In the second half of the 18th century the new fortepiano
gradually pushed the harpsichord onto the sidelines. Alongside the
'grand piano' used on the concert platform, other kinds of 'piano'
were developed, which were mainly used in private rooms and salons.
Such an instrument is presented on this CD: the square piano, also
called 'table piano'. This instrument, which could be used both
as a side table and as a musical instrument, was especially popular
in England. One of the main builders of the instrument Johannes
Zumpe, was born in Germany but left his country for Britain in 1761.
The instrument used here for most of the items is a piano built
by him in 1769, exactly the year the Concerto in A by Philip Hayes
was composed, presented here as the 'first piano concerto' in the
history of music.
In Britain the square piano became very popular, and by the end
of the 18th century huge numbers of instruments were sold. But
during the 19th century the square piano lost ground to the upright
piano, the 'home version' of the concert grand. Until the end
of the 19th century square pianos were built, though.
David Owen Norris implicitly questions the generally held view
that square pianos were mostly used in private homes and by amateur
musicians, and were inferior to the grand pianos for 'serious'
music making. One of the characteristics of the square piano is
described by Mr Norris: "... the dampers were raised, not
by a sustaining pedal, but by two hand levers, one for the bass
and one for the treble. This meant that notes rang on until a
hand was free to 'change' the lever". This situation was
unchanged at the end of the century. It was different on the continent:
the famous piano builder Anton Walter also built square pianos;
they had a knee lever to operate the sustaining mechanism. And
in Vienna, composers and professional musicians took the square
piano very seriously.
David Owen Norris states that for more than two centuries, the
fact that square pianos in Britain had only hand levers "has
been perceived as a fatal disadvantage, ruling out Zumpe's Square
as a serious instrument: a puzzling verdict in view of its enormous
He also refers to the fact that a highly respected composer like
Johann Christian Bach acted as an agent for Zumpe and performed
on the instrument in public, which he wouldn't have done if he
had considered the square piano a kind of toy. Mr Norris closely
studied the music by Johann Christian Bach and believes some of
the characteristics of his keyboard music have been generated
by the peculiarities of the square piano. Some of the harmonies
only have an effect if the strings ring on. And he also believes
that "the need to avoid blurring forced him to avoid writing
too many notes". He concludes that Johann Christian turned
the peculiarities of the instrument to musical advantage.
The result as can be heard on this CD has convinced me. I have
heard the concertos by Johann Christian before, and was never
impressed; I often wondered where his reputation came from. For
some reasons, I found the keyboard concertos, in particular if
played on the fortepiano, bland and rather uninteresting. Having
heard the performance here I have changed my mind. All of a sudden
the concertos become quite dramatic. The other pieces on this
recording are equally interesting and musically satisfying. Mr
Norris has found in these concertos several characteristics that
seem to refer to the square piano as the instrument that the composers
had in mind. On this instrument they seem fully developed concertos
in their own right and not just predecessors of the 'real' classical
All concertos are performed with two violins and cello. Any larger
ensemble would drown out the square piano. That a performance
with such a slight ensemble was common practice is proven by the
three concertos by Mozart, all arrangements of keyboard sonatas
by Johann Christian Bach. It is very likely that Mozart himself
played on a square piano by Zumpe, as an instrument signed by
Johann Christian Bach and built in 1778 has been found in France
near the village where Johann Christian and Mozart met in 1778.
It is an additional bonus that this very instrument is used here
in Mozart's Concerto in D.
But this recording isn't only interesting from a historical point
of view. The performance by David Owen Norris and Sonnerie is
excellent: lively and dramatic, with great expression in the slower
movements. The choice of tempi is very satisfying: most middle
movements are marked 'andante', and they are played as such, not
as 'adagios', as so often happens. Sometimes the tempo is held
back for a moment - for example in the andante of Mozart's Concerto
in D - which has a great dramatic effect.
I would strongly recommend this recording which brings together
a hardly-known instrument, fine music and excellent performances.
Johan van Veen
see also review
by Lewis Foreman