Early music in Australia has a rich and interesting history.1 Each state boasts a multitude of dedicated performers, many of whom exhibit a musicality and technique that undoubtedly puts some European professionals to shame. One such Australian artist is the harpsichordist Elizabeth Anderson. Based in Melbourne, Anderson has an established international career as a performer, and has produced eight recordings, several of which have won awards from such august organs as Gramophone, The Age and Soundscapes. The Convict Harpsichordist is her eighth CD, and is a remarkable total package. Based around the story of John Grant, the disc comes with a booklet explaining the historical background to the music and story and contains not only the sound recording, but also an eighteen-minute CD-ROM in which dramatised scenes emerging from Grant’s correspondence are presented by actor James Benedict.
There is much to like in this release. Anderson is a good enough player to be able to present her musical ideas without the restrictions imposed by technical limitations, and the music is thus vividly brought to life in her interpretations. The instrument is also recorded very well, and the balance between bass and treble is excellent, with a transparent clarity to the middle of the sound that allows the listener to hear exactly what is going on at all times. At A=440, the harpsichord, a McAllister/Hubbard after Taskin, sounds quite bright. Perhaps 415 might have been a better choice of pitch for works such as the Soler C minor sonatas (R 18 and 19), which come off as a little frivolous here, but this is, at best, a minor point.
Of the eleven works selected for this recording, many of the first ten will probably be familiar to fans of the historical repertoire. Anderson opens with a virtuosic rendition of the K 386 and 387 Sonatas in F minor by Domenico Scarlatti, and this is followed by a very stylish and energetic performance of the Sonata No. 10 in D major by Pietro Domenico Paradies. At times, the articulation seemed a little abrupt, and more use might have been made of suspiratio, but, overall, this is a highly enjoyable version. Next to appear are a matched set of Preludes and Fugues by J.S. Bach, the first in D major (BWV 893) and the second in G major (BWV 884). These are played well, but fail to leave a lasting impression, something which can certainly not be said of the Suite No. 5 in E major by Handel that follows immediately afterwards. Whilst this may have been chosen because of the last movement, the famous “Harmonious Blacksmith” variations, the second and third movements exhibit a control of touch and phrase that borders, at times, on the sublime. This one work alone is worth the purchase price of the disc.
Spanish rhythms are evident in the K 380 and 381 Sonatas in E major, again by Scarlatti, and Anderson brings these out to full effect, as she does the contrast between affective melancholy and fiery virtuosity in the K 32 and 33 Sonatas in D minor immediately afterwards. The Spanish theme reappears in the aforementioned C minor Sonatas by Antonio Soler, which are interpreted beautifully despite what seems an inordinate brightness in sound quality. Finally, the eighteenth-century part of the disc is rounded out with Mozart’s variations on ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’, which here is made to sound surprisingly fresh in an excellent performance that moves effortlessly between the witty, the grand and the tender.
The final work is a contemporary piece by Ron Nagorcka. Entitled This Beauteous Wicked Place, it combines the didjeridu with electronics, Australian bush sounds and a microtonally altered harpsichord that sounds very like a Japanese koto. This effect is heightened by the use of modified pentatonic scales throughout. Whilst such a work may not be to everyone’s taste, it is an excellent example of the genre, and of modern Australian composition in general. It features strong rhythmic elements and melodic cells that create a fascinating musical texture overall. Anderson was also considerate enough to place it at the end of the recording, allowing those who want a purely baroque experience to avoid it with ease. This being said, it is certainly worth taking the time to listen to the work at least once.
When the disc is considered as a musicological document, however, a number of problematic issues become evident. The first of these is in the justification for the choice of music. Whilst the story of John Grant, a gentleman who, as the cover tells us, "shot a London lawyer in the buttock" and was thus transported to Australia, is used as an amusing backdrop, there is no proof that he owned any of the works chosen here by Anderson. Indeed, there is no evidence that he played them or was even aware of their existence at all, although, to be fair, such a claim is not advanced in the accompanying leaflet. Instead, the rather tenuous basis for the selection of music is that editions of all of the eighteenth-century pieces presented on this disc were available from London publishers such as Longman and Broderip between 1791 and 1803, the former being the year in which Grant became an apprentice to his uncle, and the latter being the year in which he was convicted and transported.
published in the British journal, Early Music (February 2004).
Copyright © 2003-4 Elizabeth Anderson. All rights reserved.