Thomas Roseingrave: Eight Harpsichord Suites and other keyboard works

Thomas Roseingrave: Eight Harpsichord Suites and other keyboard works
Thomas Roseingrave: Eight Harpsichord Suites and other keyboard works; Bridget Cunningham; Signum Classics

Thomas Roseingrave: Eight Harpsichord Suites and other keyboard works; Bridget Cunningham; Signum Classics
Reviewed 20 May 2024

Demonstrating the 18th-century Britain had more than one distinguished harpsichord composer, this disc explores the engaging, complex and quirky world of Thomas Roseingrave’s keyboard works

Thomas Roseingrave is one of those names that lives on the fringes of musical history. English-born to Irish parents and raised in Dublin. His move to improve himself by travelling to Italy led to his admiration for Scarlatti and his introduction of that composer’s works into the UK. His eight suites for harpsichord were published in 1728, when he was at the height of his powers and it is these that have remained his best-known pieces, albeit rather under the shadow of Handel’s keyboard works.

Now harpsichord player Bridget Cunningham, after recording Handel’s eight great harpsichord suites [see my review] has followed this with a disc of Thomas Roseingrave’s Eight Harpsichord Suites on Signum Classics.

Cunningham records all eight of the suites, plus other shorter pieces. The suites are all groups of dances, but vary from three to five movements with a variety of movement headings. The first suite is perhaps the most traditional, with Overture, Allemande, Courante, Presto and Chaconne, and the others use permutations of these movements along with Air, Prelude, Gavotte, Minuet and Gigue. But these are forms rather than strict dances, and Roseingrave treats things with great freedom.

The music has a quirky drama to it, along with a nice freshness. Roseingrave has a way with texture and constantly keeps things varied and moving. He was variously termed ingenious, whimsical and eccentric by his contemporaries, and his willingness to add distinctive elements to his music perhaps reflects this. There is a complexity here but this is music of someone willing to go his own way. 

Whereas other English composers enamoured of Italians, such as Charles Avison, would be rather slavish in their appreciation, Roseingrave does not seem to be trying the emulate Scarlatti and there is a distinctly English/Irish tang to these (bearing in mind that both countries had musical lives that were intertwined and heavily indebted to foreign musicians). And it is rather Handel that springs to mind in this music, but Roseingrave lacks that composer’s grandeur and instead brings a quirky approach to structure and harmony, along with a willingness to explore different ideas and textures so that relatively conventionally marked movements can wander into interesting areas.

This isn’t foot-tapping music, certainly few of the movements are ones that you might hum along to and some have remarkably dense textures. But there is always that rather particular imagination at play.

In addition to the suites, Cunningham includes a clutch of occasional pieces. An Introduction that Roseingrave wrote as a preface to his edition of 42 of Scarlatti’s sonatas and which is appropriately Scarlatti-ish. A graceful Allemand that survives in m/s as an independent movement. A Celebrated Concerto which survives in a later keyboard version of what was clearly originally a work for keyboard and ensemble. This is an intriguing, yet tiny work, a concerto in miniature, albeit with some dazzling moments. And finally a Scarlatti sonata which has been edited and elaborated by Roseingrave. Significantly, this is the longest movement on the disc, perhaps indicating that Roseingrave’s talents lay in the shorter, more compressed movement.

Cunnigham plays with great sensitivity and clear sympathy with Roseingrave’s quirky sound world. You never feel that she is trying to make the music something it is not, and her exploration of the composer’s world makes you wonder what else of his survives. She plays on a double-manual Ruckers-style harpsichord provided and tuned by Andrew Wooderson with Edmund Pickering (Neidhardt temperament 1732). This is a type of harpsichord that Roseingrave may well have encountered in London. The instrument’s sound has been well captured on the recording

Thomas Roseingrave (1690/1 – 1766)
Suite No. 1 in E flat major
Suite No. 2 in C minor
Suite No. 3 in D minor
Suite No. 4 in F major
Suite No. 5 in F minor
Suite No. 6 in E minor
Suite No. 7 in G major
Suite No. 8 in G minor
Introduction
Allemande in B flat
A Celebrated Concerto
Celebrated Lesson for the Harpsichord
Bridget Cunningham (harpsichord)
Recorded in St Augustine’s Church, Kilburn Park, 23-25 May 2021
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD783 2CDs [1:46.25]

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