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Richard Lester plays Scarlatti, Frescobaldi and Haydn

Domenico Scarlatti: Complete Sonatas Vols VI & VII

Richard Lester (harpsichord)
Nimbus Records
NI 1730 (Vol VI – 6 Cds) and
NI 1731 (Vol VII – 3 Cds)


What a wonderful achievement. The complete sonatas on appropriate instruments on 38 discs is a great library addition and with performances like this, no-one will be disappointed.

The principal instrument used on these discs (Vols 6 and 7) is a copy of a harpsichord by Joachim Jose Antunes made in Lisbon in 1785. The original lives in Finchcocks, Kent and is one I know very well (as I'm director of education there).

My first impression was that this was a fantastic copy, capturing the unique dry quality of the original with the fabulously sonorous bass. Richard Lester uses it well, savouring the percussive edginess of the sound but at the same time making the instrument sing, particularly with just one of the two sets of eight foot strings engaged.

I have been asked by PGW to provide a general overview of these releases, but this has not stopped me listening to all the discs – passing many car journeys, and then at home for sonic analysis, finally being downloaded to my mp3 player for overall musical enjoyment.

There is very much to enjoy and Richard Lester has done the harpsichord world a huge favour by presenting these pieces in this way. The booklets enclosed with these two releases are informative and contain much that enhances the listening experience.

Volume 7 also contains a booklet entitled “Flamenco Sketches” where the performer attempts to analyse many of the Spanish elements in the music; this is enlightening reading. Now and again I couldn't help feeling that I wanted more of this Spanish colour in the playing: there is much brilliance and virtuosity but sometimes a lack of raw spirit and Spanish ebullience.

The recorded sound varies, too. Sometimes (particularly on disc 1 of volume 6) the harpsichord disappears backwards from the listener, and sometimes I felt I was sitting inside it!

Something, unmentioned in the booklets, happens with the harpsichord now and again: it develops an extra set of strings (and becomes Flemish?) and even gains pipes (Vol 6, disc 2, track 3)! What a shame the otherwise accurate booklets fail to mention these other instruments. The organ, particularly, has a pleasing old-fashioned tone to it and I wanted to know more about it.

Minor gripes aside, this is a splendid achievement.

Steven Devine

Full info & track listings Vols 1 - 7



Five Gagliardes
Toccata Settima
Partite undecima sopra l'Aria di Monicha in G major
Partite sopra Ciaccona
Toccata nona
Partite sopra Passacagli
Toccata terza (1615)
Toccata Quinta
Corrente & Ciaccona
Toccata Settima
Balletto e ciaccona (1637)
Toccata Seconda (1627)
Toccata Sesta (1615)
Partite dodici sopra l'aria di Ruggiero

Nimbus NI 5861

N.B. the Links are integral to this short review; do click on them !

Another major project from Richard Lester is underway. Frescobaldi is a more elusive composer than Scarlatti, but his importance is not to be questioned. The main content of this disc is a selection of his Toccatas, freely encouraging an improvisatory style of playing, alluring moment to moment if perhaps not giving an overall structural feeling, nor intended to.

Lester uses a wondrous G B Boni harpsichord of c 1619, with split black keys, which distinguish front and back between e.g. C# and Db (see also on Linda Nicholson's clavichord), the need for which in this harmonically complex music is explained and demonstrated on Richard Lester's essential accompanying on-line video talk which is the latest proof that the computer has now become a necessity for serious collectors.

The programme of Toccatas, Gagliardes and Partite is sequenced with the listener in mind, and gradually draws you into Frescobaldi's world. Good essays by Lester on the historical background, the music in this volume and performance practices are supplied in this distinguished release. For a full review by a specialist expert see Marc Sealey in Classical Net.

Peter Grahame Woolf

P.S. Vol 1 has subsequently been received, together with the DVD version of Lester's on-line video talk, which absolutely has to be seen.
Vol 1 includes the remarkable Cento Partite sopra Passacagli, which Richard Lester considers to be "the most briliant example of the art of free variation, founded on three dance forms, all taken allegro." It modulates in the most astonishing ways and, he assures us, was undoubtedly intended for an instrument with split accidentals such as the Boni, the keys of which can be seen most clearly on the video. PGW


Sixteen Scarlatti sonatas


For readers daunted by the complete Scarlatti sonatas, about which I endorse Steven Devine's praise, this is a pleasing re-issue of a popular selection recorded by Ton Koopman in Utrecht, 1986.

