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Joseph Christoph KESSLER (1800-1872)
Pensées fugitives, Op 72 (pub.1866) [11:41]
3 Mazury [4:45]
Chansonette à la russe sans paroles, Op 61b [5:48]
Nocturne in D-flat major, Op 48 No 2 (pub.1851) [5:32]
Scherzo, Op 45 (pub.c1854) [9:18]
Souvenir de Grätz, Op 60 [10:54]
Magdalena Brzozowska (piano)
rec. 2021, Radom, Poland

This selection of piano works by the German pianist and composer Joseph Kessler is a follow up to Brzozowska's recording of his Préludes and Etudes (Acte Prèalable AP0319 review). The Etudes, published in 1827 were played by the likes of Liszt and the Préludes made an impact on Chopin who became friends with Kessler at the soirées that he gave in Warsaw in 1829 and who in turn dedicated his own Préludes, Op 28 to Kessler.

In her booklet notes to this second volume, written in rather quirky English, Brzozowska says this selection comes from different periods of Kessler's life though no idea of what those periods are is given; the publication dates listed above I found on the internet. Kessler spent the last 17 years of his life in Vienna so perhaps Op 60 and above date from that period; it seems that all the pieces date from a later period than either of the sets on volume one. Likewise not a lot is said about the music – one sentence for each group of pieces – and what there is tells us little; the Chansonette à la russe sans paroles is described as full of lyricism berceaux, with interesting harmony. There is a vague sense of a cradle song but this is certainly not my strongest impression of the piece.

That said the music should not require description when it is there to be heard. The opening fleeting thoughts are mostly descriptive pieces; le Lutin is a boisterous, stomping portrait of a hobgoblin while le sylphe is a gracefully waltzing spirit of the air. The Savoyard in Chant du Savoyard would not have known the Savoy theatre of Gilbert and Sullivan fame so this trudging and vaguely mournful song without words is presumably suggestive of the Savoy region in France's Western Alps. Last is a gigue, a Scarlattian dance that is pleasant but slightly outlasts its welcome with all the repeats played.

The three mazurkas suggest early Chopin and, while they are attractive and energetic they don't aspire to the emotional depth reached in many of Chopin's mazurkas. The generally Slavic mood and the contrasting minor and major key sections of the Chansonette à la russe give the piece a dumka like feel; a little too plodding and dramatic to suggest the lullaby that Brzozowska hears and I feel her performance emphasises the plodding nature of the outer sections. Kessler wrote in many of the genres that Chopin used; préludes, études, polonaises, impromptus, mazurkas and, as we find here, nocturnes and scherzi. The Nocturne in D-flat major, the second of two published in 1851, shares traits with Chopin's such as the lyrical melody over an extended, flowing left hand accompaniment but Kessler can't match his compatriot's melodic genius. This might have been even more like Chopin's model if the dramatic minor key central section had been played but Brzozowska omits this completely; her notes do not mention different editions but she either found one that just contains the outer sections or chose to omit it for some reason. It would have been nice to hear it in its entirety (and at a CD length of just under 50 minutes there was certainly room). The Scherzo is a bravura piece that has some enjoyable moments but it is overlong for the material and while Brzozowska gets around its many notes it sounds somewhat heavy handed; some of this is Kessler's writing, the thick textures and octave leaps in the lyrical section for instance, but just where the work should be taking off in intensity and excitement leading up to the coda and a marked marcato il canto e molto brilliante Brzozowska slows down. Disappointing.

Souvenir de Grätz is a tribute to Beethoven and more specifically a movement of his Sonata, Op 13. It opens with a dramatic statement of the theme of the final movement of the Sonata before launching into a slow introduction. A virtuoso transition back into the theme, now played in full, is followed by a set of variations. There are echoes of Beethoven's C minor variations in some of the writing and there is the customary slow variation beginning as an enigmatic passage accompanied by a low rumbles in the bass. This becomes more lyrical and searching and leads straight into the faster final variation/coda. As Brzozowska notes, technical challenges do indeed abound with huge skips, octaves and athletic chordal jumps but as in the scherzo although she gets around all the technical hurdles that Kessler sets she does not always always fire the imagination to lift this piece out of the ordinary.

As always it is good to hear beyond the mainstream, to hear the voices that have been vastly overshadowed by their more famous contemporaries and I commend Ms Brzozowska and Acte Préalable for their enterprise. She is a competent pianist and is at her best in the shorter character pieces and dances while the sound is perfectly acceptable; it is closely miked but I was not troubled by any of the extraneous noise or slight distortion that Byzantion noted on volume one (though to follow on from his review there are several more booklet and CD photos of Ms Brzozowska!).
Rob Challinor

Previous review: Philip R Buttall

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