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Styrian Harpsichord Concertos
Johann Adam SCHEIBL (1710-1773)
Concerto in C major [9:14]
Georg Christoph WAGENSEIL (1715-1777)
Concerto in G minor [11:58]
Concerto in F major [13:36]
Johann Michael STEINBACHER (d. 1750)
Pastorella in G major for solo harpsichord [0:54]
Prelude in A minor for solo harpsichord [1:10]
Concerto in A minor [14:29]
Concerto in G major [13:14]
Concerto in C major [13:23]
Michael Hell (harpsichord)
Lucia Froihofer (solo violin)
Neue Hofkapelle Graz/Lucia Froihofer and Michael Hell
rec. 2018, Universität für darstellende Kunst Graz, Austria
CPO 555 269-2 [78:30]

Styria is a mountainous, forested state in southern Austria, known for its wine, spas and castles, with Graz its riverside state capital. When I first encountered this new CD, given that the name of only one composer – Georg Christian WagenseiI – was familiar to me at the outset, I was intrigued to find out more about other composers from this particular part of Austria.

On the back of the CD is an alternative title – ‘Austrian Harpsichord Concertos from the 18th century’ – which, arguably, might have been better placed on the CD front, as not everyone I asked, even knew exactly where Styria was. Although we also know we are now dealing with eighteenth-century repertoire, it’s not quite as it sounds. We are probably familiar with the terms Classical (Mozart and Haydn et al), and Baroque (Bach and Handel et al). But some of the works on the CD might well be described as ‘pre-classical’, which by definition could suggest a ‘mini-period’ on its own, or the term ‘early-classical’, since it confirms that the music subscribes to most of the stylistic attributes of the Classical period, though in a less-developed way. Some may even prefer to use the term ‘Rococo’, or ‘galant’. But as it makes precious little difference to the music recorded, perhaps we should just draw a line under it, and adopt Austrian musicologist’s Rudolf Flotzinger’s all-embracing description as ‘the era between eras’ – no longer Baroque, but not yet Classical.

Harpsichordist Michael Hell has produced a superb booklet in German and English, to accompany the music, and once you really get stuck in to all the technicalities, the CD’s true raison d’être emerges. As mentioned before, Wagenseil might already be known to listeners, though other than through his music for harpsichord, two concertos of which are included here. There is another concerto, and two very short pieces for solo harpsichord by Johann Michael Steinbacher, whose dates aren’t precisely known, a concerto by Johann Adam Scheibl, a further concerto by Casteli, about whom precious little is known, even down to the exact spelling of his name, and even an anonymous concerto in C.

But it’s not so much about the music these composers wrote, than about the instruments in use at the time of writing. Prior to getting hold of the present CD, as a pianist, rather than harpsichordist, I wasn’t aware, for example of the ‘Viennese bass octave’, which is a system where the lowest notes of the instrument have a very different key order from that of a regular chromatic keyboard, no doubt offering a wonderful extra ‘challenge’ to the already hard-pressed performer. In making this CD, Hell uses both an original instrument by Johann Leydecker, made in Vienna in 1755, and a modern copy of the same instrument by Martin Pühringer from Haslach, in 2017, Both instruments have a single manual, equipped with two 8’ registers – the ‘Prinzipal’, and the ‘Nasal’, the latter where one set of strings is plucked closer to the nut, which emphasizes the higher harmonics, and produces a somewhat ‘nasal’ sound quality. While there are two available timbres, because of the mechanism involved, it is not possible to effect quick register changes within a movement, as with the system of stops and couplers, seen on larger instruments. In the sleeve notes Hell lists not only which instrument is being used for a particular piece, but even which register(s), too.

Scheibl’s C major Concerto, which begins the CD, has a nice, sprightly feel to the opening ‘Allegro’, where the two trumpets added to the conventional string ensemble make a telling contribution to the sound, both in terms of timbre, and, of course, in sheer volume output. While Hell goes for the modern copy here, with both registers used in conjunction, the harpsichord sounds as if it is set back with the rest of the instruments, rather than physically brought forward, or given some extra gain on the recording. This, of course, emphasises the naturally authentic live sound of the ensemble, but, given that Hell already describes the sound of his two instruments as ‘rather fine and soft’, does take a little bit of getting used to, initially.

