MusicWeb International

Joanna Leach is a pianist who has made a career as a soloist and chamber musician playing the modern concert grand. When she inherited a historical square piano she decided to have it restored. It was only by playing the instrument in its restored state that she discovered how much a historical instrument can tell about the character of the music written for it. And gradually she devoted her time to playing square pianos. The booklets of both discs contain an impressive list of recordings with music from Haydn to Chopin.

The first disc to be reviewed here is an exception in that it contains older repertoire than she normally performs. Both discs show that Joanna Leach is an excellent artist, and for someone who usually plays much later music her performance of works from the late renaissance and the baroque is pretty good.

These discs are particularly interesting because they present four instruments which were mainly used for domestic music-making, and therefore hardly ever deployed in public concerts. As music-making at private homes became increasingly important in the 18th century this aspect of music history cannot be ignored. In particular in the early 19th century some music was specifically composed to be played at home, and therefore would probably fare better on a square piano than on the ‘normal’ fortepiano, let alone a modern concert grand.

These discs nevertheless raise some questions about the repertoire chosen to present these instruments.

Let us look first at the disc called ‘A Century of Domestic Keyboards 1727-1832’. These dates refer to the years the instruments were built.

Joanna Leach starts the programme on a spinet which was built in 1727 by Thomas Barton. The spinet is a small-size harpsichord with one manual and a single set of strings and jacks. Although various forms of the term ‘spinet’ are used in Italy, France, Germany and the Netherlands, they are not always used for the same kind of instruments. This makes it difficult to determine how widespread the use of an instrument like the one played here was in the various countries in Europe. Very few instruments from Italy and even fewer from France and Germany have been preserved. Can this be an indication of their dissemination?

It seems that the spinet was especially popular in England. From that perspective, and considering the instrument used here it would have more logical to choose English repertoire than pieces by François Couperin. If it was Ms Leach’s aim to show what kind of music people played at home on their spinets I consider her attempt not quite convincing. Was Couperin’s music performed in England and is it plausible to think his music was played on the spinet, an instrument probably mostly used by amateurs? The choice of Handel is much more logical, and I would have liked Ms Leach to play more of his music, in particular as Handel’s keyboard music (with the exception of the eight suites of 1720) isn’t all that well-known.

Some more of his music appears in the next section in which Joanna Leach plays a square piano, built in 1787 by Longman and Broderip. This kind of instrument also was very popular in England. In his programme notes Andrew Lancaster states that the square piano was probably invented in 1763 by Johannes Zumpe in London. “Within a few years, London was experiencing a veritable square-piano fever. Many musical instrument makers, and, one suspects, cabinet makers too, leapt onto this most lucrative bandwagon and began to manufacture square pianos.”

On this instrument Ms Leach plays not only Handel but also Johann Sebastian Bach. The performance of compositions which were originally conceived for the harpsichord, is justified thus: “Performers of the time would of course continue to play the repertoire which was familiar to them, all their old favourites transformed by the use of dynamics and sustained notes.” This seems valid in the case of Handel, even though the instrument doesn’t suit his music very well. In particular the trills are rather unnatural on an instrument reflecting a different aesthetic ideal. Bach’s music does sound better, but its inclusion in the programme is rather curious. It was not until the 1790s that some of his keyboard works began to circulate in England, but only in manuscript. Some of his music was published in the first decades of the 19th century. Even if players of the square piano had access to Bach’s keyboard works before the turn of the century – and that is a big ‘if’ – it seems not likely that the Little Preludes were among them as they were written as teaching material, like the Clavierbüchlein for Wilhelm Friedemann Bach.

The third instrument is another square piano, built by Stodart in 1823. Here we hear music by Soler, Mozart and Schubert. Again, the question is whether this kind of repertoire was played in England. Soler seems a strange choice, but some of his sonatas were published in London around 1796. This particular sonata doesn’t fare very well on this square piano, especially because of the percussionistic effects. Schubert’s dances are a much less convincing choice; some of them were only published in the late 19th century. And I understand that Schubert wasn’t performed in Britain until the second half of the 19th century anyway. Such historical considerations apart, Schubert’s German dances are exactly the kind of music for which the square piano is most suitable.

Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy is a wholly different story. He was in England and became very famous. Whether his piano music was known and played I don’t know but the performance on a Clementi square piano of 1832 seems more plausible than playing Schubert on the Stodart.

For the second disc we return to the latter instrument. Here Joanna Leach plays a selection from the large corpus of keyboard sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti. Many pianists play his sonatas on the concert grand, which is historically unfounded and musically unsatisfying. Although the Stodart is historically closer to Scarlatti than a concert grand the performance is not more satisfying. It is true that at the Spanish court where Scarlatti was working the fortepiano was known, but it was very different from this square piano. And although one can’t exclude the possibility that Scarlatti played the fortepiano, his music fare poorly on it, as other recordings on 18th-century fortepianos show.

Still, the performance on this instrument could possibly be justified with the argument quoted before: Scarlatti’s keyboard sonatas were known and very popular in England, and it is possible that they were still played when the time of the harpsichord had long gone. As with the first disc Joanna Leach plays the sonatas very well, but even so the real character of Scarlatti’s keyboard music hardly comes out on this instrument.

I don’t want to sound too negative about these discs. Not everyone makes as much fuss about the historical connection between instrument and repertoire as I do. Even though I would have liked Ms Leach to be a little more critical in her choice of music, the instruments presented here are very interesting and not easily available on disc. They shed light on a virtually ignored aspect of music-making in the 18th and 19th centuries. And the repertoire played here – in particular Schubert and Mendelssohn – isn’t played and recorded often because it doesn’t go well on modern pianos; not even on the ‘large’ fortepiano. It is to be hoped that discs like these will encourage keyboard players to explore the world of domestic music-making and matching appropriate music and to appropriate instruments.

—Johan van Veen