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Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

The World’s First Piano Concertos (1769-1780)
Johann Christian BACH (1735-1782) Concertos in Eb and G Op.7 Nos. 5 and 6
Carl Friedrich ABEL (1723-1787) Concerto in Bb Op.11 No.2
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791) Concerto in D K107
Philip HAYES (1708-1777) Concerto in A major
James HOOK (1746-1827) Concerto in D, Op.1 No.5
David Owen Norris (square piano)
Sonnerie: (Monica Huggett and Emilia Benjamin (violins); Joseph Crouch (cello))
Rec. 2002, The Music Room, Hatchlands, Hatchlands Park, Surrey, England. DDD
AVIE AV 0014 [79:57]

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This CD champions the square piano, that instrument of the 1770s which introduced the keyboard to a wide amateur audience. The problem with the Square piano is that the dampers were raised by two hand levers (one each for treble and bass) rather than a sustaining pedal, and thus it was characterised by what pianist David Owen Norris describes as a "halo of resonance". This characteristic has been seen as a fatal disadvantage in assessing the square piano as having a serious role in playing the repertoire of the day.

In this programme of Piano Concertos played on a restored Zumpe & Buntebart square piano of 1769, David Owen Norris triumphantly demonstrates how the birth of the piano concerto in the London of the 1770s can be experienced in the music of J.C. Bach - the "London Bach", Carl Friedrich Abel; James Hook (the bard of Vauxhall Gardens - recorder players will probably have encountered his music among their first "proper" sonatas) and Philip Hayes, Professor of Music at Oxford. The latter, Norris reminds us, was renowned as the fattest man in England. More importantly, Norris argues that Hayes’ Concerto in A major of 1769 can be regarded as the world’s first. One can well see how spare the textures of the concerto would sound if played on a modern piano, or on a harpsichord, yet here they take on a persuasive and idiomatic character all their own.

The ensemble supporting David Owen Norris at the square piano, consists of two violins and cello. They are recorded in the Music Room at Hatchlands, the home of the Cobbe Collection at the National Trust property at Hatchlands Park, Surrey. The microphone catches the ensemble persuasively. The performances are poised and crisp, Norris scaling his pianism perfectly to the instrument. If one responds most immediately to the J.C. Bach Concertos, this is an enjoyable exploration of the music that would have been on offer to the active music lover in the London of the 1770s.

In his fascinating and erudite booklet notes Norris draws our attention to J.C. Bach’s Sonata in D, which in the hands of the young Mozart became the latter’s Concerto in D K107. For this Norris plays another square piano, built by Zumpe in 1777 or 1778. This still has the original buckskin hammer-covers, and as Norris notes, this means it cannot be played very frequently. Signed on the soundboard by J.C. Bach, it is exciting to realise that it is very probable that both Bach and Mozart played it. In the face of this we may applaud Norris waxing almost lyrical in the conclusion to his notes, writing: "It seems certain that this autographed piano, found near St Germain, was taken there by Bach on his 1778 visit and ... in this case Mozart would have certainly played it. ... For his own concerts in 1772 Mozart arranged three of Bach’s Op.5 Piano Sonatas as Concertos, with accompaniment for string trio. ... what better than to play one of these works of homage from the young composer to his mentor on the very keys both composers touched together in that long-ago summer of ’78?" Makes you want to stand up and cheer, doesn’t it?

The sound and the playing live up to ones expectations. Try the catchy first movements of the Abel or the Hook concertos to see if it is for you. For me this is practical musicology at its best, at once enjoyable and enlightening. It is also one of the longest-playing CDs to have come my way


Lewis Foreman



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