Jan Ladislav DUSSEK (1760-1812)
Piano Concerto in G major, Op 1 No 3, C4 (pre-1783) [14:19]
Piano Concerto in C major, Op 29, C125 (1795) [23:29]
Piano Concerto in E flat major, Op 70, C238 (1810) [30:31]
Ulster Orchestra/Howard Shelley (piano)
rec. 3-5 September 2013, Ulster Hall, Belfast, Northern Ireland
HYPERION CDA68027 [68:23]

Hyperion’s long-standing Romantic Piano Concerto series launched in 1991. At present it has well over sixty issues to its name and has unearthed treasure from more familiar composers but also from those whose names have hitherto been of greater interest to academics. This site has charted Hyperion's progress in a long sequence of reviews many of which are indexed here. Others have been reviewed by us but are not as yet in these indexed pages.

Mike Spring – whose brainchild the epic project is – has recently decided to stand down from this London-based company after some twenty-five years in the job. Whether this will have any effect on the future appearance of new issues in the series only time will tell. After all the genre isn’t quite a bottomless pit in terms of quality works with something distinctive or at least different to say.

The timing seems just right for the introduction of a new series from Hyperion which will, according to the first release, ‘this time focus on the lesser-known concertos from the dawn of the ‘Classical Piano Concerto’ genre, between about 1770 and 1820’. Hyperion’s proposed dates roughly correspond to Beethoven’s life-span (1770-1827), and would seem to be able to accommodate the works of Clementi, Cramer, Czerny, Ries, and Steibelt, and others working at the time. This ‘high classical period’ is still effectively dominated by Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven, all of whom were also prolific in the piano concerto field.

The Classical Piano Concerto’s executive producers – currently the familiar and highly-experienced pairing of Simon Perry and Mike Spring from the ‘Romantic’ series – have made a wise choice in choosing three concertos from Bohemian virtuoso Jan Ladislav Dussek’s eighteen surviving examples of the genre for their debut CD.

Dussek’s early works are certainly Classical in style, while those dating from after the turn of the century reveal definite Romantic characteristics, in terms of expression marks, non-harmonic notes, wider chordal variety and greater use of chromaticism. To be fair, much of Dussek’s music resembles that of some of his contemporaries, but the crucial point is that Dussek’s ideas predate these contemporaries, thus showing him to have been very much ahead of his time in reality. This isn’t made easier by the fact that the exact chronology of his approximately eighteen piano concertos isn’t overly straightforward, especially as he didn’t number them successively – hence the use of Howard Craw’s (C) Dussek cataloguing system. To this end the three examples on this CD have been well selected to point out this sense of progression.

The Piano Concerto in G major, Op. 1 No. 3 is an early work, written uncharacteristically in just two movements – without a central slow movement. The opening ‘Allegro’ holds no surprises, and is cast in Mozart’s well-tried ‘double-exposition’ form – an opening orchestral tutti, followed by a solo exposition, second tutti, development, recapitulation and closing tutti, which includes an improvised cadenza. The finale is a brisk and effective Rondo.

Contrary to Mozart’s thinking, as Dussek’s style matured he tended to dispense with the almost obligatory cadenza later in the opening movement. According to Weber-scholar John Warrack, Dussek actually is often credited with the increasing omission of this device in many nineteenth-century concertos, given that he was among the first to abandon it.

The second work on the CD – the Piano Concerto in C major, Op. 29 – appropriately comes from around the midpoint in the composer’s career (1795), at a time when the piano concerto was gaining popularity, and some four years after Mozart’s death. From the listener’s point of view, one of the interesting things here is that, instead of starting with the almost obligatory presentation of an energetic and up-beat first subject, Dussek’s opening gambit is a twenty-bar ‘Larghetto’ slow introduction in triple metre, which recurs twice in the ensuing ‘Allegro maestoso’. Beethoven introduced a short solo-piano introduction of some five bars at the start of his fourth Piano Concerto, but again this appeared in 1805-6, and Dussek’s is somewhat more substantial, and a truly original touch. There is a slow movement in the dominant key of G, and the concerto is again rounded off by a rondo finale.

Between this concerto and the last one on the CD – the Piano Concerto in E flat, Op. 70 of 1810, Dussek continued evolving his own take on concerto-form, particularly in giving the soloist new themes in the solo exposition, and turning the second subject more into a second-subject ‘group’. Additionally he would now include lyrical passages, mainly allotted to the soloist, and these could appear in any section of the movement. Similar passages also were to appear in the concertos of younger contemporaries of Dussek – Weber, Field, Hummel, Chopin and Schumann – and to become a structural innovation in the early Romantic concerto.

This final concerto, not unsurprisingly, is perhaps the most Beethovenian of the three, especially since it is roughly contemporary with Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto in the same key. It's a charming work that deserves to be heard more often.

The first thing the listener notices is the greatly extended first movement here – roughly a third longer than his previous contribution – as well as the absence of a conventional recapitulation, something which Dussek perhaps felt necessary to avoid an otherwise overlong opening ‘Allegro’.

The first movement is, in fact, a perfect example of the evolving Classical Piano Concerto, and it’s definitely worth fast-forwarding to roughly 7:50 to hear the start of one of these new lyrical passages referred to above, and which here opens the development. It lasts around two minutes, before the movement’s overall faster tempo returns, before a second such interlude occurs around 10:42, this time leading into the recapitulation.

An attractive second movement ensues, where Dussek shows not only his not-insignificant skills in orchestration, as well as some further harmonic side-stepping, such as is heard towards the end of the opening ‘Allegro’. A catchy and good-humoured rondo concludes the concerto, which again attests to the composer’s orchestral prowess. The now familiar excursion into some distant key – particular that of E major – adds not only to the ever-increase richness of his harmonic palette, but also points towards Schubert’s usage.

When volume 1 of Hyperion’s Romantic Piano Concerto series first appeared back in June 1991, with a release of concertos by Moszkowski and Paderewski, little did they perhaps realise they’d ever get well past sixty CDs – and still seemingly going strong. While the immediate appeal of a Classical piano concerto, versus a larger-scale Romantic one, might not make quite the same initial impact, if future releases in this new series are anything to go by, then the Classical Piano Concerto series looks like providing an equally successful parallel product, with the same propensity for longevity.

There could be no finer exponents of works in this new repertoire than Howard Shelley – already a stalwart of the Romantic Concerto series – both as soloist and director, and with the equally-talented Ulster Orchestra in tow. Factor in Hyperion’s customary first-rate recording and highly-informative sleeve-notes, here by Stephan D Lindeman, and it would be invidious not to praise this superb debut CD highly.

Beware though, if you enjoy this one, you could easily end up becoming hopelessly addicted again, and perhaps for the next twenty-five years or so.
Philip R Buttall


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