Koopman plays a Kroesbergen instrument "after Stephanini", its warm tone supplemented by the resonant acoustic of the Maria minor church

There being not a single manuscript page in existence, there have to be reservations about any claim to absolute authenticity, and one really does need to have more than one version of this loveable music. We enjoyed these accounts greatly; nor would I be without those of Mikhail Pletnev on piano (Virgin: 5619612 - at bargain re-issue price irresistible!).

Capriccio's presentation is in book-format, more individual than the standard jewel case.



Haydn: Six Keyboard Works on historic fortepianos

Sonatas in D Major Hob. XVI:37, G major Hob. XVI:27, C Major, Hob. XVI:35 & F Major Hob. XVI:23
Parthita E flat Major Hob. XVI:Es3
Divertimento A flat Major Hob XVI:46

Nimbus NI 5847

Rather a disappointing follow-up to Lester's great Scarlatti series.

He plays 4 sonatas on a Schantz fortepiano of c. 1795 and two more "Parthia in Eb Hob XVI.Es3" and "Divertimento in Ab Hob.XVI46" a little more flexibly on an unnamed Italian fortepiano before c 1790.

There is a rhythmical rigidity in Richard Lester's playing of the fast movements which I found rather disconcerting*

Peter Grahame Woolf

* c.p. Geoffrey Lancaster and Declamatory Performance vs. the 'Straight, Mainstream, Industrial, Modernist' Style

ANOTHER OPINION from Steven Devine:
Richard Lester moves on from his survey of Scarlatti and Soler with this foray into later repertoire. This selection of sonatas (the Parthita and Divertimento are listed as sonatas in some sources) dates are thought to be from the period c1770-c1790. What is certain is that the sonatas programmed here are all in major keys and all unfailing cheerful. The four slow movements (out of seventeen tracks) are welcome in the overall programming. Straight away, then, I found this disc slightly unbalanced as an overall programme to be taken in one listening; maybe that is not the intention though.

The debate about CD programming continues: does one offer a survey for the specialist listener, or a selection of specifics, or a general “concert”? It is not for this review to offer opinions but a couple of minor-key works would not have been missed here.

The two instruments played here are both historic instruments: the Schantz fortepiano in the Holburne museum and an anonymous instrument from a private collection. Both possibly date from the 1790s and sound well-restored and in fine shape. They have both been well-tuned for this recording – a relief as many historical pianos do not get such attention. One or two unisons fall out of tune now and again but this is all part of the old instrument experience and in a succinct and pleasingly personal liner note, Richard Lester “begs the listener to pardon any slight imperfections in instrument reliability” - very rarely is this pardoning needed. The recorded sound is present and a little “boxy” for my taste but stands up to repeated listening over speakers and headphones and I enjoyed the direct comparison between the fortepianos.

In his Scarlatti and other harpsichord recordings I admired Richard Lester's flawless technique and his ability to take on the enormous variety of musical challenges presented. From a note point of view, the same feeling certainly pervades here. My worry here is that a 1790s fortepiano is not the ideal vehicle for these works and that in choosing these sonatas, Richard has had to find a level of expression that doesn't comfortably sit, particularly on the Schantz. A slightly “hard-edged” approach is used with a small dynamic range; sometimes I felt he would have preferred to have been playing a large Viennese harpsichord and would have been able to find a greater variety of expression on it. Repeated gestures too often go unremarked (first rule of classical music rhetoric!). For me the most successful embracing of the piano's capabilities, whether or not ideally suited to the music, is the A flat Divertimento at the end of the disc where the phrases shape nicely with arc-like dynamic gestures.

By way of a conclusion, I am delighted that Richard has presented these two instruments in such an honest recorded sound and with his customary technical flair. It would have been lovely if he would have been able to call on a wider palate of colours for this joyous music.

Steven Devine