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Jan Ladislav DUSSEK (1760-1812)
The Complete Piano Sonatas - Volume 4
Piano Sonata in A-Flat Major, Op. 5, No. 3 (1788) [15:21]
Piano Sonata in B flat major, Op. 24 (1793) [11:49]
Piano Sonata in A major, Op. 43 (1800) [16:37]
Piano Sonata in F-Sharp Minor, Op. 61, ‘Elegie Harmonique sur la mort de Louis Ferdinand’ (1806-07) [17:31]
Tuija Hakkila (fortepiano)
rec. 2017, Concert Hall Nya Paviljongen, Kauniainen, Finland

It has been something of a revelation over recent years to note the revival in interest in the music of Jan Ladislav Dussek. While Howard Shelley has recorded two fine discs of the Bohemian’s piano concertos for Hyperion, scions of the calibre of Andreas Staier and Alexei Lubimov have also got in on the act. Speaking as a listener, given his relative neglect hitherto, I am surprised just how often Dussek confounds my expectations, with weird modulations, Beethovenian passages that pre-empt Beethoven, and in his best music an infectious joie d’esprit that can warm the coldest of hearts. Inevitably one asks why Dussek has seemingly been relegated to the status of third division also-ran by the critics of the last 150 years. Might it be something to do with what often seems a lack of orthodoxy compared to the ‘titans’ of his era? One wonders why the less rewarding (to my ears at least) music of Muzio Clementi, for example, has hitherto been better known.

This is the fourth disc in Brilliant’s projected eight volume series of Dussek’s complete sonatas performed on the fortepiano by eight different performers – those responsible for the previous three volumes were Lubimov, Bart van Oort and Naruhiko Kawahuchi. The selections on each release have seemingly been chosen to provide attractive programmes, rather than being sequentially or thematically connected. The four sonatas here broadly span Dussek’s career and are presented on two contrasting instruments by the Finnish fortepianist Tuija Hakkila, who also supplies the pithy notes.

Dussek was certainly well-travelled – his biographical details seem rich in controversy and adventure. The A flat major work Op 5 no 3 (1788) stems from his three year sojourn in Paris, during which he ingratiated himself with Marie-Antoinette herself and which ended shortly before the revolution, despite the Empress’s ill-fated efforts at dissuading him from leaving. It’s dedicated to the Parisian aristocrat (and pianist and composer) Hélène de Montgeroult After a rather declamatory, theatrical opening gesture the mercurial Allegro goes off in some weirdly unpredictable tonal directions before settling into its rather Mozartean groove. While the material is undeniably attractive this twelve minute panel reinforces the notion that at times Dussek’s greatest strengths are simultaneously his weaknesses – namely a wealth of melodic invention which moves too hastily from one idea to the next – it can be dizzying and hard for the listener to keep up at times, though the ride is never less than interesting, often amusing and sometimes exciting. By comparison the brief Rondo finale is rather twee and predictable.

Dussek spent the following decade in London. The briefer B flat sonata Op 24 (1793) was apparently the first to be written for the new Broadwood keyboard with its extended 5 and a half octave range, its chirpy first movement Allegro con spirito taking full advantage of this modification with its attractive coruscating runs. The concluding Rondo-Pastorale is cheerful, light and undemanding until a tempestuous central section acts as a bridge into more tonally adventurous terrain before the restatement of its calm opening material with which it concludes. Tuija Hakkila plays these pieces with great character and élan, but I have to say that I found the weird charms of Op 24 a little compromised, less by the playing than by the rather clunky action of this particular fortepiano, a copy of a 1799 Longman Clementi fortepiano. which in more fortissimo passages sounds somewhat mechanical and even a little harsh. There is a marked contrast with the instrument used for Op 5 No 3 (a restored original Viennese 5 octave fortepiano).

The Viennese instrument returns for the A major sonata, Op 43. This dates from 1800, by which time Dussek had hastily left London for Hamburg as his marriage had fallen apart and the publishing business he had established with his father-in law had collapsed –they had been bailed out by Mozart’s legendary librettist Lorenzo da Ponte- and while Dussek cut his losses and fled his father-in law ended up in Newgate debtors’ prison while Da Ponte was bankrupted. There are few hints in the sonata of this reversal of fortune, indeed there are episodes in the delightfully fluent and cheerful Allegro moderato which require (and receive) considerable virtuosity, and by now there is a greater elegance and guile in Clementi’s structure, and while its rhythmic and melodic material still seems to stay close to the Mozartean model there are several interesting detours which anticipate Beethoven’s later experiments. In common with the two previous works on the disc, Op 43 concludes with an exuberant and attractive Rondo again offers a selection of unexpected twists and turns.

The Longman Clementi copy is restored for the final piece in this volume, and is perhaps more suited to the contrastingly darker flavours of the F sharp minor sonata Op 61, dated 1806-07. By now Dussek was something of a showman pianist, and had moved to Prussia having obtained a position with Prince Louis Ferdinand, with whom he became a close friend. After the Prince was killed leading the Prussian army at the Battle of Saalfeld in October 1806, Dussek composed this work as the Prince’s memorial. It is a very different piece to what one normally associates with this composer, and projects both resignation and sadness across both of its movements. Yet Tuija Hakkila also conveys a kind of fragile dignity, while Dussek’s music is quieter and more obviously inward than that in Op 24, and thus more in keeping with the tone of this instrument. I found Op 61 to be unexpectedly moving – and it would certainly instructive to encounter it on a modern piano.

This Finnish pianist has an enormous repertoire which encompasses the earliest music written for what we might recognise as a piano as well as some of the most recent. She has a delightfully light touch with Dussek, but is not afraid to let go during the more assertive passages in these sonatas which at times, indeed, exposes the limitations of the Longman Clementi instrument in particular, although her playing in the Op 61 work is particularly tender and expressive. The recording is fine, perhaps a little too close for comfort at the loudest moments, but I have enjoyed hearing these accounts of Dussek’s sonatas. Readers who have been collecting this series need not hesitate.

Richard Hanlon

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