Notes and Editorial Reviews
Harpsichord Concertos: No. 1 in D; No. 2 in B?; No. 3 in a; No. 4 in G; No. 5 in C; No. 6 in E?
Barbara Harbach (hpd)
MSR 1441 (68:04)
Among the plethora of musical genres during the 18th century, surely one of the least recorded today was that type of work meant solely to be performed in the salons of the well-to-do. Amateur music-making was certainly omnipresent, and publishers rushed to provide this stable and even growing market with works ranging from original chamber music to arrangements and
parodies of larger compositions, such as operas or symphonies. Thousands of these were printed, and a number of composers easily made a nice tidy bit of change publishing for these consumers. Thomas Arne, for instance, wrote a number of keyboard concertos with ad libitum instrumental accompaniment. If you got ‘em, use ‘em; if not, no problem, since the pieces sound just as well with or without. Indeed, even major figures like Joseph Haydn were persuaded to get into the act, as seen by his arrangements of Scottish songs.
This brings us to one of these unknown figures and a pupil of Haydn, Thomas Haigh. Born in 1769 in London, he was probably trained as a violinist by local musicians. As a performer, he was generally present in the various orchestras around town and in the city of Manchester. While in the capital he came into contact with Haydn, to whom he dedicated six keyboard sonatas in 1796. Thereafter he became a popular publisher of light music, much of it based upon various songs and airs of the period. He died in April of 1808 in London, possibly while visiting his publishers. Harpsichordist Barbara Harbach, who herself is a well-known composer, has revived his earliest published works, a set of six concertos for this instrument from 1783, consituting Haigh’s op. 1. It is dedicated to Elizabeth, Countess of Mexborough, whose portrait Joshua Reynolds painted a few years earlier. She had just been married, so perhaps this was a means of honoring that event by a young composer seeking some status in his field.
The set of six works originally was accompanied by a pair of violins and a bass line (read: violoncello), and while one might consider that any well-endowed household in London of the period could have scrounged up at least these forces, Haigh left nothing to chance by going the traditional route of making the accompaniment optional. This is the way that Harbach has chosen to perform them, but given their particular style, one doesn’t miss much with the omission of the stringed instruments. (Of course, this also leaves an opening for some enterprising group to do them with.)
If there is an expectation that these six concertos will appear profound because of the ingenuity and depth of musical content, this ought to be discarded right now. These are meant only for entertainment, and they reflect this purpose exactly. There is no drama, no progressive technical advancements in form, structure, or harmony, no attempt at uniqueness. They are exactly what they purport to be: competent pieces with pleasant themes using some of the more recognizable stylistic traits (say, from Mannheim or from resident composers in London like Johann Christian Bach), energetic rhythmic structures that tend to be either ostinatos or Alberti bass, and requiring a modest technical proficiency. They are also meant to be heard in genteel society. In other words, the concertos are pure entertainment music with no strings attached, which in turn makes them delightful and familiar. They are the comfort food of the 18th century.
With two exceptions, each follows the three-movement format, and only one, the A-Minor Concerto, begins with a rather solemn, if conventional dotted French overture slow movement. One finds embedded within every other opening movement some nice, predictable themes, devices such as unison rises or falls along the triad, a sort of maniacal ostinato in what are obviously ritornello sections, and little dynamic change or elaborate ornamentation. In the B?- and E?-Concertos, both the first and second movements begin with roughly the same musical material, providing a sort of mnemonic continuity. Where Haigh really shines, however, is in the rondos, each of which seems to be based upon popular song material. He has a positive knack for making these sprightly tunes earworms, with numerous internal variations that are remarkable for both variety and lack of pretense to something greater.
Harbach’s playing is delightful, relentless, and in strict tempo when the music demands, backing off when her “solo” parts come in with their only slightly varied lines. She performs each of the fast movements energetically, and the slow movements with considerable grace. My only preference is that Harbach should have made more use of the dual keyboard and stops for the sake of contrast, but since one might not have expected the various original performers to have done this, it is not something worth more than a passing mention.
If you are looking for the power and depth of a Mozart, let this disc go. For anyone else who is, especially in the 18th-century sense, looking for sheer joyous entertainment, you should obtain this excellent disc.
FANFARE: Bertil van Boer
Works on This Recording
Concertos (6) for Keyboard by Thomas Haigh
Barbara Harbach (Harpsichord)
Written: by 1783
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