Returning to the Scheibl first movement, there is a short cadenza built largely over a dominant pedal. The slow movement in C minor, marked ‘Larghetto’, is a lilting Siciliano, which also sports a short cadenza, again built over a dominant pedal. The ‘Allegro’ finale is in triple time, with a good deal of triplet figuration from the keyboard, but with no further cadenza.

This is followed by the first of Wagenseil’s concertos, this one in G minor. Compared with Scheibl’s concertos, Wagenseil uses a greater variety of forms for the individual movements, as well as more flexibility in where they are positioned in the work as a whole. Whereas Scheibl would be content to mark his fast movements ‘Allegro’, as here, or ‘Tempo giusto’, Wagenseil uses four descriptors for his: ‘Allegro’, ‘Allegro assai’, ‘Vivace’, and ‘Presto’. While at least one movement will be in triple time, Scheibl always uses 3/4 for his finales. The first movement of the present G minor concerto is marked ‘Vivace’, and for this work Hell opts for the original Leydecker instrument, which he still sets up in the same fashion as the modern copy – both 8’ registers for the outer movements, and the ‘Nasal’ for the slow movement, here marked ‘Andante alla b[reve]’. The finale is an exciting movement in triple time, marked ‘Allegro’, and distinguished by some very articulate playing from both soloist and ensemble.

A piece by Johann Michael Steinbacher for solo harpsichord follows, an extremely short Pastorella in G. Despite it lasting under a minute, it manages to cram in five different tempo markings along the way: ‘Presto’, ‘Adagio’, ‘Allegro’, ‘Adagio’, and ‘Presto’. The title also reflects its distinctive folk-like quality, often with bare fifths in the left hand and a modal feel to the melody in the first section, seemingly in G major, but with frequent C sharps, characteristic of the G Lydian mode – G, A, B, C sharp, D, E, F sharp, G – in modern modal parlance.

The following work is an extremely appealing three-movement Concerto in G by Casteli, or perhaps Castelli. Bizarrely the opening tutti sounds quite familiar to the ear, though, of course, this could simply be because it’s very much music of the time – the details about both work and composer are decidedly hazy. Its opening ‘Allegro’ features some interesting instrumental effects, and, on closer scrutiny, this actually turns out to be a double concerto for violin and harpsichord, where the former has top billing. The ‘Adagio’ slow movement features the solo violin, as the harpsichord is silent throughout. Violinist Lucia Froihofer plays the solo line with studied emotion, and totally in keeping with performance practices of the time. A lively triple-metre ‘Presto’ concludes this attractive work, where the violin is the first to be rewarded with a cadenza, at the close of the E minor episode, followed by the harpsichord, initially solo, and then momentarily joined by the violin just before the final appearance of the main theme, and the work’s jaunty close.

An anonymous three-movement Concerto in C follows, which opens with a conventional ‘Allegro’, but where there is a somewhat more substantial cadenza. Early on in this cadenza (3:56), where the harpsichord is playing in thirds (C/E, F/A, for example), one note (a G sharp) seems to stand out as sounding slightly out of tune. Despite the vagaries of harpsichord tuning, and the more pressing need to attend to this more frequently during a live performance, it’s not, in fact, the tuner having an off day. In the booklet, Hell informs us that both harpsichords are tuned to the scale as defined by Vallotti, one of a number of scales in use before Bach’s epic two-volume set of forty-eight Preludes and Fugues in all twenty-four major and minor keys – his ‘48’ for short – championed the new system of ‘Equal Temperament’, which has survived in general usage ever since. For those intrigued by tunings and scales, there is a wealth of information out there, which makes for fascinating reading, particularly if you are also well versed in mathematics. Hell also informs us that the instruments are all tuned to A = 430 Hz, which is slightly lower than concert pitch today (440 Hz), but not as low as Baroque tuning (415 Hz). Returning to the Concerto, a lilting Siciliano in the minor, complete with an expressive, rather than virtuosic cadenza is followed by a bright, triple-metre finale, characterised by some brilliant filigree passages from the harpsichord.

