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The Beethoven Connection - Volume 1
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 (1806-7) [16:55]
Musical illustrations [7:49]
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano)
rec. 2019, Potton Hall, Dunwich, UK
Notes in German, English and French
CHANDOS CHAN20128 [82:34]

If a piano-loving alien came to earth it could be forgiven for wondering if only Beethoven wrote piano sonatas in the classical period with a little help from Mozart, Haydn and latterly Schubert of course. If this alien came down in this 250th anniversary year it may well have been convinced of the fact. Just off the top of my head I can recall seeing complete or ongoing sets from Jonathan Biss, Giovanni Belluci, Andre de Groote, Igor Levitt, Sequeira Costa and Abdel Rahman el Bacha as well as an enormous number of individual CDs both new and re-issued. I can't begin to think how many a proper search would turn up. Which makes this CD so refreshing. It is tempting to think of Beethoven's sonatas in isolation, this mammoth opus representing the be-all and end-all of late 18th and early 19th century piano; a bridge linking the works of Haydn and Mozart to Schubert and on to the later romantics - Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, Brahms etc. If we zoom in of course the musical world was as busy and as complicated as one would expect; the composers recorded here in volume 1 of “The Beethoven Connection” are just four representatives of a whole host of composer-pianists operating at the time; Antonin Reicha, Carl Czerny, Johann Baptist Cramer, Daniel Steibelt, Hélène Montgeroult, the list goes on and on.

Joseph Wölfl, whose Sonata in E major opens this recital, was born in Salzburg and was a pupil of Michael Haydn and Leopold Mozart as well as being a friend of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. In a 1799 pianistic 'duel' with Beethoven Wölfl came off very well; though many praised Beethoven's brilliance it was noted that it was not always subtle or entirely accurate playing while Wölfl could bring off “seemingly impossible passages with ease, accuracy and clarity”. These characteristics are all representative of this Sonata, published in 1805 as Wölfl was ending his time in Paris and moving to London. It is a fresh, bright and breezy work full of sparkling figuration; it opens with a grand flourish introducing the dotted rhythm that is such a focus of the movement (the booklet helpfully tells us it features in 53 of the movement's 180 bars) though there is more than enough harmonic and melodic interest that it does not grow wearisome. In the short cantilena that follows I was taken with Bavouzet's sensitive rubato. The final movement rondo grows out of a simple theme in alternating sixths. Bavouzet employs some subtle voicing of these in a later repetition to provide variety while Wölfl varies them with different figuration. Much of the rhythmic and harmonic interest is in the central minor section.

Clementi is a more familiar figure and his sonatas have at least received attention on disc and in concert. I first heard his music through the recordings of Horowitz and there are complete collections available not least the survey by Howard Shelley on Hyperion. Bazouzet has chosen the A major Sonata, an astonishing piece of music that was mostly written in 1804-5 but not published until 1821. The opening Allegro maestoso is almost Schubert like in its opening bars and there is a real playfulness in its figurations. The hugely varied development section is dramatic and humorous by turns. The soul of the Sonata is the slow movement andante sostenuto e patetico, tragic in its desperate intensity, its chromatic writing right on the edge of complexity. An unusual feature is the treatment of the short forlorn motif that answers the stately main theme as a strict canon in the major key middle section. Heartfelt and passionate though this is Clementi cannot remain in this tragic mode and the ebullient and highly virtuosic finale is full of dizzying high spirits, with some ferocious writing in octaves.

Hummel's third Sonata was composed only a couple of years after the Clementi. The first movement vacillates between a mood of simple expression, as in the opening F minor theme and virtuosic passages that would not be out of place in one of his concertos. The development section combines these aspects when we hear the opening theme, now inverted, accompanied by a semiquaver figuration in the right hand. The movement dies down to a quietly resigned ending before Hummel surprises us with a stern downward scale. The bare rising octaves that open the slow movement seem to offer little promise but Hummel uses them imaginatively, weaving a web of varying figuration and chromatic writing around them. For me this is the most Beethoven-like movement here. If we thought the finale of the Clementi was a tour-de-force it is at least matched by Hummel's finale, a treacherous presto tarantella, where even the left hand is not spared the difficulties with fast triplets and quick-fire jumps a la Scarlatti. A nod to Mozart, the Jupiter Symphony, is clear in the rising theme that is the other feature of this movement.

Like all the composers here Dussek was a first rate piano virtuoso; I first came across his name in Harold C. Schoenberg's glorious book The Great Pianists in which he is credited as being “the first to sit (at the piano) with his right side to the audience ... two ends were accomplished. Dussek was able to exhibit his noble profile and ... the raised lid of the instrument could act as a sounding board throwing tone directly into the auditorium”. He was admired by many, including Mendelssohn; even the egocentric virtuoso Friedrich Kalkbrenner had to admit to his great gifts. For a short time he was in the service of Prince Louis-Ferdinand of Prussia and they became very close; the prince was himself a talented pianist and composer. In October 1806 Prince Louis-Ferdinand was killed in a battle and Dussek was deeply affected by his demise. The Sonata recorded here has the full title Élégie harmonique sur la mort de son Altesse Royale le prince Louis-Ferdinand de Prusse and it is in some ways has elements of a fantasy. It opens in deeply elegiac style, hushed and low in the keyboard with a plaintive melody. It is marked sensa ornamenti (without ornament) as if to stress that this is music whose simple emotion must speak for itself. A short sad melody follows that is played three times at a different pitch. It tries to continue but is now interrupted by diminished chords and the tension created begins to mount; when the main tempo agitato section arrives its constant dotted note rhythm is skittish and unsettled. The second of the two movements is a perpetual motion with a melody that is displaced off the beat for almost the entire time even in the central section where a move to the major key offers some respite from the general troubled mood. This is by far the most romantic of the four works and is quite a distance stylistically from the post Mozartian sonata of Wölfl written just a year or two earlier.

The final track is a selection of musical excerpts from these four sonatas comparing them to similar passages in Beethoven's Sonatas; the Hummel adagio and the adagio molto from Beethoven's op.10 no.1 for instance and this is interesting to dip into. However, I don't really want to compare these works to Beethoven. These sort of comparisons can be made throughout history but in the end it comes down to the question “Do these works stand up for themselves?” For me this is a very clear and confident “Yes they do”. Bavouzet does them full justice and I was on the edge of my seat wondering what was coming next, marvelling in the new and unfamiliar, fresh, exciting and occasionally strikingly dramatic. The booklet essay is headed The Beethoven Connection, Volume 1 – I am eager to hear what treasures are unearthed in volume 2 and hopefully beyond.

Rob Challinor

Previous review: Robert Cummings

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