Michael's Blog

9 December 2015

Royal College of Music made the news on BBC Radio yesterday, and it's good news.

Their instruments museum, always cramped for space and short of funds, has been awarded a substantial grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, to enlarge the display, do more conservation, and make their exhibitions more interesting and approachable by the public. It means that after Christmas the gallery will be closed for three years, as I understand it, but at the end it promises to be a much improved experience for everyone. Former curator Elizabeth Wells who struggled for years to get the collection a bigger public profile, is now retired, but must be delighted by this news. The collection includes the oldest harpsichord in the world [the upright fifteenth-century instrument associated with the city of Ulm] and several important harpsichords besides. And there are several pianos to see as well.




6 December 2015

There are some terrible videos featuring square pianos on the internet. If you care about music some of them will make you cringe.

So it's nice to report something good – really good. If you go to Youtube and enter in the search box 'AABrownell' you should find two performances worth watching. Clementi Sonata in A Op.25/4 as you have probably never heard it before. A truly sensitive performance on a Clementi square piano (perhaps of 1807 as the caption says, but not the original legs). Apart from the irritating sight of one key that doesn't return as promptly as it should everything looks good and sounds good.

Andrew Brownell is obviously a player who listens to the instrument he is playing and treats it accordingly. There are some beautiful moments. The curious pedal on Clementi's square pianos, that pulls the down the keys as you are playing, is not over-used. So the trills and runs that should be clean are heard crisply. And what expression he gives to this music! Clementi as a composer has certainly risen in my estimation after hearing this performance. The other video features a well known set of variations by Mozart, equally well played, and apparently recorded at the same recital in Huddersfield. In that music the piano sounds, if anything, even better. This is surely how such pianos are meant to sound.

For a complete contrast you could search for the Zumpe piano at the Grétry Museum in Liege, allegedly 'restored'. I have just done a quick search and couldn't find it again. Probably a good thing. There is another appalling result on a Longman & Broderip of 1792. It is described as 'a good example' on the Pianos For Sale page of the 'Friends' website run by David Hackett! (The recording of it has now been deleted from Youtube – that's good.)

20 November 2015


Finchcocks: Living Museum of Music – how much we have all benefitted from the generosity and skill of pianist Richard Burnett and his wife Katrina. A museum of fascinating keyboard instruments – harpsichords, clavichords, pianos, spinets, organs – where visitors could hear, touch, and even play. How much we all learned! But now it is to close. What sad news! I heard yesterday that in December it will all end. John Broadwood & Sons, run by Alastair Laurence and located at Finchcocks for several years, has now completed a move to Yorkshire. Next May, as I am informed, a grand auction sale is planned, surpassing even the recent Hogwood Collection dispersal for quality and quantity. But perhaps not all. If and when the instruments are dispersed the legacy will remain. The workshop traditions fostered at Finchcocks will survive: Christopher Clarke, Chris Nobbs, Alastair Laurence and many others have gained skills and knowledge that can be transmitted to a new generation. A generation of pianists has also benefitted enormously from their Finchcocks experiences. And of course we still have Dick Burnett's excellent recordings.

And the house itself? I understand that it will be sold.

16 November 2015

We are now into the pre-Christmas frantic period of concerts, harpsichord hire etc. But it is good to look back on the coffee concert mentioned below. The reappearance of this Clementi piano after its long hibernation was a pleasure for many. About 160 people were there to hear it. The most delightful moment for most of us was the performance of one of Beethoven's duets - his March Opus 45/No.3 - four hands at one piano. We don't hear this repertoire often enough. What fun it was!

Warwick Cole and Ashok Gupta gave a spirited rendition, full of Beethoven's characteristic jokey humour. Laughter and pleasure at the same time! Not a bad combination!

