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Johann Wilhelm HÄSSLER (1747-1822)
Grande Gigue d-Moll, Op 31 [6:38]
Sonata Fantasie C-Dur, Op 4 [12:59]
Fantasie c-Moll [6:50]
Sonata D-Dur [12:18]
Sonata G-Dur [9.35]
Sonata Nr 6 a-Moll [3:05]
Anthony Spiri (piano)
rec. Kammermusikstudio Stuttgart SWR, 21-23 December 2004, 14-16 November 2011

Christoph Vratz’s begins his short, but reasonably informative booklet notes about Johann Wilhelm Hässler – adopting the more-anglicised spelling – with the heading: A Discrete Bridge Builder between Baroque Tradition and Romanticism. This is quite a bold statement, given that any such bridge would need to incorporate the Classical period in between.

Hässler was very closely contemporary with the likes of Boccherini, Stamitz, Cimarosa and Salieri – admittedly relatively minor figures, yet still far more familiar to us than Hässler. According to Vratz, and by way of providing a little background information, pianist Anthony Spiri issued a CD with piano works of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach in 2007. However, it came to light that the manuscript – P883 in the Berlin State Library – consisted not only of works by Wilhelm Friedemann, J S Bach’s eldest son – but also of music by Hässler. Johann Sebastian wasn’t always meticulous in his own cataloguing, and it seems that W. F. inherited this weakness, too, even identifying the odd work of his father as one of his own. The present CD returns three works from Spiri’s earlier CD of W. F. Bach – the Sonatas in D and G, as well as the Fantasia in C minor – to their rightful owner, Johann Wilhelm Hässler.

Hässler was born in Erfurt, some sixty miles south west of Leipzig, and while looking after the family fur business, he still managed concert tours of Germany in the early 1770s, and then further afield in Europe in the 80s and 90s. He spent 1790 to 1792 in London, then moved to St Petersburg, before finally settling in Moscow in 1794, where he worked as a prominent music teacher and composer until his death in 1822. He wrote many works for keyboard, as well as chamber music and songs. One of his most unusual works was a cycle of 360 preludes in all keys, published in 1817, but premiered only in Erfurt and, three days later, in Moscow, in 2012. There are plans to record this 95-minute work in 2016.

It wouldn’t be especially difficult to confuse the opening track – the Grand Gigue d-Moll, Op 31 – for a work by W. F. Bach, as stylistically Hässler can be categorised as part of the circle of the Bach sons. Indeed, the C minor Fantasie later on the CD is cast very much in W. F. Bach’s idiom, and in the fifth bar of the first movement of the subsequent D major Sonata, apparently there is even a one-to-one resemblance to W. F. Bach’s own Sonata in C major of 1779. The Grand Gigue is Hässler’s best-known piano work, and was considerably well respected in its time. Its opening is texturally somewhat reminiscent of the Prelude in the same key from the first book of J S Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues, but the figurations become more extended in each of its two halves, where Hässler successfully contrasts the initial quaver (eighth-note) triplets with sections in straight semiquavers (sixteenth-notes), and which suggests echoes of C. P. E. Bach’s Solfeggietto.

The Sonata Fantasie in C-DUR Op 4 – German speakers use ‘Dur’ and upper case letters for ‘Major’, and ‘Moll’ and lower case for ‘Minor’ – is an interesting work, cast in six movements in total. It opens with a declamatory Allegro, much in the fashion of an improvised prelude, the like of which is regularly encountered in the Baroque. This leads into a bright and breezy Vivace in three-time, where Haydn’s spirit is never far removed, but soon this is followed directly by a slow Recitativo movement, but which incorporates a faster episode nearer the close. Here it is more the voice of Beethoven as if ‘speaking from the tomb’ in the short recitative-passages from his own Tempest Sonata in D minor, Op 31 No 2. This leads to a slower movement’ in the relative minor (A), marked Andante, and where dotted rhythms form much of the thematic material. This ends on a half-close and proceeds straight into the short, but none the less most attractive finale, with frequent passages in thirds, and themes passed from one hand to the other, essentially with a more Mozartian feel this time.

