Franz Xaver DUSSEK (1731-1799)
Sinfonia in G Major (Altner G4) [9:54]
Sinfonia in B-flat Major (Altner Bb2) [10:53]
Sinfonia in A Major (Altner A3) [11:16]
Sinfonia in B-flat Major (Altner Bb3) [21:11]
Helsinki Baroque Orchestra/Aapo Häkkinen
rec. 1-3 October 2010, Sello Concert Hall, Espoo, Finland
NAXOS 8.572683 [53:53]
Here is the latest entry in the fascinating Naxos series of recordings by lesser-known composers of the 18th century symphony. Franz Xaver Dussek - also listed as František Xaver Dušek in other recording and in Grove Music Online - showed musical talent at an early age. With the financial support of a patron, Dussek was sent to the Jesuit Gymnasium to further his studies and after graduating travelled to Prague to study with Franz Habermann. Later he moved on to Vienna, studying keyboard and - most likely - composition with Georg Christoph Wagenseil. Dussek was well known and respected as both a freelance teacher and a performer, dividing his time between Prague and Vienna. Allan Badley in his liner-notes reveals that the Mozart family befriended the Dussek family, and that Franz’s success as a freelance musician may have strengthened Mozart’s resolve to get out of Salzburg and live in Vienna. 

Most of Dussek’s symphonies were composed during the 1760s and 1770s. A majority are in three movements (fast-slow-fast), though several adopted the newer four movement model. A fine example of the latter is the other Naxos recording of Dussek Symphonies or Sinfonias on 8.555878 (2002). In his liner-notes to the new recording, Badley points out that “Although Dussek’s symphonies and string quartets were composed before the emergence of the fully-fledged classical style of the 1780s, they exhibit a number of quite progressive tendencies.” These include a preoccupation with musical unity, long development sections that often elaborate both themes from the exposition, occasional use of a slow introduction in the opening movement, and a greater use of wind instruments.
The four symphonies recorded here are well conceived, featuring singable melodies, interesting development of material, and an engaging use of instrumental timbre. They just lack that last ounce of magical essence that sets similar works by Dussek’s better known colleagues apart. So much has been written, trying to explain the genius of Mozart and Haydn, and really, when it comes down to it, there is some touch of genius we hear in those two classical composers that often seems not as present in men such as Dussek. A Mozart melody or a Haydn harmonic twist stays in our memory in a way that does not happen with these works.
This is not meant to be dismissive, though I am sure it sounds that way. This was an enjoyable hour of listening, and I would be happy and surprised to hear any of these works in concert. I certainly enjoyed these performances more than on the previous Naxos release. That recording featured Helios 18 conducted by Marie-Louise Oschatz, in performances that were accurate and efficient, but lacked that last ounce of zealous inspiration fully to reveal the full import of the music. That is not the case here, where the Helsinki Baroque Orchestra’s playing is far more committed and polished. Allegros move along with plenty of fire and energy - cellos and bass really sustaining forward momentum with crisp articulation of their line - while the slow movements display the true sense of give and take that comes when players are genuinely listening to one another. The ensemble offers up some lovely rich timbres, especially because several of the movements feature divided violas. The final movements are taken at quite a pace, without ever sounding breathless, articulation always clear, and the hairpin dynamics wonderfully realized. These are players who enjoy and believe in the music, and that is the exact kind of advocacy this music deserves - and needs.
The Naxos engineers have captured the orchestra in sound that is a tad too bright and close; I would have appreciated a warmer, more resonant acoustic. Such an analytical recording would readily reveal any deficiencies in ensemble or intonation, but that is not an issue with these talented Finnish musicians. Yet it seems churlish to complain: here is music that is rarely heard, yet surely deserving of a larger audience, in first-rate performances featuring excellent energetic playing, all at budget price. CD collectors owe Allan Badley, his music publishing company Artaria - which produces new editions of most of the music recorded in this 18th Century Symphony series - and Naxos a large debt of gratitude for sharing this music with us. I eagerly anticipate the next release in this rewarding series.  

Da vid A. McConnell 

First-rate performances featuring excellent energetic playing, all at budget price.