The Consort

Joanna Leach adds to her well-respected output of recordings of square pianos with an eclectic programme of pieces on three pianos and a spinet. The addition of the Thomas Barton spinet of 1727 enables the span of a century of keyboards and their music although, in fact, the chosen composers do not all match the instruments. The programme notes explain something of the history and mechanics of both the spinet and the piano. We are told that ‘the early pianos have, to our ears in the 21 st century, a very antiquated tone similar to the timbre of a spinet’, although they actually have strongly contrasting individual voices, as she has also demonstrated on previous recordings.

The first quarter of the CD is played upon the English spinet and opens with Francois Couperin. The date of 1727 fits, his fourth and last book of Ordres appearing in 1730, although the spinet is somewhat inadequate to the task of portraying the misty mystery of Les Barricades or the menacing satire of Les Folies Francoises . A fairly brisk rendition of Byrd’s Pavan for the Earle of Salisbury is sandwiched between the Couperin and Handel. The Handel Fantasia is much more fitted to the instrument and one can imagine Handel’s smaller works happily played upon it after a visit to one of his operas. A harpsichord, not spinet, might be more appropriate for the Air and Variations G56, which is perhaps why, in the absence of one, Joanna Leach chooses to play this on the 1787 Longman and Broderip.

I was disappointed at the choice of Bach and Handel for the early piano that would have suited so well the music of J C Bach, Clementi or even the Mozart Adagio (written just a year later than the piano was built). She might have displayed the qualities of the spinet with some of the published English composers such as Purcell, Blow and Croft, who would have sounded so well on this instrument, or those of the second quarter of the 1700s such as Richard Jones, Chilcot, Roseingrave and foreigners, Scarlatti and Loeillet, who were published in London at this time.

I have reservations about some of her ornamentation in this earlier repertoire, but Joanna Leach articulates clearly, although there is a lack of contrasting over-holding and thus warmth of sound. However, at the 21 st track her playing transports us into another realm: as soon as the third instrument, the Stodart square piano of 1823, is touched at the opening of the Soler sonata, it springs into life. This is not, historically, the perfect instrument for Soler but it works wonderfully. Joanna Leach here demonstrates her considerable talent for expressive playing on the early 19 th century square piano, and the Great Mozart Adagio in B minor KV 540 is sensitively played, followed by a bouquet of shorter Schubert dances.

Her final quarter of the programme is entirely devoted to Mendelssohn, and she is completel y comfortable with this much lov ed romantic composer, playing upon a piano made just five years before Victoria ascended the throne. It was during her reign that Mendelssohn’s music became so popular, and the ubiquitous domestic piano became upright. A suitable choice within this last section for the end of the century that this CD celebrates is Wie die Zeit lauft , translated as How Times Flies.

—Penelope Cave