The cover photo on the booklet of this new disc shows a beautiful drawing-room with at least five elegant instruments. It’s the music room at Shute House, Axminster (about which it’s a challenge to find any mention on the internet) and the collection they have is clearly of the highest quality. What is unusual is that these are domestic instruments, square pianos and a spinet, which may be smaller in size, but for beauty, variety and quality of tone they are certainly a match for larger, ‘concert’ instruments.
The programme opens on a spinet made by Thomas Barton in 1727, very similar in so many ways to a harpsichord, but the lack of any sharpness of attack creates a halo of sound, almost guitar-like, and wonderfully evocative for Couperin’s Les Barricades Mistérieuses. There is intimacy but no weakness to the sonorities, with rapid sound decay only in the highest treble registers, making it ideal for Handel and richly expressive for Byrd. It’s a major leap forward from here to a Longman & Broderip square piano of 1787 on which Joanna Leach performs works by Bach and Handel, employing the lute stop to wonderful effect in Handel’s ‘Air and Variations’. A Stodart square piano of 1823 is very effective in works ranging from Soler to Schubert, demonstrating a reverberant bass in Mozart’s Adagio , while a Clementi square piano of 1832 is used to reveal the new-found richness of tome in four works of Mendelssohn, with sustaining pedal and clear variety in each register, most notably in the Duetto , op. 38 no. 6 contrasting a thin and imploring treble melody with a rich and comforting tenor.
It would have been fascinating to hear more contemporaneous English repertoire on these instruments – or, rather works composed in England, from Handel to J C Bach, Clementi, Cramer and Field – and there is great scope for further releases which might encompass a selection of works by composers of the London Pianoforte School whose compositional style was so heavily influenced by the advances in piano manufacture in London during this period, and which contrasts in so many ways to the developments in Vienna and Paris.
The recording is beautifully judged throughout, very close and capturing the finest of nuances. Leach’s performances are first-rate, stylish and alert, with impeccably pointed ornaments. She relishes the colours available, most memorably in Mozart’s B minor Adagio , K540, in which the constant dynamic changes and sf accents are all the more vivid on an instrument as fragile and varied as this.
The booklet notes by Andrew Lancaster are very informative, complemented by colour photographs of each instrument. Highly recommended: domestic instruments they may be, but they are of a quality and character which is remarkable to hear.
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