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Joseph Christoph KESSLER (1800-1872)
24 Preludes, op.31 (18??) [17:02]
Etudes, op.20 nos.1-12 [44:06]
Magdalena Brzozowska (piano)
rec. Radom, Poland, 19 May 2013 (Preludes), 18 July, 24 November 2013 (Etudes).
ACTE PREALABLE AP0319 [61:26]

German-born Kessler (sometimes 'Kötzler') is yet another composer who was well-known and admired during his lifetime but languishes in obscurity in modern times. Kessler was the dedicatee of his friend Chopin's op.28 Preludes; other pianist-composers who thought highly of his music include the likes of Liszt, Kalkbrenner, Thalberg and Moscheles. Yet not only does he not have a biographical entry in Grove, he is not even mentioned in passing in Chopin's.
 
Still, he was clearly a prodigious pianist, and his 24 Preludes precede Chopin's by over a decade. The latter's were criticised by some, most notably Schumann, for their great brevity and 'incoherence', but Kessler's are only half the length. Polish pianist Magdalena Brzozowska writes reasonably that some are "no more than ornamented cadenzas". Though ephemeral maxime, they are tremendously virtuosic, yet not in a vulgar way. The op.20 Etudes, dedicated this time to another well-known friend, Johann Hummel, are more spectacular, their greater length - typically three minutes - obviously permitting more expansion. Though mainly fiery - marked vivacissimo, presto, con fuoco, allegrissimo con brio and the like - the final B flat minor Etude, which makes up almost a quarter of the entire length of op.20, is a piece of considerable introspection that shows a philosophical side of Kessler to complement all the technical ingenuity on display elsewhere.
 
Like most, if not all, Polish pianists, Brzozowska was brought up on Chopin, a training which leaves her perfectly equipped to tackle the significant demands of Kessler's music, not least of which is creating some kind of lasting impression within the space of a few bars. Perhaps she labours a little in one or two of the Etudes, but overall she gives a performance that is physically competent and emotionally satisfying.
 
Acte Préalable's audio is good on the whole, with one or two minor provisos. First, the gap between Preludes, ranging from three to six seconds, is not great in absolute terms, but when most of the pieces only last around thirty seconds, the hiatus becomes marked. The incorporation of digital silence adds to the sense that the Preludes were not recorded in a single take. This suggestion is strengthened by the fact that the ninth Prelude has been perceptibly faded in over the space of a couple of milliseconds. A second caveat is that, although the piano sounds slightly recessed, the recording levels are high, so much so that not only is the piano mechanism audible, but a small degree of distortion is sometimes only a whisker away. Still, these quibbles are not serious enough to precipitate any vacillation.
 
Likewise Brzozowska's notes which, in her own translation, come with a heavy foreign accent and a sprinkling of spelling errors ('pieceful', 'contrapunctual'); they remain easily comprehensible. They would have been more interesting with fewer platitudes, however ('The Preludes may be played as a whole cycle or as chosen pieces'; 'a very well composed cycle with the beginning, medium part and the finale'). There are, once again, too many photos of the performer - if there must be the equivalent of seven glossy full-page pictures (one is on the CD itself), at least let them show different aspects of the artist, rather than all coming from the same quick session. Surely listeners would prefer a cheaper CD without shiny colour photography.
 
Byzantion
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