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The Consort

Gerald Gifford

Volume 67, Summer 2011

Luigi Cherubini Six Keyboard Sonatas
Edition HH, HH256 SOL, Bicester, 2010
(spiral bound, £30.00)
ISMN 979 0 708092 11 7

The publisher's website description of this new edition indicates that it 'celebrates Cherubini's 250th anniversary', and a timely celebration it is. Until comparatively recently, most peoples' awareness of this music would have been through heavily 'pianised' editions, in which respective editors employed virtually every hieroglyphic in the book in fashioning frankly unbelievable and frequently extremely off-putting texts.

The appearance in 1994 of Fuzeau's facsimile of the original, largely cleanly executed 1783 Florentine print (from the copy in the Bibliothéque Nationale, Paris) with its informative introduction by Emer Buckley, put an end to that for some of us, and as result, the music has at last been given a chance to speak for itself. Accordingly there have been a number of complete recordings of these sonatas on harpsichord, forte piano and modern piano, and a growing awareness of the worthiness of the contribution of Cherubini (1760-1842) to the repertoire.

For those having a reluctance to tackle facsimiles of 18th-century prints and their occasional idiosyncrasies, this new edition by Christopher Hogwood will be of great interest, for here is to be found critically-reliable texts (with not a single editorial dynamic or fingering recommendation in sight), and with valuable interpretative guidance in the commentary for some of the finer practical issues at stake.

Originally published as Sei Sonate per Cimbalo, as Hogwood points out in his introduction, 'A wide range of keyboard instruments would have been available to Cherubini, both in Italy and in his later travels to London and Paris, all of which might have been included in the generic term Cimbalo.' Most people would think immediately of the harpsichord and forte piano, though the editor rather more unexpectedly adds the clavichord, and square piano (the latter a particularly intriguing prospect).

Seemingly by deliberate choice, however, there is no indicative guidance by the editor for the selection of an appropriate instrument for a given sonata; he simply makes the general observation that 'an instrument capable of variable dynamics would be helpful for writing such as Cherubini's that relies heavily on the repetition of short passages and a predominance of right-hand melody'. True enough in the main, though some of the sonatas are less distinctive in this regard than others, and sound equally well when portrayed by the 'terraced' dynamic levels of the cembalo (though intriguingly, even then, some English harpsichords were mechanically 'expressive' well before the time that these works were published in London in 1786). The reserved, tranquil nature of Sonata no.4 in G major, which stands out from the prevailing animation of the rest by nature of its gently expressive opening Moderato and amiable concluding Rondò, notably marked Andantino, seems a perfect contender, to me anyway, for the clavichord.

The music throughout favours two-part writing; tune at the top, with well mannered sonata-form first movements followed by rondos. It is generally sight-readable, given a reasonable level of dexterity, though there are some moments when fingering needs to be carefully considered by the player, and not least in cleanly executing the profusion of gruppetti for which Cherubini seems to have a partiality. These decorations are pleasing in helping to characterise a melodic phrase, though a little tedious when simply patternised, as sometimes happens here.

Christopher Hogwood writes that these works contain little 'to suggest the later contrapuntalist and academic, nor the master of operatic effect'; he appears circumspect in citing William S Newman's pronouncement that these works show 'the superior composer yet to come in their thorough craftsmanship, fine sense of rhythm, and occasional sparks of melodic and harmonic wit', and quite correctly - in my view - places these sonatas more fittingly in the context of their actual Italianate musical background.

Cherubini's keyboard writing is pleasing and rewarding, though sometimes here the deftness of his imagination seems to take over from an exemplary musical expediency - the disappointingly predictable arpeggiated passage near the end of the exposition of Sonata no.6 (1) for example, is only to my mind partially vindicated by its treatment in the development, and elsewhere a potentially stunning idea (often harmonic in nature) may not prompt the most telling of outcomes. Compositional ideologies and processes such as these, and others too, are of their time - that is, with regard to Italian keyboard music - and not really all that prophetic of the composer's later capabilities when deftly exploiting effect, opportunity and resource.

The editor and his two proof-readers (acknowledged in the preface) have made a very thorough job of their task of providing an exemplary text, and only on a few occasions might one feel that alternative readings were possible, or that potential misreadings could occur. The little editorial flourishes which Hogwood has added from time to time, especially in the rondos, are charming and attractive, though they should not necessarily inhibit the imaginative player from improvising his or her own, or indeed not bothering at all (an eventuality which the editor himself also anticipates). One of these editorial additions, though, - the passage shown in bar 131 of Sonata no.2, final movement - contains an un-cancelled F sharp - note 4 - when an F natural would surely be better, and is implied anyway by the appearance of a sharp sign before note 8.

But this is a minor observation. My principal reaction and comment is that this fine new edition should enable keyboard players more generally to make up their own minds about the quality of this hitherto often poorly edited music, and the inherent nature of its musical expression. For myself, personally, having played through the volume to re-acquaint myself with its contents as portrayed in this new critical text, I found one sonata compelling, two mostly so, certain other individual movements rewarding, and the rest at times uneventful or even disappointing. My personal opinion is no more than that, and others may find treasures here that sustain them and presently elude me.

This is a fairly substantial 80+ page publication, and the publisher has thoughtfully presented it in spiral-bound format, with fold-over front cover, rather than a straightforward stapled binding. From a practical point of view this is preferable, and one may hope that this approach will be pursued with their other substantial issues, too. The cover illustration, Zoffany's The Gore family with George, 3rd Earl Cowper, c1775, is engagingly discussed by the editor, not least as being indicative of a type of instrument upon which this music could have been played at the time - the square piano - here thought to be placed within a Tuscan setting, rather than the English background to which it is more normally ascribed in commentaries.

We are grateful to theThe Consort for permission to reproduce this review.

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