4 November 2015

Coffee Concert, Cheltenham - November 7th

A rare chance to hear an early Clementi grand in concert: making its debut following recent time in the workshop, Michael Cole's fortepiano will be played by Ashok Gupta, with Warwick Cole on cello. Featured item is Schubert's Arpeggione Sonata, together with other pieces to complete their programme. Where? Holy Apostle's Church, London Road, Cheltenham. What time? Music starts at 11am, coffee and cakes from 10.30am. Free entry. Retiring collection. Delicious home-made cakes by Warwick Cole, Sophie Cole & Grannie Cole. Coffee or tea served by Lois Cole, and Michael Cole [assistant]. Meet & greet, Ann Cole. On the door Sophie Cole.


6 October 2015

Maybe as a reader of this page you too may have a latent interest in the lost aural possibilities of the organised piano of old. They were not uncommon in the courts of Europe in the eighteenth century. In fact the oldest engraving that we have of a German 'Prellmechanik' action comes from just such an instrument, a square piano probably made by Hellen, [=Hehlen] with organ pipes beneath by Lepine. I cannot offer you a recording of such a piano, but I have recently received a very welcome message from Claudio Brizi in Sicily.

In his Youtube upload you'll see and hear his claviorganum, comprising a two manual harpsichord and a quite comprehensive organ. My best efforts to add a link here have resulted in many failures. So all I can advise is that you search on Youtube: enter Claudio Brizi together with BWV582. Your patience will be well rewarded. There you can hear Claudio himself playing Bach's Passacallia in C minor. It is a magnificent performance. There have been some excellent perfomances of this masterpiece, played on conventional organs. But what a superb interpretation it receives on this amazing instrument!

3 October 2015

Good news for all those who, like myself, cannot attend the British Clavichord Society's event in London at 3pm. [The recital, to be given by Linda Nicholson, is mentioned in this blog under 21 September.] A friend at the BBC tells me that he is recording it for Radio 3, and that it is scheduled for broadcast on 29 November at 2pm [British Time]. It is so rare to hear an antique Tangentenflügel played by such a consumate musician, live. And we will hear the Hass clavichord too! This entry is being posted as we are preparing to go to hear the Corelli Ensemble, led by Warwick Cole, at Holy Apostles Church in Cheltenham. This 'coffee concert' format is becoming very popular, especially on Saturday mornings. In Warwick's concerts you get some excellent programmes, about 55 minutes long, performed by professional musicians.

27 September 2015

Tuning hammers - take your pick! On the left, an original tuning hammer as supplied with eighteenth-century harpsichords and early pianos. This one was found inside a square piano of 1788, but the design is typical of many. It has three functions, of course: Making eyes for replacement strings with the hook, knocking in the wrestpin with the hammer to seat it properly, and lastly as a tuning tool to bring the note up to pitch. But what a horror it becomes if you are to tune the whole instrument. Held in the normal fashion, i.e. gripping it in the palm of your hand, the square cornered top becomes very uncomfortable by the time you've done one octave. When you have five octaves to tune it becomes painful. Unless, of course, you hold it daintily in your fingers. No thanks. A big improvement is Dave Law's tuning hammer design (centre) with cast stem and hammer ends. This one, short-stemmed and off-centre, was specially made for the awkward job of tuning the treble notes on Broadwood square pianos with their pins at the back. But my own preference for most instruments is for a comfortable wooden handle as shown on the right. It sits so well in the hand.

21 September 2015

For anyone living within easy travelling distance, the coffee concerts at Holy Apostle's (London Road, Cheltenham) begin a new season on Saturday 3rd October. Bach's triple concerto is the featured item in the first concert (for harpsichord, flute and violin - not Bradenburg Five, the other one), together with Pachelbel's canon, and a concerted piece by Boismortier. These are high quality performances, with FREE admission. Coffee and cakes at 10.30am, followed by music starting at 11 o'clock. There is of course a retiring collection, otherwise the concerts could not continue. The second concert, first Saturday in November, features Schubert's Arpeggione sonata with Warwick Cole on cello and Ashok Gupta on fortepiano. That will be a novelty.

