Franciszek LESSEL (1780-1838)
Fantasia in C major, Op. 8 [10:59]
Variations in A minor, Op. 15 No. 1 [9:03]
Sonata in F major, Op. 2 No. 2 [18:34]
Sonata in A major, Op. 2 No. 3 [19:52]
Fantasia in E minor, Op. 13 [18:13]
Dorota Cybulska-Amsler (piano)
rec. 2014, ‘Les Tilleuls’ Theatre, Saint-Gengoux-le-National, France
DUX 1173 [76:40]

It’s a pity that the otherwise enlightening sleeve-notes open with: ‘The biography of Franciszek Lessel (1780-1838), an excellent Polish composer from the pre-Chopin era, is rather difficult to trace’. Apart from the rather uncomfortable use here of ‘excellent’, his year of death, as shown on the back of the case is ‘1837’, whereas it is clearly known to be the following year – in fact on Boxing Day, December 26. The statement is an exact translation of the initial Polish notes – contributed by the pianist herself – whereas, somewhat strangely, the ensuing French translation neither mentions ‘excellent’, Chopin, nor the actual dates.

Suffice it to say that, in terms of biographical information about the composer, he was born in Puławy, Poland, the son of Wincenty Ferdynand Lessel, himself a pianist and composer of Czech origin, and who served as Franciszek’s first teacher. In 1799 Lessel went to study with Haydn and continued to do so until Haydn’s death in 1809. He worked as a court musician, headed Warsaw’s Amateur Music Society, and gave lessons on how to play the glass harmonica. In later life Lessel largely held non-musical administrative positions, and died in Piotrkˇw Trybunalski in central Poland. Cybulska’s detailed notes about the composer’s life and musical output make for interesting reading here.

The Fantasia in C, which opens the CD, was dedicated to Clementi, who had paid a visit to Haydn in Vienna in 1807. As a genre, the fantasia was rooted in improvisation, and under the influence of CPE Bach in the 19th century crossed the structural divide with sonata form, as witness some of Beethoven’s essays in the field. According to Cybulska, ‘in Lessel’s work, dramatic sequences are divided by a lyrical episode with a characteristically Polish melody that brings to mind the theme from Chopin’s Piano Concerto in F minor’. Cybulska goes on to say that the Fantasia is ‘an excellent illustration of Czerny’s words from his Systematische Anleitung zu fantasieren, Op 200, where he compared the Fantasia to an English garden, where a seeming disarray and naturalness are in essence magnificently planned out’. Certainly there is a rambling clutter of ideas here, where sections just move on, often quite abruptly to the next one. Harmonically there are a number of interesting juxtapositions and progressions, and just about sufficient overall interest to keep the listener’s attention. Around the 7-minute mark comes a section which indeed does look forward to the type of passage-work and chromatic alteration so characteristic of Chopin. At times the waywardness and constant succession of ideas also suggest Schubert, where motivic development often gives way to further melodic effusions instead.

The Variations in A minor are dedicated to Franciszka Hiz, Lessel’s wife from 1818. In choosing his theme, he was the first to bring this quite familiar Cossack dumka (a Slavic folk song that alternates in character between sadness and gaiety) melody out of the shadows, which he would then have known as ‘Sch÷ne Minke’ (‘Beautiful Minke’). It is apparently still sung today in Poland as ‘Hej, Sokoły’ (‘Hey, Falcons’), and re-surfaced back in 1941 as ‘Yes, My Darling Daughter’ – a song by Jack Lawrence, first introduced by Dinah Shore on Eddie Cantor’s radio program, as well as being Shore’s first record. Cybulska’s sleeve-notes here are purely biographical, especially in relation to the Cossack theme, though surprisingly there is no mention of the musical structure at all. In the event, however, this is not crucial as the variations are very straightforward, and the theme is never very far away. There are nine in total, all in the home key, and where the treatment is of the traditional melodic-decorative variety, seen as far back as Handel’s ‘Harmonious Blacksmith’ set, rather than in Brahms’s later set on a theme of Handel, where there is considerable harmonic manipulation, too. The eighth of Lessel’s set is somewhat extended, with an improvised feel in the latter section, reminiscent of parts of Mozart’s C Minor Fantasia, K 457. Somewhat surprisingly, the final variation closes the work slowly, and with a degree of understatement, considering what has gone before.

