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The Beethoven Connection
Joseph WÖLFL (1773-1812)
Sonata in E major, Op. 33, No. 3 (1805) [14:56]
Muzio CLEMENTI (1752-1832)
Sonata in A major, Op. 50, No. 1 (1804-21) [21:50]
Johann Nepomuk HUMMEL (1778-1837)
Sonata No. 3, in F minor, Op. 20 (c. 1807) [21:02]
Jan Ladislav DUSSEK (1760-1812)
Sonata in F sharp minor, Op. 61, C. 211 (‘Élégie harmonique sur la mort de son Altesse Royale le prince Louis-Ferdinand de Prusse’) (1806–07) [16:55]
Musical Illustrations (by pianist) [7:49]
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano)
rec. 2019 at Potton Hall, Dunwich, UK
CHANDOS CHAN20128 [82:29]

The rationale behind this CD might strike some as a little peculiar or confusing, since it is a tribute of sorts to Beethoven in his 250th anniversary year, yet doesn't offer any of his music. Ostensibly, it's intended to present significant music by Beethoven's contemporaries, thus showing the musical climate of the day and making comparisons of style. Fine, but one also derives the sense, especially from the pianist's commentary in the album notes, that the four contemporaries here, while very talented, are clearly not in Beethoven's class. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet calls Beethoven a “mountain peak” and the others “less lofty but no less fascinating summits.” Of course, it's hard to dispute that stance, but that shouldn't in any way lead one to conclude the music here is somehow second-rate: all four works are quite worthwhile and show that “other” piano music during Beethoven's time also has much to offer. And Bavouzet makes a fine advocate, turning in excellent performances of each of the sonatas.

All four of these composers knew each other and knew Beethoven well, and all were excellent pianists who composed many works for their instrument. The very thorough album notes here by Marc Vignal provide much valuable biographical information about them as well as commentary, if somewhat limited, on the music offered on this recording. Bavouzet presents the works in order of their stylistic progression, that is, from Classical to Romantic, or pre-Romantic at least. Thus we move from the somewhat Mozartian Wölfl sonata and finish with the Dussek, a work clearly divulging Romantic tendencies with more than vague hints of Chopin and even of Wagner.

Joseph Wölfl is little known today but his E major sonata suggests he may be unjustly neglected. The first movement begins with a six-note motto that functions in a similar way here as its four-note counterpart in Beethoven's Fifth Symphony (1807-08). However, Wölfl's music in the first movement has a joyous, playful character, though with a few reflective and heroic moments too. Marked Allegro, it is very energetic and spirited but might strike some as a bit repetitive.

The brief Andante second movement (2:29) is relaxed, elegant and emotionally light, providing needed contrast to the much livelier, busier outer movements. The finale is jubilant and bright, but exudes mischief in its cackling main theme. Again, the movement, at 4:24, is rather brief, but within that duration the music develops an infectious quality, such that you may find it lingering in your mind after just a listening or two. While this is not a profound work in any way, it is a fine one well worth your time.

Muzio Clementi is far better known than Wölfl but this sonata, Op. 50, No. 1, despite having several recordings, is not among his more often performed keyboard works. The first movement opens with a grand theme of epic character in A major but soon we hear an E major second theme of lighter substance. At the heart of the movement is an intense development section which is followed by the recapitulation.

As its marking suggests the ensuing Adagio sostenuto e patetico is dark and very mournful, with hints of Liszt in its harmonies. A contrapuntal middle section is livelier but reflective in its slightly Bachian flavors. The finale, in sonata form, begins in a gleeful, quite busy and colorful manner. A development section of sometimes serious character follows, featuring a canonic treatment of earlier thematic material, and when the main theme returns to crown the work joyously, it too has contrapuntal elements. To me, this is a vastly underrated sonata, one that clearly deserves greater attention.

The Hummel F minor Sonata is also rarely encountered in the concert hall, though it has gotten some attention on records. It begins with a dark theme of Romantic leanings, even bringing to mind Schumann and Chopin. But it turns to a more Classical manner when the tempo quickens, and throughout the first movement one notices this mixture of styles. The development section is quite stormy and the whole movement is very serious, at times grim. The second movement Adagio is weighty and again shows Hummel quite advanced stylistically for a work dating to around 1807. The Presto finale turns back to the Classical era, even using fragmentary material from the finale of the Mozart Jupiter Symphony.

The Dussek F-sharp minor Sonata is the most progressive of the works here in its expressive language. The first movement Introduction, marked Lento patetico, heralds some of the darker music of Liszt even. Dark indeed, as its dedication reads: “Harmonic Elegy on the Death of His Royal Highness Prince Louis-Ferdinand of Prussia.” In fact the whole work exudes a mournful character. The Tempo agitato music that follows the Introduction is brimming with angst and a pensive sort of sorrow. Angst also drives the second and final movement (Tempo vivace e con fuoco quasi presto). As its marking suggests, it is very fiery and driven. Overall, this must be regarded as a quite profound and rather original sonata, one that, as Bavouzet suggests in comments in the album notes, clearly has strong Romantic leanings well before the movement had begun.

The Wölfl sonata has only one currently available recording that I'm aware of, on Harmonia Mundi with pianist Jon Nakamatsu, which I have not heard. The other three have received a little more attention, but it's fair to say they too have been rarely recorded. I am familiar with a couple of performances of the Clementi sonata, but the others are rather new to me. Thus, paltry as the competition is, I won't be making comparisons. That said, I can say in this case that isn't actually necessary. Bavouzet seems utterly on target in the Wölfl sonata in his tempos, dynamics, accenting, rubato (which is limited) and other aspects of phrasing, and so it would be hard to imagine a better performance—or at least a significantly better performance—than Bavouzet's.

In the Clementi Sonata Bavouzet takes a somewhat Romantic-leaning approach, especially in the first movement. That said, he doesn't slight the plentiful Classical and even Baroque aspects, such as the music in the Adagio second movement, which contains nods to Bach in its contrapuntal writing. In the rather challenging Beethoven-tinged finale, Bavouzet is quite stunning in his digital clarity, precision and breathless pacing. Overall, his tempos throughout the work tend to be on the brisk side but he captures the heart of the music, all its spirit, joys, sorrows and brilliance. A stunning performance!

In the Hummel and Dussek sonatas, Bavouzet is convincing in every way, again exhibiting the same virtues as in the preceding works. His dynamics, accenting and tempos always seem to fit, and he never sounds wayward or eccentric. He always infuses the music with spirit too, and in both cases he effectively unearths the music's forward-looking character, its auguring of the coming Romantic era. Once more he leaves the impression that while his performances might be equaled by others, they won't likely be surpassed in any significant way. On the final track, by the way, Bavouzet offers illustrations of the various composers' styles here (except for Wölfl's) and then makes a few comparisons of Hummel's and Clementi's with that of Beethoven in his piano sonatas. The Chandos sound reproduction is vivid and well balanced, in the end yielding one of the finest sounding piano recordings I've heard in recent years. This recording is a winner, and thus if the repertoire appeals, you won't be disappointed by this fine CD.

Robert Cummings

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