Another solo work by Steinbacher follows – his Prelude in A minor – a typical confection of scales, arpeggios and broken-chord patterns, just over a minute in length, and closing with a ‘Picardy Third’, a major chord at the end of a piece in a minor key. If you look carefully at the way ‘Prelude’ is spelt in the booklet, you may be somewhat puzzled. On many occasions, by the law of averages, occasional spelling mistakes and typos can sneak through unnoticed, especially foreign words. But the booklet has otherwise been scrutinised with great care, suggesting that ‘Preludè’ is not an accident. Rather like a dog with a bone, and one who is particularly interested in, and fascinated by languages, I had to know the answer. I contacted the harpsichordist at the University of Graz, Austria, who said he always aims to keep the original source spelling in these situations, so the unusual spelling appears as above on the only manuscript of the work. He went on to add that sometimes ‘Rigadong’ appears instead of ‘Rigaudon’, or ‘Bouré’ in lieu of ‘Bourrée’, largely because spellings hadn’t been standardised as such in the eighteenth century, and a simple score copyist, or even the composer might not always know the ‘correct’ spelling of a foreign word..

Steinbacher’s A minor Concerto follows on straightway, with no run-in. There is a very business-like opening movement, with some rapid scales from soloist and ensemble, the latter sounding particularly full-bodied and rich here. There is a short cadenza essentially fashioned from a descending chromatic scale. The ensuing movement in triple time functions more as a stately minuet than a slow movement per se, and is cast in the subdominant key of D minor. It, too, has a short cadenza, before the final restatement of the theme. The finale keeps up the triple metre pattern with another movement that has all the forward impetus and drive of one by Bach. But if there is just one minor complaint with Steinbacher’s writing in this concerto, it is that he is very fond of – almost too much so at times – of using ‘ready-made’ chord progressions, like successions of descending seventh chords, which can sometimes be considered as harmonic padding when used to excess. There is a short cadenza just before the theme’s final restatement.

The CD finishes with a second concerto from the pen of Georg Christoph Wagenseil, this time in F major. The harmonic palette that Wagenseil uses here is noticeably more extended than that heard on most of the other works recorded. This is noticeable, for example, in the first movement, where he has moved into the minor just a few seconds in, and then treads water, harmonically speaking, for some fifty seconds (ca. 1:22), merely in the process of modulating from C major, the dominant key of F major, to D minor, its relative minor. There is a cadenza, but this is more introspective by nature than overtly virtuosic. The slow movement is cast once more as a slow minuet in the relative minor key. The first few seconds involve both harpsichord and ensemble, but then the harpsichord largely takes the lead, with some occasional short decorations from the strings. As each new key is reached, both protagonists become involved once more. A longer cadenza follows, where occasional moments of restrained passion are heard, though the prevailing mournful nature of the movement is never far away. The bright and cheerful finale has an almost Handelian feel to it, especially in terms of the melodic outline of its opening theme, which Steinbacher makes good use of throughout the movement. The final cadenza is the most brilliant in the work, and features many rapidly-despatched scales, which Hell manages with great alacrity and flawless articulation.

This new CD can be appreciated on different levels. If you have a real interest in harpsichord music from this part of Europe during the eighteenth century, then it’s a real gem, especially with such fine detail in the booklet, which should appeal both to performers, as well as connoisseurs. If you like harpsichord music per se, then you should find the disc both interesting, and most entertaining – in this latter capacity, my two favourite works being the last two recorded – Steinbacher’s A minor, and Wagenseil’s F major concertos. Of course, if you’re expecting the far richer and showier sound of a two-manual instrument playing Bach or similar, then you will probably be disappointed, although you will no doubt have realised this with a little prior online research.

If you’re merely interested in contemporary playing practices, period instruments, or their exact copies, or simply music of this era, then you will also learn much from this CD. The highly idiomatic performances particularly from the two soloists are stylish from start to finish, matched by some similarly fine playing from the Neue Hofkapelle Graz. Needless to say, cpo’s recording engineers have come up with a recording of the utmost clarity and presence, which finely compliments the performers’ contributions throughout. This is certainly another valuable contribution to the catalogue, and one that can be both erudite, yet really entertaining, at the same time.

Philip R Buttall

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