Leopold KOŽELUCH (1747-1818)
Piano Sonata No. 17 in C major, Op 15 No 2, P. XII: 18 [17:59]
Piano Sonata No. 18 in A flat major, Op 15 No 3, P. XII: 19 [20:06]
Piano Sonata No. 19 in F minor, Op 17 No 1, P. XII: 20 [18:44]
Piano Sonata No. 20 in A major, Op 17 No 2, P. XII: 21 [18:32]
Kemp English (fortepiano)
rec. 2011, Mobbs Early Keyboard Collection, Golden Bay, New Zealand
Nos 19 & 20: world premiere recordings GRAND PIANO GP646 [75:21]
Leopold Koželuch (Koželuh, or Kotzeluch) was born the son of a shoemaker in the Bohemian town of Velvary, now part of the Czech Republic. His cousin Jan Antonín Koželuh, a composer himself, was his teacher for a while. He contributed his first work, a ballet, to the National Theatre in Prague, writing some twenty-five works for them in the coming season. In 1778 he went to Vienna, where, it is thought he was a student of Albrechtsberger for a short while. Koželuch quickly entered the ranks of acclaimed pianists, and he also took over the position from Wagenseil as teacher to the Arch-duchess Elisabeth, Empress Maria Theresa’s daughter. He was later offered Mozart’s position in Salzburg when Mozart left in 1781, but refused. He did accept the position of court composer in Prague, that Mozart’s death left open in 1792, and, taking his lead from Wolfgang Amadeus, Koželuch also joined Freemasonry in Vienna around 1790 or so.
During his lifetime Koželuch experienced overall acceptance of his work throughout Europe, even though the fact that he appeared overly prolific was often the most frequent comment made about him. Given that he left around 400 compositions – some thirty symphonies, twenty-two piano concertos, including one for piano duet which is still one of the best examples of its kind, sixty-three piano trios, twenty-four violin sonatas and fifty keyboard sonatas – this would certainly warrant the claim of being prolific, as well as possibly excuse the odd work or works that didn’t quite measure up to the rest.
His keyboard sonatas span a period of nearly four decades, from the earliest of 1773 to the last three, unpublished in his lifetime, dating from some time after 1810. Kemp English talks about the sonatas as a whole in his most informative sleeve-notes, and the present CD is volume five in the series of Koželuch sonatas he has recorded. These present four examples all dated 1785 and comprising P. XII: 18 to 21, as catalogued by Czech musicologist Milan Poštolka. Volumes three and four have already been the subject of reviews here.
New Zealand fortepianist, English, prefaces volume five with a succinct yet spot-on précis of the four sonatas recorded: ‘Leopold Koželuch’s music satisfied the ever-changing musical tastes of 18th-century Vienna but he was also a skilled pedagogue, challenging the best of his aristocratic students with the blistering semiquaver climaxes and double octaves of Sonatas Nos. 17 and 18. Koželuch foreshadows Beethoven in his Sonata No. 19, but the Sonata No. 20 represents a musical watershed, anticipating Schubert and others with its adventurous harmonic shifts and the surprising romanticism of its extended slow movement.’ To put these four sonatas in historical context, Mozart’s Sonata in C minor, K457 was published in the same year (1795), Beethoven’s first piano sonata proper appeared ten years later, and Schubert was born two years after this.
Sonata No 17 in C major is not without its fair share of bravura, in the shape of double octaves and rapid semiquaver figuration. An overall reposeful ‘Poco adagio’ in the subdominant key, F key – with a nod in the direction of Haydn and Mozart – is followed by a busy ‘Presto’, a moto perpetuo which makes a great play on triplets, and calls to mind some of the later studies and exercises of Carl Czerny (1791-1857). The two-movement Sonata No 18 in A flat major opens with a set of variations, the theme of which is not far short of two minutes in length. The variations that follow are not as inventive as Beethoven’s from his own Sonata in A flat, Op 26 first movement, though this work appeared fifteen years later. In Koželuch’s example there is no real harmonic investigation, purely one of melodic embellishment, although the penultimate variation in the tonic minor key does become more harmonically searching, with some upward semitone shifts proving effective, a procedure that Beethoven sometimes employed, for example towards the conclusion of his ‘Emperor’ Piano Concerto. Koželuch’s ‘Allegro molto’ finale again features rapid passage-work and double octaves, and needs to be played with some real panache, which is certainly the case here.
English’s otherwise exemplary sleeve-notes seem to have a confusion here. The Sonata No 18 in A flat, is definitely a two-movement work – the only example in the present volume but English then goes on to say: ‘Another two-movement work, Sonata No 19 in F minor …’, whereas clearly it is instead in three-movement design, albeit Slow – Fast – Brisk. Again virtuosity isn’t far away here, with its decidedly tricky triplets in the ‘Allegro agitato’ middle movement, which, as English suggests, does bring to mind the finale of Beethoven’s ‘Pathétique’, even though the key is more that of the ‘Appassionata’.
That said, English is right to comment on the final Sonata No 20 in A major, when he says: ‘(it) is certainly the most advanced. The first and last movements continually stretching [sic] the technical boundaries of the day, constantly employing double octaves, sixths, difficult leaps and figurations that were way ahead of their time.’
English goes on to surmise that Sonata No 20, along with the other works on the present CD, represent something of a musical watershed, despite their 1785 date. Not only are there significantly more technical demands, but the musical language, especially in No 20, has noticeably evolved, too. There are definite foretastes here of Schubert, and particularly in the opening ‘Allegro molto’, where, with its passage of running semiquavers in the right hand and octaves in the left (not actually ‘double octaves’, as English puts it, as this would suggest both hands were in octaves), it does seem almost like a blueprint for a similar passage in the finale of Schubert’s Sonata in the same key, Op 120 / D664, of 1819. Furthermore Koželuch begins the development section in the flattened submediant key (in A major, this would be C major), a harmonic shift that later became one of Schubert’s characteristic harmonic fingerprints. Even the extended slow movement seems to anticipate Mendelssohn and Schumann, although the slight finale perhaps is more retrospective once again.
Interestingly, two different fortepianos are used on this CD, both copies of an Anton Walter original (c. 1795). For the first three sonatas, English uses an instrument by Americans T & B Wolf, while for the fourth sonata, he looks closer to home, and uses one by fellow New Zealander Paul Downie. The rationale behind this, as English explains, is that, ‘with such a striking sonata [No 20 in A] it seemed appropriate to introduce another instrument into the equation. Still based on a Walter fortepiano from the 1790s, New Zealander Paul Downie’s instrument (completed in 2000) adds a different timbre to the music. The treble has a woody quality that looks forward to the craftsmanship of Conrad Graf and as things are so much brighter across the whole compass the technical brilliancy of Sonata No 20 comes further into relief.’
The present CD is volume five in the set, and brings the total of recorded sonatas to fifteen, so there should be many more volumes appearing to accommodate the other thirty-five or so yet to be put on CD.
If you were looking for perhaps just one representative CD of Koželuch’s sonata output so far, then this present offering could certainly prove ideal. The performance is simply outstanding, and English has such an obvious yet easy empathy with the music played. The recording is first-rate and captures the sound of the instrument to absolute perfection. Also there's the bonus of being able to listen to and compare two somewhat different examples of fortepiano.
For so many reasons, then, this would be an attractive addition to any collection and, if you’ve already got the first four volumes, then you’re well and truly hooked for a long time, anyway.