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Joseph WOELFL (1773-1812)
Piano Music - Volume One
Sonate, précédée d’une Introduction et Fugue, in C minor, WoO 113 (c. 1804) [30:36]
Piano Sonata in B minor Op.38 (1808) [17:40]
Piano Sonata in F major, Op.27 No.2 (1803) [24:46]
Adalberto Maria Rive (piano)
rec. 5 and 6 July 2016 Griffa & Figli, Milan, Italy
First recordings except WoO113

Joseph Woelfl was born in Salzburg, Austria, where he studied with Haydn’s younger brother Michael, and Mozart’s father Leopold. He moved to Vienna in 1790, where he may even have taken lessons from Wolfgang himself. While, as they say, size isn’t everything, Woelfl was over six feet tall, and with an enormous finger span with which, according to contemporary composer Frantisek Tomasek, he could strike a thirteenth (for example, from C to the A above the next C – although key dimensions were less at the time). Although Woelfl dedicated his Op. 6 Sonatas (1798) to Beethoven, the two were rivals, until a piano ‘duel’ was arranged, and where Beethoven emerged the acclaimed winner. Woelfl moved on to Paris, and then finally London, where he enjoyed commercial, if not quite critical success. Although he wrote six piano concertos, a number of symphonies, some twenty string quartets, operas and, of course, a considerable amount of piano music, not only for the solo performer, but also sonatas with violin, piano trios, and duets, his music has long since disappeared from the concert platform and recording studio. There was a slight resurgence in interest variously from 1993 to 2006, but this effectively went nowhere.

Margit Haider-Dechant’s excellent CD sleeve-notes flesh out the biographical details, and Italian pianist Adalberto Maria Riva writes extensively about his introduction to Woelfl’s work when, in 2009, he was initially introduced to Haider-Dechant’s recent thesis on the composer’s works, and her subsequent request that he perform the opening work of this yet-to-appear CD at a concert to mark the 200th anniversary of Woelfl’s death in 2012. Given that Woelfl wrote some sixty-eight piano sonatas, it proved a wise decision to begin this debut CD of a projected series with the sonata in question, given its interesting design and musical content, rather than adopting the purely chronological approach. The concept, of course, isn’t new, as Mozart had already paired his Fantasia in C minor K.475 with his Sonata in C minor, K.457 back in 1785, but Woelfl’s coupling of a Sonate, preceded by an Introduction and Fugue is still innovative for the time – and interestingly both works are in the same key. There is definitely a strong sense of improvisation about the short, opening Introduction, not only thematically but also harmonically, encompassing a number of different keys in a relatively short space of time, before closing on an Imperfect Cadence (or Half-Close), before the Fugue starts. Despite this being early in the nineteenth century, there is almost an uncanny hint of Belgian pianist-composer César Franck, as witness his Prelude, Chorale and Fugue, but written some eighty years later. Indeed the Introduction has already brought to mind composers like Beethoven and Schubert, and while the former was contemporary with Woelfl, the latter was a still a mere child at this time. There is real dramatic tension as the Fugue reaches its close, and leads directly into the first movement of the Sonata proper (Allegro molto). Again, as the movement unfolds, there are stylistic similarities, this time with the likes of Clementi (1752-1832), even if the work was completed just before Woelfl repaired to London, and where Clementi was already living. Throughout, there is some very impressive piano-writing and it becomes clear that Woelfl is intending to speak with his own unique voice. The ensuing expressive slow movement – marked Adagio – provides an effective contrast to the opening sonata-form movement, where Woelfl’s use of modulation is again telling, as are the close juxtapositions of different sections each with its changing emotion. It also acts as an aperitif to the elegant and charming closing Rondo (Allegretto), which has some attractive twists and turns along the way, and where the piano writing is always sufficiently challenging, though not in any overtly-bravura fashion, especially in the closing sections as it rushes towards its close in the tonic major (C major).

After what seems a particularly short run-in time before the next track on the CD, the Sonata in B minor once more picks up the world of lyrical melancholy, which pervades most if not all of the opening Allegro, except for its somewhat abrupt close. Mozart and, more especially, Schubert seem to inhabit the essentially meditative Adagio slow movement, particularly in light of the harmonic implications, and often the pure melodic outpouring. The brisk finale is marked Presto, which provides an effective close to the sonata, where melancholy, rather than high spirits has so far been the main tenet of the first two movements. There is also some contrapuntal writing which heightens the effect of this relatively short, but decidedly not light-weight finale.

Again, barely has the final chord died away, than the opening Allegro of the last work on the present CD work kicks in. Although the disc runs generously for some seventy-three minutes, just a little more time to pause, and regroup between movements, and particularly works would have been appreciated. In this F major Sonata, the mood appears more lyrical and pastoral, without the fire and passion of the opening C minor Sonata’s first movement. It is as if Woelfl is now anticipating Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, in the same key, but which appeared some five years later. The opening of the slow movement (Andante), with its four-part texture and simply-formed melody, sounds first as if it’s going to provide the theme for a subsequent set of variations, until a turn into the minor key, and some more dramatic writing soon dispel this assumption. Here again is the hand of Schubert, as sections fluctuate between major and minor tonalities. While Woelfl didn’t strictly go down the Theme and Variations path on this occasion there is nevertheless much variety in the way he treats his little theme, as the movement unfolds. The Sonata in F ends with an agreeable rondo, again with many a twist and turn to catch out the unwary. The melody is straightforward enough, but Woelfl’s harmonic ingenuity ensures that it holds the listener’s attention for all of its nine or so minutes. Here, perhaps, the spirit of Beethoven prevails more than others, with certainly some of the drama he brings to some of his rondo-finales in similar vein. Once more the piano writing offers sufficient challenge, but never merely for effect alone, except, perhaps, for the movement’s swift and effective dénouement.

Riva is a most sensitive and highly-accomplished player, who crafts his melodic lines with flexibility, thereby allowing the music to breathe at all times. He is very much at one with the demands of Woelfl’s style, and while he has the power of a flagship 9’6” (ca. 290 cm) Bösendorfer Imperial Grand at his disposal, never once does he abuse this, nor does the equally-fine recording ever allow the instrument to exceed the dynamic range as indicated in the score itself.

Riva expresses the hope that this and further recordings of Woelfl’s music, with its original and individual style, will confirm that the composer still deserves today the esteem he enjoyed in his own brief life. On the evidence of this debut CD, there is a real solid case for this, and with the Toccata label’s encouragement and support, it should hopefully not be too long before the next Woelfl CD leaves the presses.

Philip R Buttall



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