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Fanfare Magazine: 39:2 (11-12/2015) 
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Reviewer: Barry Brenesal


Roughly a year ago I reviewed a recording of John Christopher Smith’s oratorio The Seasons (Christophorus 77382; Fanfare 37:6). It was a solidly attractive Handelian work, not perhaps so surprising given that Smith, like his father before him, was Handel’s amanuensis for many years. In the Six Lessons published when Smith was 42, he displays a more varied set of influences.

It was the third published work by the composer, all three being sets of six harpsichord suites. Curiously, though, whereas the second set of 1735 followed the first by just three years, the third only appeared two decades later. Perhaps its publication was driven by commercial needs, since Smith gained a reputation as a fine keyboard teacher in midlife. (This developed to the point that, starting in 1762, he was engaged to instruct Augusta, the dowager Princess of Wales, in the finer aspects of harpsichord performance.) Certainly there’s no sense of unity among these three- and four-movement works. First movements may be fast or slow. Dances intermix with many movements listed only by tempos. Style may shift mid-work: The Scarlatti-like opening movement of the Third Suite, for instance, is followed by a goûts réunis allemande, which is in turn concluded by a minuet-in-all-but-name that treats a theme Arne would have been pleased to invent for his keyboard concertos.

There’s also occasionally a sense that Smith might have arranged pieces he composed for other instruments over the years, taking whatever was at hand to publish in his very musical advertisement. The three-voice fugue that is the Second Suite’s central movement is surprisingly bare in texture, and features pedal points that fade on the harpsichord before they should conclude—evidence, perhaps, that the piece was originally written for organ and subsequently transcribed. (Smith was an accomplished and well regarded organist.) Some of the figurations of the infectious, concluding gigue of the Sixth Suite suggest the violin, while the occasional chordal accompaniment might just as well be a ripieno orchestra. The complexity of the music, too, varies greatly. That gigue is simple enough even I could make a reasonable success of it, while other movements, such as the concluding allegro of the Second Suite, would challenge a very good amateur.

Smith’s 1755 Six Lessons proved very popular, and not surprisingly so. The one element most of the movements share is a catchy tunefulness based on some imaginative turn of harmony or melodic shape. Julian Perkins in turn makes the most of each piece’s individual character. He approaches the afore-mentioned allemande and the tempo di Gavotte finale of the Fourth Suite with great delicacy, and the flirtatious character of the Fifth Suite’s second allegro with humor. Faster Italianate movements, such as the Fifth Suite’s first allegro and the Second Suite’s allegro finale, are played quickly but not to the point that clarity is lost. Handel’s own arrangement of his Overture to Riccardo Primo is a fine example of Perkins’s art: its dotted opening is taken at a majestic pace, and the fugal section is not rushed, allowing its harmonic suspensions and sudden shifts to sound at full advantage. Occasionally he’s uneven in notes of equal value in a given slow to moderate passage, but it occurs seldom enough never to become a performance quirk.

Perkins makes the point in his notes that he ornaments repeats heavily—or as he puts it, extravagantly. He justifies this by noting that performers in Georgian England were well versed in the art of improvisation—and perhaps more to the point, that the sheer fun of this music would be dampened by simple repeats. Repeats are treated on this album with lavish but stylish skill, and occasional passages are gifted with reinforced bass notes on one of the two harpsichords he uses, a splendidly sonorous single manual instrument built around 1770.

In short, this is a highly entertaining album of mid-18th-century harpsichord music that aims to entertain and amuse rather than elevate, and succeeds eminently in its goals. Recommended.



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