ATHENE RECORDS has been acclaimed in glowing terms by leading critics and its CDs are recommended in the Complete Penguin Guide and Gramophone Good CD Guide. ATHCD4 “Clementi on Clementi” (now reissued as Diversions 24113) played by Peter Katin had the distinction of being chosen by BBC Music Magazine for its ‘Best CDs of 1994’ selection.
When Joanna Leach inherited a Clementi square piano, it was out of curiosity and for its historical interest that she decided to have it restored. Having only experienced square pianos in poor condition or badly restored, it had never occurred to her that she would actually prefer playing works of classical and early romantic composers on original period pianos. It was during her quest for an expert restorer that she met Andrew Lancaster. Andrew specialises in the restoration of English square pianos of the period circa 1760-1840: he lays great emphasis on the importance of using authentic materials in the restoration work, to ensure that action and sound are as faithful as possible. As instruments were restored, Joanna Leach had the opportunity to play them and she became increasingly fascinated with the influence that the pianos imposed on a player’s performance by their inherent characteristics. Joanna Leach was convinced that modern replicas lack some of these important subtleties because of the tendency to try to ‘improve’ the mechanism and smooth out the natural differences within the keyboard range. She discovered that music composed in the18th and early 19th centuries, took on new meaning and life when played on pianos of the same period with their transparency and contrasting colours in the various registers. For example the Field Nocturnes sound more delicate and charming when played on an original piano and in Dussek’s Duos Concertants, the period harp and piano converse in an exciting interplay, blending in a way probably impossible when performed on modern instruments. There is also the fact that the sound colours and balance on these instruments are similar to those heard by the composers at that time. As Peter Katin has said, the modern pianist has to re-think many of his ideas when playing music of the period on square pianos. “It is illuminating for any serious pianist to play one of these instruments, even briefly; it may forever influence their performances of these works on the modern piano”.
As a result of this growing passion for square pianos, the ATHENE label was born in 1991 with the specific objective of presenting music of the period played on authentic period instruments.
Athene-Minerva was started in 1996. Although Athene Records had been formed originally in 1991 with the express purpose of recording music on square pianos of the period 1780-1840, this was to change after artistic director Joanna Leach met Andreas Boyde in 1994. This young pianist from Saxony was by then living nearby in Fulham, London. Joanna immediately recognised his exceptional talent and musicality when hearing him play and listening to some of his German broadcast recordings, including a very fine and moving performance of the Dvorak Piano Concerto. Joanna felt she must do something to help promote his exceptional talent by having the Dvorak and several other works, including the Schumann Carnaval and Waldszenen, on the Athene label.
A chance involvement with the Havergal Brian society led to a series of stunning CDs with Raymond Clarke and in turn to a relationship with composer John Pickard. In 1999 Joanna brought John Pickard together with Andreas and Sven Helbig, a director of the Dresdner Sinfoniker, with the purpose of having John write a piano concerto for Andreas to be performed by the German orchestra. Athene commissioned the concerto which had its first performance in Dresden in the year 2000 and was broadcast on German radio.
Athene became part of the Divine Art group in 2005, and has been re-launched in 2015 to host the groundbreaking ‘Great Violins’ series and other recordings of early music.