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Jan Ladislav DUSSEK (1760–1812) 
Piano Sonata in B flat, Op.9 no. 1 (1789) [14:18]
The Sufferings of the Queen of France Op.23 (1793) [11:28]
Piano Sonata in C, Op.9 no.2 (1789) [21:33]
Piano Sonata in D, Op.9 no.3 (1789) [16:22]
Marek Toporowski (piano)
rec. 2017/18, Katowice, Poland
DUX 1578 [63:40]

Dussek was a notable representative of Czech music at the end of Classicism and beginning of Romanticism. His rich artistic output gained recognition mainly due to his innovative piano works and numerous symphonies. Here was a composer who significantly contributed to the spread of English pianos in Europe and saw the further development of these instruments’ construction.

The present album contains three Piano Sonatas, Op. 9 and the cycle “The Sufferings of the Queen of France,” Op. 23 performed by Marek Toporowski (b.1964), a Polish pianist, harpsichordist, organist and conductor. He is Head of the Department of Early Music at the Academy in Krakow. In 1985 he became laureate of Krakow’s First Polish Harpsichord Competition named after Wanda Landowska, the pioneer early Twentieth century harpsichordist. He performs in Poland and abroad and has made a number of records in Poland, Germany and France. A few have been reviewed here on MusicWeb International; a solo record with harpsichord music of J.S. Bach performed in France for BNL has sadly been deleted.

In 2008 the much missed Bob Briggs did a very detailed review of a recital by Markus Becker on CPO, which included the same three Piano Sonatas, I’m very much aware that he knew far more about this era and Dussek than myself. This composer had a colourful life and I would recommend readers to refer to Mr Briggs’s review. He had strong connections with piano builder John Broadwood (1732-1812) and it was upon Dussek’s request that the Broadwood company began to extend the piano range from five to five-and-a-half octaves and in 1794 to six octaves. In tiny print on the inside page of the booklet (in Polish and English), we learn that Toporowski plays on pianos made by Robert Brown in 2004, for the first 3 works and 2016 for the third sonata. They are copies of instruments by Anton Walter at the Burgerlandisches Museum, Eisenstadt. Referring, briefly to Markus Becker the piano used in the CPO recording seems a later instrument. Bob Briggs wrote: “He makes no concessions for the earlier Sonatas, treating them with the same virtuoso approach as the later work – surely they cannot ever have been given this way in the French parlours of the late 18thcentury! But his approach suits the music for it is bold and forthright”. Once the ear adjusts to the sound of the Anton Walter copies, we probably get a better replication of what Dussek may have sounded like when he played these works. I was fascinated to read that this composer was said to be the first pianist to turn the piano sideways on the stage "so that the ladies could admire his handsome profile."

Dussek wrote 34 piano sonatas, a number of piano concertos and violin sonatas. He loved picturesque titles and his sonata for piano, violin, cello and percussion is called “The Naval Battle and Total Defeat of the Dutch by Admiral Duncan” (1797). A strange title indeed and the work is also one of the very rare examples of pre–20th century chamber music to include percussion. “The sufferings of the Queen of France” came out in 1793, the year Marie Antoinette was executed. The translated notes by Petra Mutejova point out that the Queen’s death is described literally not only by means of the inscribed text but also by numerous rhetorical figures.

The three Sonatas from opus 9 are described in the earlier review as simpler pieces – the first and last in only two movements and the middle one in three. The First Sonata has a charming “Rondo” second movement which I notice that Toporowski takes about a minute longer than Markus Becker. Toporowski’s playing is authoritative and scholarly without any hint of dryness. He seems completely at home with the music and playing the period instruments. Someone who has never heard these works would, I think, appreciate the talent of Dussek and certain similarities to the Beethoven Op. 2 of about the same period. The Second Sonata has a lively “Allegro” first movement and a reflective “Larghetto” second. I was anticipating the “hair-raising barnstorming finale” which is more effective on a period instrument and must have been joyfully received by the composer’s admirers. It must also have proved quite a challenge for amateur players in their drawing rooms. I was fascinated to read that all three were first published as sonatas for piano with violin accompaniment. The third Sonata is clearly performed on a different instrument than the previous two and the first movement shows a degree of greater development than its predecessors. I can only admire the playing here with dramatic changes in dynamics which make for absorbing listening. There’s even a sense of humour on display as it seems to be reaching an ending with a flourish and then the melody continues. I thought it was highly enjoyable; not top rate music perhaps but very good listening and I suspect playing. Unsurprisingly, having abandoned a second slow movement it’s all steam ahead for the finale “Presto assai”. The colours generated fully justify playing on a period instrument. I would disagree that this music would sound as magnificent on a modern grand and hope that those who dislike period instruments forgo prejudice. We listen to this recital on what sounds like a mixture of harpsichord and piano forte and the effect grew on me with each listening.

This is a very fine achievement by pianist who is an excellent advocate for Dussek. As Bob Briggs stated in his review of Markus Becker’s CD: “This is music well worth investigating and if Dussek is the missing link between the classical and romantic periods we should be looking at him more closely”. I heartily agree and hope there will be further recordings of his sonatas. I would appreciate notes that aren’t in such small print next time.
David R Dunsmore

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