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Christoph Ernst Friedrich WEYSE (1774-1842)

Piano Sonatas Nos. 5-8

Thomas Trondhjem (piano)
DaCapo 8.224140 (DDD), rec. December 1999, February 2000 [72'09]
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To the question, "Can you name a Danish composer?" I suppose most of us would reply, with a hint of hesitation, "Erm - Nielsen?" When asked, "OK, can you name another Danish composer?" I reckon that most of us would reply, with more than a hint of hesitation, simply, "Erm . . ." Fair enough, there are plenty more Danish composers than Nielsen, but the bald truth is that they're hardly littering the streets, are they? How many of us can say, hand on heart, that we recognise the name of C. E. F. Weyse, other than offering a tentative, "Well, he wouldn't by any chance be an ancestor of E. Wise of Morecambe, would he? So it is that this CD comes to mark a turning point (yet another!) in my career as a Professional Listener to Music (Unpaid). Assuming, with totally unjustified arrogance, that most of you reading this will be in much the same boat as I, let me start by feeding you a bit of background, courtesy (naturellement) of the CD booklet!

Weyse (pronounced, I assume, "vise" as in "wise"), was about as Danish as Handel was English: he was German-born, but in Altona which was at the time under Danish sovreignty. The young Christoph showed such promise that his grandad tried to get C. P. E. Bach to take him on as a pupil in Hamburg. The ageing Bach's refusal was a - perhaps the - key turning-point in Weyse's life: he was taken to Copenhagen to enrol as a pupil of J. A. P. Schulz, the Court Conductor (it seems that everybody who impinged on Weyse's life had three first names!), and he settled down so well that he stayed in Denmark for the rest of his life, becoming to all intents and purposes a Dane. He worked throughout his life as organist in the cathedral, topping up the old lucre with a university professorship. In 1819, he was appointed Court Composer, which meant that he had to write lots of occasional cantatas and several operas. Coupled with a fund of songs in which he demonstrated a knack for context-sensitive melody, he acquired a substantial reputation as a vocal composer, matched only by his performing reputation as organist and pianist.

The cloud to go with this silver lining is that Denmark wasn't, and never has been, exactly near the centre of the musical universe, otherwise we'd all be able to name zillions of Danish composers, and this CD would not have the honour of being the premiere recording of four piano sonatas written (for Heaven's sake) two hundred years ago!. The booklet tells us that "the music is inspired by C. P. E. Bach, Haydn, Clementi and Mozart", though in passing I find it hard to believe that (even in the backwaters of Denmark) he would have been entirely ignorant of the early sonatas of Beethoven.

I have perforce to be "absolute" in my judgement, having nothing with which to compare it, even implicitly. That's the bad news. The good news is that the judging is made a doddle by some of the most sheerly delightful piano music it has ever been my good fortune to be forced to listen to! The influences of Haydn and Mozart are plain enough - there are passages where in a blind test those are the names you would, in some little perplexity, suggest. As for the other two I'm not so sure, and I must (shamefacedly) admit that this is due to ignorance, or at least lack of appropriate inclination, with regard to these two composers. That Weyse is a composer of the "High Classical" is obvious, but there's something else, and not just his reported talent as a tunesmith. How can I put it? I get this unshakeable image of that old film footage of the late, great Harry Houdini wriggling inside a straitjacket. Weyse strikes me as a pianistic "showman" struggling to find his way out of the shackles of classical discipline. Sadly, he lacked the vital spark of a Beethoven, the key that would have unlocked his natural proclivities. As a result, I hear in the music a tinge of sadness that comes not from the music, but from within myself.

Heck! Take no notice of me - that's my problem, and anyway I'll get past it soon! Let's look at what we have here. The last four of Weyse's eight sonatas, all written in 1799, or so it would seem: one is listed as "published 1818", which the informative note-writer, who glories under the name of Gorm Busk (hark at me - I've not room to talk!), thinks Weyse kept tucked away for a rainy day. They are played by Thomas Trondhjem, himself a Dane so he ought to have the feel for this, and indeed has recorded works by Kuhlau, who was a contemporaneous compatriot of Weyse himself. Trying to step back and observe the playing with dispassion, I can find precious little to carp about. The odd little hesitation while he wraps his hands round some awkward corner apart, his playing seems tinglingly alive to all the nuances, now waxing lyrical with a tender touch and now giving the old ivories very considerable welly, always entirely as appropriate. Tempi, which are sometimes classically strict, sometimes romantically flexible, never once sounded anything other than just right. Maybe, when one day a rival recording appears, I'll think differently; until then, this'll do very nicely, thankyou.

Turning to the piano and the recording, again there's little to grumble about (I'm starting to feel cheated!). The piano sound is ripe and sonorous - this is certainly not an "original instrument" - but with Weyse's "showman" never far from the surface, it is a sympathetic resonance. Only in the upper register, at full welly, does the piano betray a slightly brittle edge, but in all honesty it's "nowt t' write 'ome abaht". The recording sets you in a large salon acoustic, seated right before the piano, but not so close that you can read the instructions for safe use of the lid-strut. The result is that there's you, there's Thomas, and there's Weyse. Really cosy - you'll love it! A-ha! With critical glee I've just remembered one slight fault. Right near the end of track 1, at about 12'46, as a cadenza finishes you can hear, quietly but clearly, the pianist lifting of his fingers, and in the hiatus that follows there is a quiet but distinct "post-echo". I checked, and can confirm that it must be a faulty edit. but (with critical regret) not one worthy of a written communication to one's domicile.

By now frantically clawing around for something to grumble about, I come to the order of items: number 6, then 8, then 5, then 7 - not one in its rightful place! Yeah, right, maybe they are presented in a "satisfying recital sequence"? Nahh, wrong, I've tried programming them all ways, and they're just as much fun whichever way round I have them! So, it's arbitrary, really.

OK, then, we've got two choices: I can go on to launch into a detailed discussion about each sonata, or I can wrap this up here and now. I look at my notes, which are littered with jottings like (No. 6) "Theme c.f. Mozart in 'nursery rhyme march' mode. Utterly simple, but turns out 2b almost just framework for passacag. 1st. var. sudden leaping + diving up + down kbd. like gymnast. Brilliant!" or perhaps (No. 5) "Robust, rumbust. stomp a la minuet, sprouting twiddles and twirls at every turn", and wonder: why bother? OK, let's wrap it up this way: lay down Mozart and Haydn's piano music as a base, cover with a layer of fresh melodic invention, add a dash of bucolic robustness, and garnish with a soupcon (or two) of flamboyance. Does that recipe appeal to you? If so, you'd be "Weyse" to grab this disc with both hands, and make an absolute pig of yourself. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm just off to play it again [exit stage L, licking lips].

Paul Serotsky

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