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Thomas ARNE (1710-1778)
Six Favourite Concertos (published 1793): 1. Harpsichord Concerto in C [13:28], 2. Organ Concerto in G [11:36], 3. Piano Concerto in A [16:40], 4. Organ Concerto in B flat [11:26], 5. Harpsichord Concerto in G minor [12:04], 6. Piano Concerto in B flat [11:43]
The Parley of Instruments Baroque Orchestra/Paul Nicholson (keyboard/director)
rec. 26-28 June 1991, All Hallows, Gospel Oak, London
HELIOS CDH55251 [77:41]
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Arne wrote these concertos for his son Michael at various stages during his career, from the early 1750s to his last years. He fully intended to gather them up and publish them but was unsuccessful, as was Michael, who died in 1786. The concertos finally appeared in 1793.

Bearing in mind the long period over which they were written it is not surprising that some movements hark back to the Handelian baroque while others inhabit the galante world of Johann Christian Bach. They nevertheless speak with a consistent voice. They are not in the three-movement form developed by Vivaldi and Bach, which is perhaps how we think of the late baroque keyboard concerto. Rather, they follow the Concerto Grosso form of Corelli and Handel, being effectively suites of movements without any pre-ordained pattern, though the most substantial movement generally comes first, or else second following an introductory slow movement, and finales are either lively (usually a Gigue) or else a Minuet. Sometimes the soloist has a genuine dialogue with the orchestra, looking ahead to the classical concerto, sometimes they alternate, in four out of the six concertos at least one movement is inserted where the orchestra is silent.

Arne specified that the concertos could be played on the "Organ, Harpsichord or Piano e Forte"; only in no.2 are there two movements so specifically for the organ that Arne instructed that they be omitted if a harpsichord was used. Nicholson divides the concertos up with two for each instrument and his choices are always convincing. The music has all the charm and grace we expect from Arne, differentiating him from, for example, the sturdier Boyce, but there are also movements, notably the first of no.3, where the music has considerable strength.

A lot of authentic water has gone under the bridge since Jean Guillou recorded these works with a sizeable orchestra under René Klopfenstein and the full resources of a big organ; the E.M.G. Monthly Letter reported that "Any suspicion of a cadenza provides an opportunity, only too readily taken, for the letting loose of sonorities more suited to a toccata by Bach or Buxtehude". Paul Nicholson plays all three instruments with the required alternation of grace and nimble virtuosity at some spanking tempi while the orchestra plays with joyful rhythmic élan and none of the mannered phrasing which infects some authentic instrument groups. It struck me that some of the Largo movements were almost Allegro, but better this than trying to extract a profundity that is not there. The performances certainly reveal that, one or two more conventional movements apart, these concertos have a high quality of invention and workmanship and can offer a good deal of pleasure. English music in the immediate post-Handelian years has a character all of its own and any collection which embraces the transition from baroque to classical should include London among its ports of call. With a beautifully clear recording and fully informative notes, this is a model of how such things should be done.

One blot on the copybook; the date of Arne’s death is inadvertently printed on the back cover as 1787 rather than 1778.

Christopher Howell



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