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Romantic Revolution
Jan Ladislav DUSSEK (1760-1812)
Piano Sonatas, Op 35 (1797): No 1 in B-flat major (No 11) [19:05]; No 2 in G major (No 12) (1797) [14:54]; No 3 in C minor (No 13) (1797) [17:42]
Fryderyk CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Nocturne in F-sharp major, Op 15 No 2 (1830-31) [3:21]
Ballade No 1 in G minor Op 25 (1835) [9:08]
Michael Dussek (piano)
rec. 17-18 July 2020, The Menuhin Hall, Stoke d’Abernon, Surrey

This is a rewarding recital by well regarded pianist Michael Dussek who may be related to Jan Ladislav Dussek. Dussek the pianist gives every showing of a strong affinity for the merits his Bohemian composer namesake. Composing around the turn of the eighteenth/nineteenth centuries, Dussek predicted and contributed to developments in the compositional art. He had a varied career matched by his music which is full of character and undoubted charm. These qualities are amply conveyed by this disc. As I wrote in my very positive review of a Marek Topowski disc (Dux) which was my first exposure to Dussek’s works, this composer worked closely with John Broadwood (1732-1812). 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. He was also the first pianist to turn the piano sideways on the stage "so that the ladies could admire his handsome profile". Fundamental to appreciating Dussek is that he was a very strong representative of Czech music at the end of Classicism and the beginning of Romanticism. As well as his colourful persona and the fact that he was favoured by the likes of Catherine the Great and Marie Antoinette, his career fell between those of Haydn and Beethoven. He died three years after Chopin was born which is significant in this recital. 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. Following my review (mentioned above) I was sent discs from a survey on Brilliant, of which Volume 4 has been reviewed by Richard Hanlon. I hope to be reviewing these in due course. I must also mention, at this stage, the much missed Bob Briggs who wrote a very detailed review of a recital by Markus Becker on CPO. That included the same Piano Sonatas, Op 9 that were in Topowski’s set. I was very much aware that Bob knew far more about this era and about Dussek than myself. As previously, I strongly recommend readers to refer to Bob’s review.

In his notes, entitled a “Personal View”, Michael Dussek, who has made more than twenty well regarded recordings previously reviewed on MusicWeb International, expounds a theory that Chopin rejected Beethoven and Schubert and looked to Dussek. Fellow Bohemian Johann Tomasek, reviewing a recital in Prague in 1804, wrote: “There was, in fact, something magical about the way in which Dussek, with all his charming grace of manner, through his wonderful touch, extracted from the instrument delicious and at the same time emphatic tones. His fingers were like a company of ten singers endowed with equal executive powers and able to produce with the utmost perfection whatever their director would require.” I quote this as it seems a very apt summation of the music here: magical in places and illustrating Dussek’s powers. It certainly has a vocal quality. At times it recalled late Haydn and the early Beethoven Sonatas, especially Op 2 No 3. If ultimately the music is not on that level: how could it? These sonatas have considerable merit and undoubted charm, especially with such strong advocacy.

Sonata Op 35 No 1 uses folk and dance motifs that anticipate Dvorak and Smetana and Michael Dussek pays homage to the composer’s harpist wife Sophie with broken chords. I enjoyed the sonata greatly and played it several times out of sheer pleasure. Sonata Op 35 No 2 is Dussek’s favourite and it’s easy to see why. In particular the Rondo is superb, “a movement of genius” and a good sampler of Dussek’s charm and lyricism. It’s not heavy music: Schubert perhaps without the darkness and depth. I’d concur that this doesn’t look back to Haydn but into the century about to commence. Sonata Op 35 No 3 could certainly fool the listener, on first hearing, that this was a previously unknown early Beethoven sonata. I found that whilst it was less demanding than the Bonn composer it does exude a zest for life. As throughout, the playing is committed and meets a fine acoustic and engineering. Michael Dussek again suggests that the slow movement has Chopinesque right-hand flourishes and I can see what he means. For my part, most seems beautifully entrenched in the late eighteenth century. It’s a lovely movement with an undercurrent of unease under the melody. The final movement has a hypnotic dance theme at the centre, conjuring up images of dancing; Dussek would probably have seen these at the courts of Paris and St. Petersburg.

As far as comparisons are concerned, the only disc I’m aware of is part of the aforementioned Brilliant survey with various performers. Op 35 is by Naruhiko Kawaguchi on the fortepiano, Brilliant 95246, released in 2015. I’m acquiring this disc, although it generally appears to be download only, and expect to make comparisons with this Somm disc in due course. Whatever its merits and qualities, the present CD is so fine that it will remain the one to hear.

Michael Dussek concludes the disc, appropriately, with two awe-inspiring pieces from Chopin. I’ve loved his music since my grandfather played some pieces when I was seven. Later we acquired the Dinu Lipatti Waltzes. Chopin’s Nocturne in F-sharp major, composed when he was about 21, illustrates his development as a composer from his earlier forays. Dussek plays the piece sublimely and makes me want to hear his other recordings; so many great CDs out there, not enough time. For the Nocturnes, I generally turn to Maria João Pires and also to Daniel Barenboim (DG), both magnificent. Lipatti died before he could record more than Op 27 No 2 in his remarkable Besançon Festival performance on 16 September 1950, less than 3 months before he died aged 33; friends of ours had tickets to see him at the RFH in January 1951. It’s a great bonus here to be transported to the world of the Nocturne ushered in by John Field (1782-1837). What can I say about Ballade No 1 in G minor, Op 25 except that it’s simply awesome and supremely played. You’ll want to play it again immediately; that says it all. In a recent “Meet the Artist”, Michael Dussek mentions playing at two of my favourite concert venues, Oxford’s Holywell Music Rooms, where Haydn rehearsed his “Oxford Symphony” and the Wigmore Hall where you can enjoy lunch after a morning recital. Like Michael, I’m in my 60s and also want to be alive in 10 year’s time. While I am more stressed than ideal I definitely have a “big picture sense of near contentment”. Dussek says his definition of success is playing as well as possible and giving pleasure. I can’t play, though I can sing, but I feel the same way about my weekly radio show (hospital radio) and reviewing. Unlike Dussek and poor Chopin, taken from the world at 39, we have had full lives and can look forward with purpose. This comes through in every note.

This has been a personal review but then this recording is above all a labour of love and, I hope, an insight into the very specific connections between one of the most innovative and accomplished musicians of his day, Jan Ladislav Dussek, and the greatest of all piano composers, Fryderyk Chopin. Some will argue about the latter comment, but not me after finding this recital so committed and encouraging. I can’t applaud this disc too highly.

David R Dunsmore

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