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CD reviews

"English 18th-century Keyboard Concertos"

Paul Nicholson, harpsichorda, fortepianob, organc
The Parley of Instruments
Dir: Paul Nichsolson

rec: Oct 28 - 30, 1993
Hyperion/Helios - CDH55341 (R) ( 2009) (76'06")
Liner-notes: E/D/F

Thomas CHILCOT (c1700-1766): Concerto for harpsichord and strings in A, op. 2,2 (ed. R. Langley)a [2]; George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759): Adagio for organ and orchestra in d minor (HWV 303)c; Chaconne for harpsichord, strings and bc in G (HWV 435/343) (ed. P. Nicholson)a; Philip HAYES (1738-1797): Concerto for keyboard and strings No 4 in A c [3]; James HOOK (1746-1827): Concerto for keyboard and orchestra in D, op. 1,5 (ed. P. Holman)c [4]; James NARES (1715-1783): Concerto/Sonata for harpsichord, 2 violins, cello and bc in G a [1]; Thomas ROSEINGRAVE (1688-1766): Concerto for organ and orchestra in D (ed. P. Holman)c

Sources: [1] James Nares, Lessons for the Harpsichord with a Sonata in Score, op. 2, 1759; [2] Thomas Chilcot, Six Concertos for the Harpsichord, op. 2, 1765; [3] Philip Hayes, Six Concertos ... for the Organ, Harpsichord or Forte-Piano, 1769; [4] James Hook, Six Concertos for the Harpsichord or Forte-Piano, op. 1, c1771

Johann Sebastian Bach is generally considered the first composer in history to have written keyboard concertos. But Peter Holman, in his programme notes, suggests Handel has written at least a single movement for keyboard and instruments before Bach wrote his concertos. This disc opens with a Chaconne in G, which has survived as a piece for keyboard solo and probably dates from Handel's years in Hamburg. Siegbert Rampe suggests this piece could originally been conceived for harpsichord and orchestra, since "in the only source, a continental copy, the tutti and solo are differentiated, which admittedly could also mean that a large harpsichord was used as a substitute for an orchestra". He played the Chaconne as it is preserved, here the string parts are reconstructed by Paul Nicholson. Having heard the result I am not quite convinced this is really the form which Handel had in mind. The strings only play the ritornello, and the soli for the keyboard in between them are so long that I wonder what is the point of adding strings. Maybe the alternative suggested by Siegbert Rampe is more plausible.

This is not the only concerto on this disc which has been reconstructed. Thomas Roseingrave's Concerto for organ and orchestra in D has survived as a piece for solo keyboard, and that is how Paul Nicholson has recorded it before. But he and Peter Holman had the impression it was a reduction of a keyboard concerto, which seemed to be confirmed when in a newspaper a reference was found to Roseingrave playing an organ concerto with trumpets and kettledrums. This was the reason Peter Holman reconstructed the 'missing' parts.
Thomas Chilcott published two sets of keyboard concertos. The opus 2, of which the Concerto in A is taken, has been preserved without string parts. For this recording a reconstruction of these parts by Robin Langley has been used.

Often reconstructions are the only way to perform a piece, and sometimes so much material has been left that it is quite possible to make a reconstruction which is stylistically convincing. But when no material has been left at all, like in the concertos by Roseingrave and Chilcott, I am a bit sceptical about the whole process of reconstruction. Any reconstruction is mostly guesswork - "informed guesswork", probably, but still guesswork. That is even more the case with the last concerto on this disc, the Concerto in D by James Hook. It is from his opus 1 which was printed with parts for two violins and bass. Peter Holman writes: "However, there are a number of places in the outer movements of the Hook D major Concerto that seem to call for more varied colours, so I have provided parts for flutes and horns, using as a model the wind parts that survive in manuscript for some of J.C. Bach's Op. 7, or the ad libitum parts for flutes and horns in some of the Philip Hayes concertos". Of course, this is a rather subjective judgement. The same concerto was recorded by David Owen Norris with the ensemble Sonnerie, and never did I have the feeling something was missing.

Don't misunderstand me. I don't want to give the impression that this is a bad recording. Far from it. It is just that I am sceptical about the habit of editing music. There is always the danger that personal taste goes into the way of what the composer has conceived.

But no doubt this is a most interesting disc which sheds light on a forgotten chapter in English music history. The performances are generally good. Only in the first piece, the Chaconne in G by Handel, I found the playing of the ensemble a bit too heavy. The booklet doesn't give a list of players, so I don't know the size of the orchestra, but to me it seemed too large in this particular piece. The second item, a movement for organ and orchestra, is an early version of the first movement from Handel's Organ Concerto Op 7 No 4. Here I had liked more ornamentation in the solo part.

Interesting is especially the fortepiano used in the last two concertos. The earliest English pianos were small squares, the kind of instrument David Owen Norris used in his recording. Here another kind of piano is played: a copy of an instrument by Americus Backers from 1770. It is quite different from the continental instruments, and having heard this beautiful instrument I am inclined to think that it is probably much more suited for the keyboard music by, for instance, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and the early Mozart than the kind of fortepianos mostly used, in particular those by Johann Walter.

Despite my critical remarks there are enough reasons to purchase this disc.

Johan van Veen ( 2012)

Relevant links:

The Parley of Instruments

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