The opening of the Fantasie in C minor looks back once more to Bach the Father, with its chromatic harmonies and diminished-sevenths chords in the opening section, before a faster tempo ensues and the music moves into the major key, though finally returning to the calm of the start, and the minor tonality. Effectively no new ground is broken with this piece which, at times, is reminiscent of Mozart’s Fantasia K475 in the same key, and which is normally linked with his C minor Sonata, K457.

The ensuing three-movement Sonata in D major begins with an Allegro di molto that could have come direct from the pen of Haydn, or C. P. E. Bach. It shows Hässler’s fondness for the diminished-seventh chord and arpeggio – in the key of D this would be C sharp – E – G – B flat. In use the chord allows for a certain degree of harmonic water-treading, or can facilitate more remote key changes – Mendelssohn, writing later, was not averse to using the chord copiously, and its sound, in a pantomime, when something spooky is about to happen, is no doubt familiar to most of us. Again, the ‘slow’ movement is not that slow, with a fair degree of overall progression within its Andante framework. Here the writing has more of the simple ‘galant’ style, which looks forward to the greater expressive demands of the Romantic period, rather than back towards the often over-complex and grandiose style of the Baroque. This, the sonata’s longest movement, leads straight into a jaunty Con brio, and once again the world of Haydn.

The G Major Sonata also has three movements, and starts in declamatory fashion, Con spirito, while there are effective moments of contrapuntal writing later in the development. The Larghetto presents somewhat more of a slow movement as such, than has previously been heard, and is expressively conceived. Ornamentation is still present, but there is here a sense of moving forward stylistically and, to some degree, harmonically, even if the closing bars are still very much old-school. The finale again points forward, not only harmonically, but in the extended pianistic figurations that look somewhat more to Beethoven

The final work is a one-movement Sonata in A minor – a decidedly catchy miniature, neither fast nor slow in the main. The middle section, however, shifts into the major, and increases the tempo, before that little tune is back once more in another varied guise, before the three or so minutes have elapsed, and with a rather abrupt ending, that’s almost as if Hässler is saying, has says, “Sorry, I’ve just got to call it a day here!”

Vratz asks the question whether Hässler was a mere epigone. Indeed, even during the composer’s lifetime he was met with this accusation. His reply, though, was, “To work in the manner of another is not the same thing as imitating and copying him”. The music on this CD does show Hässler working in the manner of a number of other colleagues, but this would surely apply equally to any number of other composers. Beethoven’s early piano Sonatas, and especially those that predate No 1 in F minor, Op 2 No 1, show the composer developing initially from Haydn and his contemporaries, but, in Beethoven’s case, the ultimate transmutation as far as the late sonatas, or string quartets are concerned, is something that the Hässlers of this world could scarcely even dream about.

Returning to Vratz’s opening gambit, it would be acceptable to consider Hässler as some kind of bridge builder, but on the evidence of this CD, it would be more appropriate to say from the Baroque to the Classical period – perhaps with just an occasional look into the crystal-ball, as provided slightly by the A minor Sonata.

Vratz speculates on how great Hässler’s influence might have been, had he settled longer in Vienna, London or Paris. But Hässler did live until the then ripe old age of seventy-five, even if he spent his later years relatively isolated in Russia, as did Irishman John Field. To speculate on what Schubert of Mozart, for example, might have achieved, had they lived to that age is just a totally different equation.

This is a welcome addition to the catalogue, if only to put the record straight in terms of the confusion caused by Spiri’s previous CD, mentioned above. Hässler, in fact, enjoyed great esteem during the nineteenth century as a successor to the ‘Bach Tradition’, and can be considered of some importance not least as the founder of the so-called Russian piano school. His piano compositions and pedagogical works were long a mainstay of the repertoire. The CD is well recorded, and Spiri’s playing idiomatic, sensitive and technically well-assured throughout.

Philip R Buttall



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