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Michael Bilson plays
Jan Ladislav DUSSEK (1760-1812)
Piano Sonata in E flat, Op. 44/C 178, “The Farewell” (1799) [34:31]
Johann Baptist CRAMER (1771-1858)
Eleven Variations on “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen” from Mozart’s Magic Flute (no date available) [6:10]
Franz Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Piano Sonata No. 62 in E flat, Hob.XVI:52 (1794) [21:10]
Michael Bilson (piano)
rec. Glenn Gould Studio, CBC, Toronto, Canada, 11-12 September 2007. DDD
BRIDGE 9263 [61:59]


Experience Classicsonline

This is Michael Bilson’s first recording for the enterprising Bridge label. One looks forward to many more to come. Bilson’s discography is extensive, including Mozart Piano Concertos with the English Baroque Soloists under John Eliot Gardiner. His high standards are as secure as ever.

There is already an excellent recording of Dussek’s “Farewell” Sonata by Markus Becker on cpo 777 020-2. This is an all-Dussek release recorded in 2003 that also includes the sonatas in F sharp minor, Op. 61 and the A flat, Op. 64. The piece is a farewell from the composer to his family at the point at which he had to flee England due to his creditors - not the most romantic basis for a work’s label. And yet, the result from Dussek’s pen is a work that will surely intrigue and delight in equal measure. Some elements of the writing look forward significantly from the composition date.

Becker plays on a modern instrument. His reading is ever stylish and includes moments of humour as well as real depth and charm. The Radio Bremen recording is exemplary. Here on Bridge, Bilson plays his entire recital on a Chris Meane 2003 replica of a 1798 5 ½-octave English pianoforte by Longman and Clementi. The more demanding passages sound, if anything, even more powerful in Bilson’s hands. He, too, can charm. Bilson even achieves further depth than Becker in the Molto Adagio e sostenuto (10:39 against Becker’s 7:53); his legato is immensely impressive, as is his carrying of cantabile melody around the six-minute mark. In contrast, the Tempo di Menuetto verges on the violent, imbuing Dussek with a backbone many would hesitate to credit him with. The finale, too, betrays an intensity of utterance that is quite remarkable. The rather close recording helps to draw the listener in. The piece itself is well worth getting to know. Its strengths seem to grow on each listening. 

This appears to be the only currently available recording of the Cramer. Although only six minutes long, it is a skilful piece of many delights and acts as a lovely intermezzo between the two major sonatas of this release. 

Haydn’s three great piano Sonatas date from the period of the composer’s 1794-5 visit to London. Bilson recorded the E flat on a Walter-type piano for Nonesuch in the 1980s (currently unavailable). He speaks of the revelatory effect of playing it on an English piano, about how it emerges as a clear concert piece - as opposed to music intended for domestic/private music-making. Cleverly, Bilson points to Haydn’s use of the Neapolitan relation in this work. This occurs most obviously in the placing of the slow movement in E major, but elsewhere also. It’s a relationship much beloved by Dussek. The performance itself is full of wit and yet clearly reflects the sheer scope of Haydn’s canvas. Those who prefer modern instruments may wish to cuddle their Brendel (416 3652) but Bilson makes a wonderful case for a more authentic instrument approach. His evocation of horn figures is most effective, as is his laying bare of the loneliness at the heart of the Adagio, where repeated notes can seem to edge on desperation. The repeated notes are re-contextualised in the finale, where they generate energy - the spiky accents stab most effectively here, also. 

Bilson’s own booklet notes are a model of their kind. He includes reactions to various instruments as well as music examples and pointing out similarities between the Dussek and Beethoven’s Op. 81a Sonata, a work the Duessk precedes by a decade. He considers the Cramer Variations almost as an afterthought at the end of the booklet and; although it is the slightest work, it is actually sandwiched in playing order between the two sonatas on the recording itself. A recording of Cramer’s Piano Concerto No. 5 was part of the Turnabout LP catalogue and can be found on CD reissue (Turnabout 30371, coupled with two works by Hummel); Howard Shelley also recorded a full disc of Cramer concertos (CHAN10005). 

A minor point: on my review copy, the name ‘Haydn’ is mis-spelled as ‘Hayden’ on the CD spine - it is correct elsewhere.

Colin Clarke


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