For anyone living nearer to central London there is a rare opportunity to hear two truly excellent antique instruments in a recital for the British Clavichord Society, also on 3 October . Linda Nicholson, whose performances never fail to please, will perform music by Haydn, Handel and Mozart on a Hass Clavichord of 1767, and an eighteenth-century Tangentenflügel. What a treat! This event is at the Art Workers Guild on Queen Square starting at 3pm. Some tickets (at £18) may stil be available - best to contact Judith Wardman beforehand - details on the BCS website. I'm just very disappointed that I can't be in two places at once!

2 September 2015

Highly recommended: the Youtube videos uploaded by musicksmonument.nl, where you will find a marvellous selection of pieces, mostly performed by Paula Bär-Giese, an accomplished pianist and soprano. The one featured above is a Beethoven Rondo (Op.51/1), played on a Broadwood square piano c.1824. If you care to explore the Youtube videos uploaded by 'musicksmonument' there are more items featuring this piano and several other historic instruments in heritage locations. Of special interest to readers of this website would be the piano by Meinke & Pieter Meyer of Amsterdam, the only one I have encountered in good playing order.

This enterprising Dutch team uses some beautiful locations, superb photography, and of course, very good performances of delightful music. Much of the credit belongs to Hans Meijer who is seen in a few of the videos himself.

P.S. here is a direct link to the Beethoven Rondo

23rd August 2015

Square piano by Muzio Clementi & Co., c.1807, a recently completed restoration in our Prestbury workshop, and soon to be dispatched for Northern Ireland. This represents the standard appearance of Clementi's square pianos in the period 1805-1809. It is unusual only in having a silk-covered cover board inside where we would normally expect them to be painted.

10th August 2015

Bream Silver Band, playing at the bandstand in Stroud took a short break on Sunday afternoon. Everyone was resting and all was silent when a young girl, about six years old, wandered casually by, crossing the park with her parents. Suddenly the silence was broken as, without any announcement, the band struck up a new tune. The girl stopped, as if transfixed, and turned to stare. They had her total attention. I guess she'd never heard anything like this in her life. Left to herself I'm sure she would have stayed and taken a closer look and maybe joined a couple of other children jigging about in front of the bandstand, much to the amusement of the old-timers like myself. But her parents were in no mood for this. 'Millie!' her mother demanded: 'Come on'. So the spell was broken. Millie obeyed and the family moved away.

Perhaps this startling experience will stay with her, lodged somewhere in half-forgotten memories. I hope so.

We need more moments like this. Surprising, startling experiences of music as we have not heard it before. One such occurred in Mozart's Wohnhaus in Salzburg forty years ago when we heard for the first time the unsanitised tones of a restored fortepiano. Mozart as I had never heard him before!

This week I have been listening to a newly released box set of CPE Bach in which most of his keyboard music is played on a tedious modern copy of the Viennese style Walter flügel, as invariably used by recently graduated musicians. [None of them seem to question whether such an instrument was known in Hamburg in 1780! Or whether there might be greater riches in the resources offered by fortepianos that Emmanuel Bach knew.] Maybe one day we will hear this music played with spirit and imagination on a Claveçin Royale, such as Bach himself possessed – and be startled like little Millie!

20th July 2015

When writing about John Broadwood I had some difficult decisions to make. This week I am particularly remembering the awkward choices over how to present in a readable way the developments that Broadwood introduced in his square pianos in the period 1794-1806. There were more changes in these years than any comparable period in a century of manufacturing. One of these was the experimentation with dampers, following the unauthorised appropriation of Southwell's system for extra notes, with keys and hammers under the soundboard. There is a five-and-a-half octave piano from the late 1790s in Salisbury that has dampers for these extra notes, which with the benefit of hindsight seems a needlessly fussy design. Dampers for these notes are not wanted. Indeed, for John Pohlman dampers were often omitted from all notes above c3 from the 1770s onwards.

