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Carl CZERNY (1791-1857)
Grande Sonate pour Pianoforte et Violin in A major [41:52]
Sonata Concertante in E flat major for Violin and Piano [31:37]
Kolja Lessing (violin)
Rainer Maria Klaas, Anton Kuerti (piano)
rec. 2013/15, Regentenbau, Rossini-Saal, Bad Kissingen, Germany
CPO 777 822-2 [73:48]

Originally of Czech descent, Austrian-born composer, teacher and pianist Carl Czerny left behind a vast output, over a thousand works. His books of piano studies and exercises are still used today, and a number of highly-respected performers and composers – Landowska, Arthur Rubinstein, Paderewski, DohnŠnyi, Moszkowski, Prokofiev, Leschetizky, Arrau, Cziffra, Fischer, Barenboim, and, of course, Liszt – can trace a direct line back to Czerny via their own successive teachers. But from Czerny’s death until the end of the twentieth century, there has been a preponderance of negative views about his compositions. His very prolificacy has done little to counter that, and even Liszt talked of ‘a too super-abundant productiveness’. Fortunately there has now been a complete volte-face. Record labels, particularly German-based CPO, pull out all the stops to ensure that Czerny gets the true credit he unquestionably deserves.

Kolja Lessing, violin soloist on this new CD, sets the scene perfectly at the start of his own erudite and informative sleeve-notes. It is 1807, and a sixteen-year-old self-taught composer from Beethoven’s inner circle has written a sonata for violin and piano, one that bursts every previous boundary of form, harmony, and virtuosity – in fact the first Romantic violin sonata of epoch-making stature. Such is the way in which Lessing introduces Czerny’s Grande Sonata pour Pianoforte et Violon in A major; no pressure here, then.

Described by Lessing as ‘huge’, Czerny’s sonata runs for almost forty-two minutes. Beethoven’s epic Kreutzer Sonata (1803), meanwhile, is similarly known for its length, but its three movements come in at just forty minutes or less. For those wishing to know all the finer points about the Grande Sonate, and its construction, Lessing does provide a very detailed analysis, along with one of the Sonata Concertante which follows. The main theme of the opening movement (Allegro con brio) is interesting for the time, in that there is clear interplay between the violin part and the piano’s left hand. The second subject, conventionally heard in the dominant key, confirms that Czerny can write lyrical, cantabile melodies just as well as virtuosic passages where scales and arpeggios are very much the order of the day. In fact, Lessing alludes to a certain stylistic similarity between the second subject and the later operatic writing of Paganini. Equally he describes the opening as a ‘rule-bending’ movement, but in fact Czerny has kept very much to the formal rule-book, even if the instrumental writing is fairly cutting-edge, particularly for a self-taught sixteen-year-old. On many occasions, though, we have seen the sleeve-notes – especially when written by one of the performers – seek to give the music or composer a little added street cred.

This does seem the case with the second movement (Andante grazioso), where Lessing, especially in the translation from German to English, appears to wax extremely lyrical over the fact that it starts straight off in the key of C major, proceeds to its dominant (G major), before some excursions, initially via G minor, into nonetheless related keys, ultimately returning to the key of the opening – or that Czerny later investigates the flat side of the key, (B flat in the key of A major, the so-called Neapolitan relationship), and moves even as far as C sharp minor, and its tonic major, D flat. Had this been Schubert, though, any such modulations would not have merited even a comment, and were certainly something that Beethoven had done before. Even this movement’s original key of C major, while perhaps not as common a choice of relationship as, say, the subdominant, dominant or relative minor, is still the relative major of A minor, a key which has already featured quite a lot in the first movement, alongside the sonata’s home key of A major itself.

The Allegro moderato rondo-finale starts jovially enough, with almost a pastoral feel to it, but Czerny is soon to be heard doing what Schubert did so naturally, too – slipping in and out of major and minor tonalities, or swiftly juxtaposing seemingly less-related keys. In the middle of the movement Czerny incorporates a fugal section, which, exciting as this is, has already been done so many times before, and is clearly no novelty. Lessing links all this with historical events at the time. Czerny, in his Memoirs, mentions the potential life-threatening presence of Napoleon and his troops, and, according to Lessing, this contrapuntal section becomes a ‘symbol of armed conflict’. Frankly I do not feel that Czerny’s already-electrifying writing needs any extra help by attaching an external programme to the music, but if it is what the two players are thinking of at this precise moment in time, then it definitely would seem to have some intrinsic value. The music then gains in excitement as it heads towards its close. True, there are many pre-Schubert moments along the way, but essentially, the model is still Beethoven, and the Kreutzer Sonata, notwithstanding the fact that they both share the same key.

As for the only other work on this CD, the year moves forward to 1848, by which time Czerny has become a living legend in Vienna, following Beethoven’s passing in 1827, He had written several more violin sonatas since the Grande Sonate in A, and produced another large-scale work, namely the four-movement Sonata Concertante in E flat major for violin and piano. Despite the far later date for this work, not only do the opening bars of the Allegro molto vivace hark back to the style of Mozart or early Beethoven, they accord with the word concertante in the title. The piano announces the theme in the right hand, the left hand provides a simple bass, and the violin is busy in the middle of the texture with its arpeggio triplets filling out the middle harmony – the way violin sonatas first developed, more as a violin accompaniment to the more important keyboard part, rather than equal protagonists, as in the Grande Sonate. Again, Lessing offers an interesting suggestion or two as to why it appears that Czerny has moved forward in time chronologically, but backwards stylistically, even if, apparently such look-backs featured more in his output as he got older.

The second movement (Allegretto grazioso) is a delightful confection, replacing any slow movement as such, and even appearing in the guise of a short triumphant march as it unfolds. As might be expected, Lessing again is not short of various poetic analogies as to Czerny’s musical intentions here. If the second movement was still most entertaining, the third – Molto vivace, which is the Scherzo proper – is a further movement of great jollity, and perhaps looks a little more towards Schubert for its inspiration, particularly with its almost Lšndler-like quality in the Trio. But if you have liked the second and third movements, then the finale could well even surpass your enjoyment. This Molto allegro quasi Presto, reminiscent at times of a certain fellow-Viennese composer’s Perpetuum Mobile, is even more light-hearted fun and high spirits, to which an added dollop of extra virtuosity has been tossed into the mix. What a thoroughly enjoyable piece of music the finale, and indeed the whole sonata is, and indeed the perfect antidote to anyone who thought that Czerny simply stood for scales, more scales, and even more scales.

It is hard to believe that neither of these two violin sonatas was performed in Czerny’s lifetime, and it was not until 195 and 165 years respectively, that they received their belated premiŤres, thanks to Austrian-born Canadian Pianist Anton Kuerti, Lessing’s pianist in the Sonata Concertante.

With the performances and recording hard to better, and the chance to discover two such different, yet equally attractive works that have lain dormant for such a long time, this new CD is hard to put down – and you can always take Lessing’s elaborate sleeve-note musings with a pinch of salt, and just enjoy the music without them.

Hopefully, with such a massive output to choose from, the CPO label will continue to bring to our attention many more similarly-hidden jewels from the pen of Carl Czerny, in the fullness of time.

Philip R Buttall

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