The Sonatas of Op 2 were dedicated to Haydn, and most likely written in Lessel’s Viennese period, or perhaps even earlier in his output. Despite many elements which point towards Papa Haydn, the spirit of early Beethoven already prevails somewhat in each of these three-movement works. Cybulska does go on to add that each respective finale ‘exhibits a melodic type characteristic of Polish dances: the mazurek and the krakowiak’. This does seem a somewhat tenuous statement, if we think of true examples of these two distinct musical forms, but at least each finale provides an appropriate finish to each sonata, even if they are really very much more Ó la Haydn, than Chopin, and also bear quite a resemblance to each other.

The final piece on the CD is arguably the most interesting, from a number of standpoints. The Fantasia in E minor is dedicated to Cecylia Beydale, for a time Lessel’s lover, until they discovered they shared the same mother. According to Cybulska, ‘this incredibly dramatic work with wonderful pianistic texture, bold harmonies, captivating modulations, and unconventional form, is a sensation in the (sic) Polish piano music in the time before Chopin. Certainly there is a great variety of textures and figuration, definitely bold harmonies for the period, and modulations, which, if not quite ‘captivating’, could make the work slightly difficult to assign, in terms of composer of chronology. There are shades of CPE Bach and Schubert again, but nothing really to suggest the emergence of anything like Chopin’s Fantasia in F minor, Op 49, which appeared less than thirty years later. There are attention-grabbing sections along the way, and quite sonically-experimental moments around the 14-minute mark. However, for a work lasting over eighteen minutes – almost as long as each of the three-movement sonatas from Op 2 – it does tend to ramble at times, as if Lessel is waiting for another idea to come along. This probably accounts for the slightly abrupt ending in the relative major key (G major), as if he couldn’t find his way back to the home key, at least to add, perhaps, a little symmetry to an otherwise quite amorphous piece.

While only the word ‘pianoforte’ appears on the front and back of the CD case, a fortepiano is, in fact, used for the recording. The instrument comes from the collection of Marcia Hadjimarcos, and is a 1981 copy by Christopher Clarke of a Johann Fritz original, which resides in the Burnett collection in Finchcocks, Kent, in South East England. According to the sleeve-note, ‘… Fritz was among the most renowned Viennese fortepiano builders in the years 1810-1825. His instruments are furnished with [a] Viennese action, in which light hammers covered with leather produce a soft and gentle sound, in contrast to [an] English action, which favours a stronger and more direct sound. Fitz’s pianoforti have four pedals: una corda shifting the keyboard for the hammers to strike one instead of two strings, moderator – placing ribbons of fabric between the hammers and strings to dampen the bass sounds, forte – lifting the dampers, and cymbals – producing the effect of Janissary bells. There is also a knee-controlled bassoon register, consisting of parchment wrapped in silk, which can be brought into play against the vibrating strings to provide a somewhat rasping sound.

Cybulska-Amsler’s playing is totally idiomatic, and shows a clear empathy with the style. It is expressive when called for, yet not lacking in any technical prowess, enabling her to despatch the often quite virtuosic and flamboyant writing with easy panache, and which the excellent and well-projected recording captures to perfection.

For listeners with a distinct interest in less-well-trodden repertoire of the period, from a country where fewer representative examples abound, and played on a fine-sounding copy of a period instrument, this CD could sit comfortably in a collection. Purely from the music heard, it is still involving, most of the time, and there is always the facility to fast-forward in either of the two Fantasias, if deemed necessary.

Philip R Buttall

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