Then there was the matter of lifting the dampers by pedal: such a complicated story. On another page on this site you can see an apparently standard Clementi square piano of 1804 that never had a pedal or handstop of any kind. Broadwood pianos too were often made without a pedal. Then there's the matter of which foot the pedal is under. These days players often find it difficult to cope without a sustaining pedal under the right foot, but on most square pianos made before 1830 such a pedal is usually under the left foot! To confound and confuse, this week I am working on a Broadwood square piano from 1798 which, against all known precedent, has the pedal at the right, just where modern players want it!


26th June 2015

Astonishing! — Months pass with very few interesting early pianos appearing in sales, then without fanfares, several appear in improbable circumstances. Last week it was Corsham and Chiswick, this week Leominster in Herefordshire. Brightwell's Auctions appear to have been caught unawares - and left many cutomers in the dark! They have always included a special section of musical instruments in their late summer sales, August usually. Not so now it would seem, for in among the carpets, clocks and Victorian furniture this week Lot 833 was catalogued as 'A late Georgian square piano, with its original mechanism ... in need of some restoration'; estimate £150-200.

At first you might take it to be a London-made piano, but there are some little clues that fire the interest of cognoscenti. The exterior looks rather like a late Longman & Broderip, but those legs? They're not only very elaborate but they look like German or maybe Italian work. Then the lockboard: see where it hinges. It's very shallow. What kind of action can this have? 'Is it a clavichord?' you might wonder. Or does it have a piano action raised on a sled? We need to see inside.

Prellmechanik - as people call it - emphatically a German concept, but here in an interesting and rarely seen variant where there is no Kapsel. The keys are sliced off, i.e. reduced to half width, with the hammers attached on the side with only the heads of the hammers, tipped with white leather, showing above — hence the shallow lockboard. The dampers, covered red, are attached to those curious L-shaped wire stems: very strange! (I see that Harding has drawn exactly this action as her Fig.13, page 23, from No.2172 in Berlin. The notes I have show that piano as a small instrument, only 965mm wide, bottom note C, with narrow keys, and an inner 'dust board' likewise with built in music desk. Undoubtedly from the same workshop, but not identified. The museum catalogue says 'Germany, c.1775'. )

The back of the piano is treated as extravagantly as the front. Clearly, despite the 'primitive' nature of the action, this piano wasn't made for a poor man's cottage! Where was it made? There are conflicting clues all over it. The use of mahogany, almost unavailable in most parts of Germany when this piano was made; the S-form ebonised bridge, usually seen in South Germany; a fabric-covered inner board very like those made by Wagner of Dresden. Florentine motifs in the inlay. A fascinating oddity! Not surprising that it attracted some interest from eagle-eyed bidders.

So despite the superficial similarity with 'late Georgian' examples this is certainly of European manufacture, probably German, but just possibly from northern Italy, when under Hapsburg rule, say c.1790. Those decorative motifs on the legs are certainly suggestive. I regret not being able to report the key dimensions, or show the inscriptions next to the wrestpins.

It made £780, plus commission, and might have made more if the auction house had been more clued up. Restoration is likely follow, but one hopes that the instrument's details will find their way into general circulation sometime.

21st June 2015

Gardiner-Houlgate auctions had mostly good outcomes this week. Both harpsichords left unsold at the Hogwood sale in March found buyers, each just below estimate at £10,000, while the Clementi grand piano of 1804, good to look at and very playable, made £8000 [all hammer prices, to which the auctioneer adds a considerable fee].

Otherwise there were no 'unsolds' or great surprises: everything was dispatched within estimate or near. A varied selection of modern clavichords and spinets all found buyers, plus a Broadwood square piano c.1825.

