. It seems to be the only instrument of this maker which has been preserved. Very interesting is also the English harpsichord which is used here for the music of Purcell and Blow. It was built by Thomas Barton in 1709 and is one of the very few extant English harpsichords of the early 18th century. It proves ideal for this repertoire. It would be great if this instrument would be used for recordings of keyboard works by Purcell and his contemporaries.

The oldest example in the collection is a harpsichord which was built in 1574 by Bernardinus de Trasuntinis in Venice. The later extension of its compass hasn't changed its characteristics which it shares with all Italian harpsichords, particularly its strong and bright sound. The harpsichord by Franciscus de Paulinis from Rimini dates from 1725 and shows how little Italian harpsichord making changed during the 17th century. Its sound is not fundamentally different from the harpsichord of 1574.

A specific kind of keyboard is the virginal, or - as it was called in England - a pair of virginals. It was especially popular in Italy, Flanders and England. Today it is mostly used in repertoire from the Netherlands - for instance Sweelinck - and the English virginalists, but here we hear two pieces by Bernardo Pasquini on an Italian virginal of 1678, built in Naples by Honofrio Guarracino. Virginals were instruments to be played in the intimate surroundings of the living room. That is also the case with the clavichord. Two specimens can be heard here, which differ strongly in building and sound. Two anonymous dances from Dutch sources of the 16th century are played at a tiny triple-fretted clavichord which was probably built in Flanders around 1620. If that is the case that would make it one of the oldest extant clavichords. The other clavichord is unfretted, meaning that every note has its own pair of strings. It probably dates from around 1740 and could have been built in Dresden. Its sound is a little brighter and more powerful, but it has the intimate character of all clavichords. It is used here in two pieces by Froberger and Johann Sebastian Bach respectively.

Lastly we hear two fortepianos. The oldest is used in three of Mendelssohn's Lieder ohne Worte. It was built in London by John Broadwood, one of the most famous piano builders of that time. This particular instrument has two pedals and the typically large and long-range sound of pianos with English action. The other piano is quite different: it has a Viennese action and has no pedals but a knee lever. It seems it originally also had a moderator stop but that is no longer extant. This instrument was built in around 1805 in Breslau by Johann Friedrich Kuhlbörs. It is used in two pieces by Haydn.

The Rodger Mirrey Collection comprises 22 instruments, and the nine keyboards presented here give a glimpse of what must be a fascinating collection. It would be nice if the others could be demonstrated on another disc. Although the instruments are the main issue here, it is important to present them with good performances of interesting repertoire. In general I am pleased by the way John Kitchen plays them, although I have heard better performances of the Suite in C by Louis Couperin. Like I said the combination of English music and the Barton harpsichord is ideal. Alessandro Scarlatti sounds very well at the harpsichord of De Paulinis of 1725. Pasquini's pieces at the virginal also work well, and this should encourage players to use a virginal in Italian keyboard music of the 17th century, which doesn't happen very often. But in some cases I am less happy with the choice of repertoire. The two Haydn pieces don't fare so well at the 1805 fortepiano. Developments in piano building went so fast around 1800 that even a piece like the Adagio in G which dates from 1794 isn't really appropriate for a piano like this. That is even more the case with the Fantasia from 1789. And in general I would have liked John Kitchen to choose lesser-known compositions as the programme contains too many pieces which are available in many recordings.

That said, this is a most fascinating disc which demonstrates the unique qualities of the keyboards in the Rodger Mirrey Collection. Listening to this disc one is struck by the variation in keyboard building during the 17th and 18th centuries. The booklet contains pictures of the instruments and concise but useful information about them.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

Relevant links:

St Cecilia's Hall Museum of Instruments

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