Cherubini is not known for keyboard music, and, indeed,
wrote very little of it. The six sonatas for keyboard were composed
while Cherubini was living in Milan in 1780, studying with Giuseppe
Sarti, the Maestro di Cappella at Milan Cathedral. They were published
in Florence three years later and remained his only keyboard music to
go to press. The sonatas are therefore early works, very much in the
‘Classical’ style and all consist of only two movements and all are
in major keys. While the sonatas display a gift for melodic construction,
there is an undeniable variation in the intellectual quality of the
works. Movements consisting of toccata-like passage-work of great virtuosity
and expressive freedom are juxtaposed with academic passages of little
originality or imagination. There are many examples of the former in
the first movements of these sonatas, some of which show an indebtedness
to the contrapuntal style of J S Bach and demand considerable dexterity
from the performer. The first movement of the sixth sonata is an interesting
example. It is through composed (i.e. it does not have the bipartite
structure with each section repeated that is common to all the other
first movements) and at over nine minutes long, shows Cherubini’s ability
to develop his material on a large scale.
The fascinating aspect of this recording is the use
of a fortepiano as the chosen instrument. This is commonplace now, but
this recording was made in 1977 when ‘early music’ and the period instrument
revival was still very much concentrated in the music of the baroque
era and the reproduction of early pianos was in its infancy. The instrument
used here is an original; an English piano made by W. Dettmer around
the first couple of decades of the 19th century. It is hard to know
what condition the instrument was in at that time, and even more difficult
to know how much the regulation and possible restoration that would
be done today would change the sound. There are still many listeners
who just do not like the sound of early pianos, and it must be said
that the quality of the sound of this particular instrument is not great.
The bass in particular is rather dull; "thunky" if you like.
That having been said, there is still a strong argument to be made for
the use of such an instrument, as this is the sort of thing that Cherubini
would have used to practice his own (limited) keyboard skills. The fact
that these sonatas were published for "cimbalo" (properly
‘harpsichord’) should not stand in the way of the stylistic argument
for the use of the fortepiano. By the 1780s such instruments were very
well established, although the harpsichord was by no means obsolete.
For a recording made in 1977 this aspect is particularly interesting.
Lya De Barberiis plays these works with conviction.
A formidable character, to judge by the photo of her in the booklet,
seated at a modern grand, one wonders how familiar she was with the
fortepiano at the time of the recording. There are aspects of touch
and articulation that sound like a player used to a modern piano transferring
the same technique onto the lighter instrument, and this may account
for some of the hardness in the sound. It is impossible to deny that
there are things on the disc that this reviewer does not much like.
However, the importance of such a recording of this sort of repertoire,
made on an original instrument at the time the recording was produced
is an undeniably fascinating aspect. This is the sort of disc that does
wonders to promote discussion of aspects of performance practice and
even of ‘taste.’ Although there are things which one would not expect
to hear in a new recording of the same works, (the aforementioned hardness
of the sound, the rather close microphone placement and the very dry
studio acoustic) those very aspects define the recording as being of
its own time. In this it forms a most interesting listening experience.
It is certainly not a disc worth buying if the listener is not prepared
to bring their own brain into the equation, but the repertoire, the
performance, and the recording are all likely to provoke reaction of
one sort or another. It is strongly arguable that that is much of the