Perhaps the most interesting instrument to be sold recently was a square piano, not in Corsham, but at Chiswick Auctions, on the western fringes of London. In a general sale of old furniture was a late eighteenth-century instrument by 'Bernard Lander' standing on four screw-in legs of typically French type. A five-octave keyboard, with black naturals, and knee levers for the registration changes. It was estimated at £80-120! Surely a jest!

Here is a piece of history. Inside it is inscribed 'Fait par Bernard Lander á Turin 1797'. So what we see here is a piano made by someone who had probably studied in Paris - it's very like Erard inside - inscribed in French, yet made in Italy only months after Napoleon over-ran that territory following the siege of Mantua. For whom was it made, I wonder? It sold for £400. Shockingly undervalued for such a historically and culturally interesting item!

17th June 2015

A visit to Corsham salerooms confirmed that the 1782 harpsichord of Longman & Broderip will appear again in Thursday's auction, having failed to reach its reserve at the Hogwood sale in March. It now has a much lower estimate, taking due consideration of the alarming deterioration of the soundboard. It is of similar specification to those described by Kenneth Mobbs some years ago, of which he then owned a fully restored example. I recall his convincing demonstrations of the flexible dynamics he could achieve by using all of its resources. Right next to it is another instrument that has appeared before: the grand piano of 1804 by Muzio Clementi & Co. Such an attractive piano, by such a famous maker, ought to have made it a certain seller at its first appearance, but the auctioneers are nowadays plagued by rogue bidders who win auctions via the internet and then don't pay. In some countries they're beyond the law. So the auction house must take the hit, and the vendor has to wait even longer, which is surely very annoying. One recalls the default on the 48 million pounds 'auction record' for a Chinese vase in Uxbridge a couple of years ago.

In this sale there is extraordinary good fortune to see three early English grand pianos in one room, and all of them in decent structural condition. The other two, by Broadwood (1801) and Stodart (c.1800) are not immediately payable but don't have that catastrophic distortion at the cheek which hinders the prospects of so many grand pianos of that period.

9th June 2015

If you copy and paste the address below it should take you to David Owen Norris's presentation 'studying the piano at the University of Southampton'. Take five minutes and you'll see him put out a challenging view of the opening of Beethoven's Pathetique sonata (opus 13 in C minor). His point is neatly made. Beethoven grew up in a musical environment where the harpsichord was dominant, and even when it wasn't used as first choice the playing techniques specific to that instrument must have carried over into the pianoforte world that followed. He points out that the first edition of Beethoven's Opus 13 actually says 'for the Harpsichord or Pianoforte' [in French]. A harpsichord player would never crash that opening chord. But don't let me paraphrase: watch the video and hear the argument.


I was reminded of this last Saturday when my son Warwick gave a harpsichord recital. He began conventionally enough with J. S. Bach, and good it sounded too. His French double (Michael Cole, 1990) had clarity and mellowness, without that lugubrious bass that is heard in so many 'Taskin copies', and without that rasping brightness in the treble that so many German harpsichords have. We could hear all the parts clearly and pleasantly without effort, as one should with contrapuntal masterworks.

But then, for something surprising and different Warwick chose Mozart — not early Mozart when the lad from Salzburg was playing the harpsichord every day, but the Fantasia in D minor, probably composed in 1782. 'But it's piano music!' I hear you say. Don't we love the piano sonorities with the proto-Romantic pedal almost always used in this piece! Some musicians might suggest it is absurd to play it on the harpsichord.

Well, you should have heard it. How interesting it sounded particularly as Warwick registered it on Saturday, having dialogued phrases played on the upper manual (single 8 foot) contrasting with the lower manual (one 8 foot, buffed) — and employing other registrations where needed. The audience loved it. You can always tell. They're smiling; some are sitting on the edge of their seats, and paying great attention. So entertaining! And to follow? Clementi, the sonata with 'Magic Flute' theme at the beginning. That worked well also. 'Harpsichord or Pianoforte' a theme worth pursuing.

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