> Violet Gordon Woodhouse Vol 3 [JW]: Classical CD Reviews- Jun2002 MusicWeb(UK)






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Violet Gordon WOODHOUSE
Great Virtuosi of the Harpsichord - Volume 3
Henry PURCELL (1658-1695)

Gavotte in G Major
J. S. BACH (1685-1750)

French Suite No 4 – Prelude
Fugue in D Minor
Toccata in E Minor
Partita No 1 – Allemande
English Suite No1 – Prelude
Italian Concerto
Clavierbuchlein fur Anna Magdelena Bach – 3 Pieces
Well-Tempered Clavier –Prelude and Fugue No 1
J. P. RAMEAU (1683-1764)

Suite in E Minor – Tambourin
François COUPERIN (1668-1733)

Pieces de Clavencin – L’Arlequine
Giles FARNABY (c1563-1640)

Nobody’s Gigge
Domenico SCARLATTI (1685-1757)

Sonata K29
Sonata K113
John BULL (c1562-1628)

Galliard FVB185
George Frederic HANDEL (1685-1759)

Suite No 5 – Harmonious Blacksmith
William BYRD (1543-1623)

Earle of Oxford’s Marche
The Queene’s Alman
Galiarda
Rowland or Lord Willobie’s Welcome Home
Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)

Keyboard Sonata No 37 Hob XVI; 37
Excerpts from a 1941 BBC Interview
Violet Gordon Woodhouse, harpsichord and clavichord
Recorded 1920-1942
PEARL GEMM CD 9242 [78’04]


The esteem in which Violet Gordon Woodhouse was held didn’t much survive her death. Though she was the first major instrumentalist to record on the harpsichord, was the seemingly unlikely dedicatee of Delius’s Dance for Harpsichord, was lionised by Osbert Sitwell and T. E. Lawrence to the point of idolatry, played recitals with Tertis, broadcast widely and was a superb exponent of the literature for her instrument, she became known, if at all, for her tangential relationship to a scandalous double murder and for her extraordinary domestic arrangements, which culminated in a simultaneous marriage blanche and ménage a Cinq. see

Violet Gordon Woodhouse was born in 1871 into a musical environment. Adelina Patti was a family friend and at sixteen Violet began to be taught by pianist Oscar Beringer and later by Augustin Rubio, dashing Spanish émigré pianist. Violet, nee Gwynne, married Gordon Woodhouse to further her musical ambitions knowing that otherwise a performing career would be difficult for her, if not impossible. It was Arnold Dolmetsch who introduced her to early music in 1895 and Bernard Shaw encouraged her; with the harpsichord, clavichords, spinet and a set of virginals purchased from Dolmetsch she began to carve out the beginnings of a drawing room career for herself.

Gordon Woodhouse lost his money after the First War but in 1926 his sisters were murdered by their butler and his finances were once more transformed and restored, allowing Violet more or less to retire from public performance. She continued to perform in her salon and gradually gravitated more and more to the clavichord (in the 1941 BBC recordings she plays, for the only time in her recorded career, a clavichord in the first Prelude and Fugue of the "48").

Her repertoire embraced the accustomed baroque suites – especially Couperin – and in particular music from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book as well, obviously, as Bach, Handel and Scarlatti. As Pearl’s splendid booklet notes relate – biographer Jessica Douglas-Home on the life, Richard Luckett on the music – there are idiosyncrasies in this disc more than those merely of her private life. The sound of the harpsichords used on the 1920-28 recordings will be the first to strike the ear. Luckett notes that Dolmetsch tinkered with a vibrato effect in his instruments. Gordon Woodhouse relied strongly on Dolmetsch’s copies and the effects of his compensative and imaginative reconstructions are certainly individual although not always entirely attractive. The necessarily compromised frequencies of the acoustic discs, in particular, means that one often has to listen through the exigencies of instrument and acoustic to reach the mind behind them. What emerges here, however, is a musician of consistently superior gifts, of digital accuracy, broad textual fidelity (matters of repeats aside) and constant avoidance of the motoric-metronomic impulses once associated with the instrument.

Maybe the Purcell Gavotte has a rather stolid quality to it but the Rameau makes up for it – entirely winning playing, vigorous and insinuating. She’s not technically immaculate in the Farnaby Gigge – but employs tremendous subtleties of rubato in even so obvious a piece as the Harmonious Blacksmith. Comparison with her great continental rival, Wanda Landowska and her industrial sized Pleyel, shows a number of clear differences. Landowska’s projection and tremendous zest were fused with her means of expression, a massive harpsichord, whereas Gordon Woodhouse favoured degrees of intimacy which led eventually to the clavichord. In the Harmonious Blacksmith for example Landowska is hard driven, exultant, breathlessly exciting whereas Gordon Woodhouse favours a different aesthetic; with her, wit resides in the sublimation of virtuosity and hers is a performance that lives from the inside out, as it were. The Byrd selections are more evidence of her understanding of the English Virginalists and her own place in the vanguard of early instrumental performance practice. But there is evidence everywhere of her understated but profoundly thought-through musicianship, not least in the Italian Concerto where comparison once more with Landowska reveals more points of difference. Gordon Woodhouse’s accelerandos, crescendos and decrescendos are certainly more frequent and superficially disruptive than Landowska who, in comparison, appears more obviously linear in conception. There is an inevitability about the shaping of Landowska’s lines that Gordon Woodhouse doesn’t attempt; the English player is far more involved in tempo-rubato in her playing, is more pianistic, and the smaller instrument allows her metrical flexibilities with which to imbue her playing.

Not least the most fascinating feature of this disc is the survival of a 1941 BBC broadcast – which contains her clavichord playing, the only known example. The short-sightedness of the BBC in its inability or unwillingness to preserve recordings of this kind – or to dispose of or destroy them – is well enough known and this excerpt from the fifteen minutes (it wasn’t possible to include all for reasons of length) shows what we now lack. She plays the first Prelude and Fugue from the "48" and a piece from the Strallock Manuscript and we can hear her speaking voice, in one of those famously awful scripted interviews. A privilege nonetheless. Recorded in her home, Nether Lypiatt Manor, Gloucestershire, in the height of the War she must already have seemed something of an antique. But this disc resoundingly demonstrates the significance of her place in the history of the rediscovery of early music and its first remarkable appearance on disc.

Jonathan Woolf


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