Charles Burney Piano 4 Hands Sonatas: Birth of a Genre

Charles Burney (1726 – 1814) musicologist and composer

I learned three things from this release.

  1. Charles Burney was a composer
  2. Charles Burney was a pretty good composer
  3. Charles Burney pioneered and popularized a musical genre

Burney is best remembered today as a music journalist and musicologist. He wrote in great detail of his European tours. Those volumes provide invaluable documentation about late 18th-Century performance practices.

He also seemed to visit just about every major and minor composer on the continent. His writing provides insightful impressions of their personalities and their music.

What’s not remembered is that Burney was also a prolific composer himself. In fact, recordings of his music are practically non-existent.

In 1777 Burney self-financed the publication of four sonatas for piano four hands. He might not have been the first composer to write for this combination, but he made it popular.

Before Burney’s publication, music for two keyboard players meant two instruments. After Burney, other composers, such as J.C. Bach, Clementi, and Mozart wrote for piano four hands.

The eight sonatas on this release are played on an English square piano. This early pianoforte is the instrument Burney had in mind, but it’s a far cry from a modern piano. The action is noisy, and the attacks can be harsh-sounding.

And yet, as I listened, I eventually became used to the sound and could appreciate it for its own merits. Burney wrote with the capabilities of the square piano in mind. Thus, the instrument’s well-suited for the music.

Anna Clemente and Susanna Piolanti perform with a lightness of touch I didn’t think possible on a square piano. They bring out all the dynamics and expressive shading of the works. And they use the rough sound of the square piano to good advantage. Dissonances sound almost contemporary with their edginess and loud passage ring with authority.

If authentic instruments aren’t for you, then you might want to give this a pass. But if you’d like to enjoy some fine music-making from the early Classical era, give this release a listen. I found it enlightening.

Charles Burney: Sonatas for piano four hands
Anna Clemente, Susanna Piolanti, piano four hands
Brilliant Classics

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