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Daniel STEIBELT (1765-1823)
Piano Concerto No.3 in E major ‘L’orage’, op.33 (1798) [28:21]
Piano Concerto No.5 in E flat major ‘ la chasse’, (1802) [26:44]
Piano Concerto No.7 in E minor ‘Grand concerto militaire’ (c.1816) [24:51]
Ulster Orchestra/Howard Shelley (piano/conductor)
rec. Ulster Hall, Belfast, 18-20 November 2014
HYPERION CDA68104 [79:58]

This is the second issue in an ongoing series of ‘The Classical Piano Concerto.’ The first volume was released in 2014 and included three concertos by Dussek (review). It (hopefully) represents the start of Hyperion’s mission to promote composers who were by and large overshadowed by Beethoven, Haydn and Mozart. It follows on from their long-running exploration of the Romantic Piano Concerto, which discovered or unearthed dozens of largely forgotten works. The present CD showcases three of German composer Daniel Steibelt’s eight piano concertos.

At the moment, Steibelt is sparsely represented in the CD catalogue. Anna Petrova-Forster has made two recordings of his piano music. The first (Gega New 362) includes the Sixth Concerto, the sonatas opp. 6/2 and 82, while the second (Forgotten Records FR32P – review) features another sonata, op. 64. I have not heard either disc. There is also a recording of Steibelt’s Grand Concerto for Harp and his Sonata for 2 Keyboards (Organ) in G major. There is little else that I can locate in the back catalogues.

Daniel Steibelt was born in Berlin on 22 October 1765, some nine years after the birth of Mozart. His father was a harpsichord maker. After study with Johann Kirnberger in Berlin, he moved to Paris, where he combined composing, playing and teaching. He had a successful premiere of his opera Romeo and Juliet at the Thtre Feydeau in 1793. After some dubious business deals he left for London where he duly had a major triumph with the E major Piano Concerto with its ‘Storm’ Rondo. In the last year of the eighteenth century he began touring Germany and Austria during which time he was humiliated in a ‘contest’ with Beethoven. The following years were spent in Paris where he conducted a performance of Haydn’s Creation and in London. Whilst in London he married an English pianist who also played the tambourine. Frequent changes of address were necessary to keep one step ahead of his creditors. In 1808 Steibelt moved to St. Petersburg where he was made Kapellmeister to the Emperor Alexander. He died there on 2 October 1823.

Steibelt produced an impressive range of music including operas, ballets, overtures, some eight piano concertos, many violin sonatas, chamber works and piano music. Most has sunk into oblivion.

The Piano Concerto No.3 was introduced to the London audience in 1798, to instant success. The most impressive piece of writing here is the final movement, a ‘rondo pastorale’: after a quiet, ruminative section, the composer introduces an effective, if a little nave, imitation of a storm. It was played in salons and concert halls across Europe.

It seems that Steibelt was at his best in the finales. I loved the ‘hunting horn’ motifs of the Piano Concerto No.5 in E flat major ‘ la chasse’ with all the excitement of the pursuit. The finale of the Piano Concerto No.7 in E minor ‘Grand concerto militaire’ has ‘no pretence to sophistication, this is a fun movement that trades ear-tickling effects…’. It is a delight.
The liner notes point out that Steibelt struggled writing ‘slow movements’ and he has resorted to composing sets of variations based on popular airs. As an example, the adagio of Concerto No.5 uses ‘By Yon Bonnie Banks and Braes’.

The playing by Howard Shelley and the Ulster Orchestra cannot be faulted: Shelley is a splendid advocate of this music. The advertising blurb for this CD proclaims that these ‘classical concertos are joyfully championed by Howard Shelley’: I could not have found a better adjective. The liner notes, written by Richard Wigmore, give a detailed exposition of the music and a biographical note on the composer. It is essential reading.

If I am honest, I can see why these three concertos (and I presume the other five) have been side-lined. They are dominated by note-spinning. Steibelt was less concerned with formal construction of his concertos and presented a ‘greater emphasis on luxuriant keyboard figuration. There is little thematic development or attempts to ‘integrate piano and orchestra within a symphonic framework.’

In spite of the fact that Steibelt’s music can easily be criticised for not being Mozart, Haydn or Beethoven, these are attractive and downright enjoyable concertos. They are full of good tunes, lots of keyboard pyrotechnics and ‘pictorial effects.’ It is right that they have been recorded, and I hope that the remaining concertos will be released soon, along with other discoveries from this period. It is essential for listeners to have access to works from the Classical era that may lack pure genius, but were once extremely popular with audiences. These are pieces which are a sheer pleasure to listen to without having to worry about their heaven-storming importance!

John France



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