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David Owen Norris (piano) with Sonnerie -
The World's First Piano Concertos
by Abel, J C Bach, Hayes, Hook
and J C Bach/Mozart K107
Blackheath Concert Halls, London, Sunday 11 January 2004 and CD, AVIE AV0014

This was a rare opportunity, in the intimate setting of Blackheath's Recital Room, to encounter Johannes Zumpe's creation of the square piano, which took place in London in the 1760s. David Owen Norris researched this little known piece of history, and found that the first piano concerto was composed for this instrument in c. 1769 by Philip Hayes, son of the creator of the first purpose-built concert hall, the Holywell Music Room in Oxford, still in use today. "The piano concerto was born in London around 1770, inspired by a revolutionary new instrument, so tiny it could only be accompanied by a string trio."

Small in sound, the instrument is characterised by damper levers for the treble and bass halves of the keyboard. The earliest concertos composed for square piano are slight works, diverting but light weight; ideal for a Sunday morning coffee concert! The Blackheath programme was spiced by the inclusion of several Magyar pieces, also to be heard in Linda Burman-Hall's CD Haydn and The Gypsies (Solo and Chamber Music in style hongrois) which features Monica Huggett and is a sheer delight: Kleos Classics KLS101.

You quickly get used to the small tone of the square piano, and nearly manage to ignore the imbalance with even so few strings; it might be better to have placed the instrument at the front of the stage?

The attractively distinctive halo of resonance created by raising the dampers is better heard on the CD of these concertos (including a few more of them at a generous 80 mins!) made by the same musicians at the Hatchlands Park near Guildford, using an original Zumpe square piano from the Cobbe Collection of early instruments. It adds a added a wonderful richness to the ensemble, which can be sampled on line at opuscds.

David Ownen Norris plays elegantly and with occasional bursts of virtuosity. The recording is excellent, giving just the necessary 10% or so lift to the fragile solo instrument. A worthwhile addition to anyone's collection of keyboard novelties, which will leave you uneasy to listen to J C Bach etc again on Steinway pianos.


© Peter Grahame Woolf