Convict Harpsichordist

convict1Elizabeth Anderson (harpsichord)

MOVE CD 3242

 

reviewed by Neville Cohn

Harpsichord playing at a very high level, meticulously researched notes with fascinating illustrations and CD-ROM images combine to unusually satisfying effect here.

Who was John Grant and how does he fit into the colonial history of New South Wales? What did he do that, centuries later, makes him a figure of fascination? The story, very briefly, is this: Grant had taken a fancy to one Anna Ward who lived in London. But her mother and one John Townsend, who was her mother’s lawyer (and Anna’s guardian) were dead set against the match and told Grant in no uncertain terms.

This infuriated the touchy Grant who challenged Townsend to a duel. Townsend, instead of trying to calm the agitated Grant, inflamed the situation by walking away from it – and grant then impulsively shot Townsend in the buttock (whether right or left is not revealed in the liner notes). For this rash act, Grant was sentenced to death. But only hours before the sentence was to be carried out, King George III commuted the sentence to transportation for life to the then-infant colony of New South Wales.

And when Grant set sail for the antipodes in 1804, he took along his harpsichord, this being the first ever such instrument brought to the antipodes.

As soon as he landed, Grant began his quest for a pardon, lobbying anyone whom he thought might advance his case. But his abrasive manner did him little good initially as he got up the noses of various NSW bigwigs, often gate-crashing governmental garden parties and button-holing anyone he thought could advance his case.

The versatile Grant also put in stints as lay preacher on Norfolk Island and as lay clergyman at Coal River near Newcastle. He even asked Governor Bligh (of Bounty mutiny fame) to help get him pardoned. Perhaps, just to get him out their hair, Grant was eventually pardoned and sailed home in 1811 to be re-united with his mother who had herself applied more than a little pressure to the newly-appointed Governor Macquarie when he took tea with her at the old lady’s Sloan Street home in London where she doubtless bent the governor-designate’s ear as she spoke of her yearning to be re-united with her son.

How all the aforegoing relates to the music on this compact disc is this: while it cannot be said with certainty what sort of music Grant played on his well-travelled harpsichord, all the works on this compilation were freely available in London at the time Grant was bundled off to NSW. Elizabeth Anderson, who, some time ago, made an impressive recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, is here in magnificent form. Certainly, her magisterial readings embody a quality of nobility that is only very rarely encountered on CD – and all the more satisfying for that.

I especially admired Scarlatti’s Sonata in F minor, K386, with Anderson’s artistry drawing the listener ineluctably into the composer’s idiosyncratic sound and mood world. And Handel’s Suite No 5 is given a frankly magnificent reading; the disc is worth having if only to listen to playing of such impeccable style.

The sound engineers, doubtless inspired by Anderson’s Olympian readings, have done her proud; recorded sound is uniformly excellent.

Adding to the pleasure of this exceptional product are fascinatingly illustrated liner notes, a 19-minute CD-ROM video about John Grant’s extraordinary story as well as a specially commissioned work for harpsichord by Ron Nagorcka – This Beauteous Wicked Place in which harpsichord sound is overlaid with Australian bush sounds including bird song – and there are the sounds of clapping sticks and didgeridoo as well.

Adding yet another dimension to this idea, Elizabeth Anderson together with an actor reading extracts of Grant’s letters and official documents of the time, have, in the context of the City of London Festival, presented the story and music in quasi-theatrical terms in a foyer of London’s Old Bailey where Grant had been sentenced many years before.It has also been performed in this way in Melbourne.

*In years of reviewing compact discs, many of the highest quality, I have never encountered so satisfying a product as this MOVE CD. For quality of content, fullness of liner notes with accompanying illustrations as well as a fascinating CD-ROM visual component. This is a product that ought to be recognised as the model it is; it deserves the very highest praise.

© Neville Cohn 2004

 


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