The Russell Collection of Early Keyboard Instruments,
housed in St Cecilia's Hall, Niddry Street, Cowgate, Edinburgh, comprises
over 50 pieces, ranging from the late 16th to the early 19th
Centuries – harpsichords, spinets, virginals, clavichords, early piano.
Many of these were gathered together by Raymond Russell (1922-64) and
then presented to Edinburgh University which has added to the Collection
substantially since then. It is good to have a representative collection
of its instruments on CD in music contemporary with, or otherwise suitable
for, each of them and admirably played by John Kitchen of Edinburgh University.
More than that, the CD, arranged roughly chronologically,
makes a satisfyingly varied programme. We begin with the Collection’s
oldest playable instrument, an Italian virginal, heard in two anonymous
Scottish galliards (the only Scots music on the disc) and a strikingly
chromatic Capriccio by Merula (d.1665). A single manual Italian harpsichord
of 1620 shows its paces in Byrd’s celebrated Pavan and Galliard
and The Earl of Salisbury and in some virtuoso variations, probably
by Sweelinck. Scarlatti can hardly by left out of such a production
and two contrasting sonatas sound well on a Hitchcock spinet of 1728.
Another London instrument, a Kirckman double manual harpsichord of 1755
is the vehicle for a brief, charming and direct three movement Suite
by Maurice Greene, sounding very much like Handel, although the two
men seemingly did not get on. Some actual Handel, a strikingly chromatic
Fugue (along with a popular Stanley voluntary), comes on a Parker chamber
organ of 1765 and an arrangement of the Rodelinda Overture (the
arrangement is not by Handel himself, although he did make others) on
a Broadwood harpsichord of 1793.
A Taskin harpsichord, built is Paris in 1769, received
more exposure than any of the other nine instruments featured, and its
music is perhaps as revealing as any. Armand-Louis Couperin (1727-89)
was one of the later members of the Couperin dynasty that did so much
for French keyboard (and other) music for perhaps a century and a half.
The three quite extended Forqueray pieces are astonishingly idiomatic
and memorable despite being arrangements from originals for bass viol
and continuo. One clavichord from the Collection, a German instrument
of 1763, is heard, very appropriately, in one of J S Bach’s "48",
the E flat from Book II. And so finally to an early piano built by Thomas
Loud of London in about 1810 and one of Clementi’s Sonatinas dating
from 1797, in just two movements, an Allegro and a Rondo: a teaching
piece, no doubt, like most of his sonatinas, but one, I would think,
for a pretty advanced pupil.
I have had much enjoyment from this disc and happily
recommend it, not only to lovers of old keyboard instruments, but also
on account of the music, which includes a number of striking and unusual
items. The booklet gives a history (and a photograph) of each instrument
and notes on the music. The recording, admirably clear and with a natural
sound, is excellently managed.
Philip L Scowcroft