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"The Enlightenment in the New World - American harpsichord music of the 18th century"

Olivier Baumont, harpsichord; Matthew Kowles, narratora

rec: Jan 31 & Feb 1, 2001, Bény-sur-Mer (Calvados, F), Château
Warner Classics 2564 68966-9 (R) (© 2009) (50'22")

William BROWN (fl 1783-1788): Rondo III in G; Benjamin CARR (1768-1831): Sonata VI in B flat; The Maid of Lodi in G; James HEWITT (1770-1827) The Battle of Trentona; Yankee Doodle with 9 variations; John Christopher MOLLER (1755-1803); Sinfonia in E flat; Mr. NEWMAN (fl c1807-1810): Sonata III in D; Victor PALISSIER (c1745-c1820): Three Hornpipes in B flat, C and G; Alexander REINAGLE (1756-1809): Lee Rigg in A; William SELBY (c1738-1798): Voluntary VIII in A

It is fine when record companies delve in their archives and reissue recordings which are no longer available. But it is disappointing when these reissues show a lack of commitment or real love for the music. This disc is a good example: it comes with a booklet which hardly deserves the name. It is just a meagre sheet with the track-list and information regarding the date and place of recording. Not a word on the repertoire or any of the composers. And that isn't much of a problem with a disc of music by Bach or Couperin. But most of the composers on this disc are completely unknown quantities to most music lovers. The 'booklet' doesn't help to change that.

Some people from Europe have a prejudice against American culture, and think the United States was a kind of cultural desert before the mid-19th century. It seems many musicians share that prejudice. I have never heard any American music in a concert, and even on disc this repertoire is not well represented. Joel Cohen, with his group Boston Camerata, has explored the music of the 18th and early 19th century. Also interesting is a disc with music of the Moravians which Martin Pearlman recorded with his ensemble Boston Baroque.

What we get here is music of a different kind. The repertoire on this disc was written for the keyboard, mostly for either harpsichord or fortepiano. The French harpsichordist Olivier Baumont uses a French harpsichord which was built in 1774 in Paris by Jacques Goermans. It is a splendid instrument, but I just wonder if it would have been more appropriate to use an English harpsichord from the second half of the 18th century. A number of such harpsichords, for instance by Shudi, have pedals which allow the performer to make crescendi. That would certainly be suitable for this repertoire.

Most composers on the programme were born in Britain, and emigrated to the United States at some point in their career. The best-known composer is probably James Hewitt, who was born on Dartmoor and educated as a violinist. In London he gave public performances of works by Haydn and Pleyel. In 1792 he moved to New York, and in 1811 to Boston, where he worked as an organist and musical director of a theatre. He returned to New York in 1816, visited the southern states and spent the last part of his life in Boston again. He was active both as a composer/performer and as a music publisher and organiser of concerts. He also sold music and instruments. He wrote variations on the song Yankee Doodle, which was part of an opera. It was first published in New England, and also printed in a collection of airs in Glasgow in 1782. Some of the variations are quite virtuosic. The same tune appears in the last piece on the programme, The Battle of Trenton. It is called A Favorite Historical Military Sonata Dedicated to the General Washington. The titles of the various sections are spoken during the performance by the actor Matthew Kowles. A piece like this is mainly a curiosity, like other programmatic works from the same time, written by composers like Balbastre and Dussek.

Alexander Reinagle was from Scotland: he was born in Portsmouth, and played for the first time the harpsichord in public at the age of 13. He worked as a harpsichord teacher and published some keyboard works and music for keyboard with violin. In 1786 Reinagle moved to New York where he started to teach the harpsichord, the fortepiano and the violin. He went to Philadelphia soon after his arrival and there he played a major role in musical circles. Here and elsewhere he was involved in performances of music by, for instance, Johann Christian Bach, Corelli and Haydn. Lee Rigg is A Scots tune with 3 variations and a Gigg, which was written before his arrival in America. It was included in a collection of "the most favourite Scots tunes with variations for the harpsichord" from around 1782. It was reprinted in America in 1787, and that was one of the first editions with keyboard music printed in the United States.

From that same year are the Three Rondos for the piano forte or harpsichord, composed by William Brown. The dates of birth and death of this flautist and composer are unknown. He performed at public concerts in the 1780s in New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore. With Reinagle he organised concerts in Philadelphia. His Rondos are in the galant idiom, and were intended for amateurs. That is also the case with The Maid of Lodi, Prelude, Air and 4 variations in G by Benjamin Carr. A little more demanding is the Sonata VI in B flat, from a set of six which were published in 1796. Carr was born in London, was a pupil of Samuel Arnold and Charles Wesley and arrived in America in 1793. Here he led a very busy life as a performer, actor, teacher, conductor and impresario.

The programme starts with the earliest piece, the Voluntary VIII in A by William Selby. He worked as an organist in London, and in 1771 left for New England, where he acted again as an organist in Boston. His voluntary shows the influence of Handel, and was written before his departure from England. A certain 'Mr. Newman' is probably the only composer in the programme who was born in the States, but the only thing that is known about him is the collection of three sonatas "for the piano forte or harpsichord" opus 1, which was published in 1807-10 and reprinted about a decade later. The Sonata III in D consists of four movements and shows an almost orchestral texture. The same goes for the Sinfonia in E flat by John Christopher Moller, who was born as Johann Christoph Möller somewhere in Germany. He was an organist in New York, played an important role in musical life in Philadelphia and was one of the first music printers in America.

Another composer from the continent was Victor Pelissier, who was born in Paris and died in New Jersey. He was a virtuoso horn player and also acted as a composer and arranger. He published twelve volumes of songs, dances and instrumental pieces in arrangements for keyboard. The three Hornpipes Olvier Baumont plays were actually meant as dance music, as the score mentions the dancers who performed them.

This disc is interesting in that it delivers a sample of a relatively unknown side of the music scene in the United States in the last decades of the 18th century. Not all the music is of the highest calibre, but most pieces are more than a mere curiosity. I particularly enjoyed Selby's Voluntary and the pieces by Newman and Moller. Hewitt's variations on 'Yankee Doodle' will probably touch a string with American music-lovers. Olivier Baumont delivers energetic and engaging performances which have been recorded well.

For the writing of this review I have used the programme notes of the original release. Fortunately the public library in my home town had this disc in its collection. But if a record company takes its own releases seriously, it should provide the buyers with adequate information about the music.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

Relevant links:

Olivier Baumont

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