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Joseph WOELFL (1773-1812)
Piano Music - Volume Two
Trois Sonates, Op. 6 (1798)
No. 1: Sonata in A minor [20:28]
No. 2: Sonata in D major [18:30]
No. 3: Sonata in A major [18:47]
Piano Sonata in D major, Op. 58 (c. 1811) [12:48]
Adalberto Maria Riva (piano)
rec. July 2016, Griffa & Figli, Milan, Italy
First recording (op. 58)

At the start of 2017 I had the pleasure of reviewing Volume One in the series of piano music by Joseph Woelfl. When summing up my review, I found that both I and pianist, Adalberto Maria Riva, had arrived at the same conclusion. Namely, the more recordings of Woelfl’s music there are, the greater likelihood there is that this underrated composer might once more be held in the same esteem he enjoyed during his own brief life.

True to form, Toccata Classics has now issued Volume Two, which features his Trois Sonates Op 6, from 1798, and his Sonata in D, Op 58, which appeared later. Joseph Woelfl was born in Salzburg, Austria, where he studied with Haydn’s younger brother Michael, and Mozart’s father Leopold before moving to Vienna in 1790, where he may even have had lessons from Wolfgang himself. Woelfl was over six feet tall, with an enormous finger span with which, according to contemporary witnesses, he could strike a thirteenth – from C to the A above the next C, although key dimensions were less at the time. The Op 6 Sonatas heard on this new release, were dedicated to Beethoven, even though the two pianists were rivals, until a piano ‘duel’ was arranged, where Beethoven emerged the acclaimed winner.

With Volume One, Margit Haider-Dechant’s excellent CD sleeve-notes initially fleshed out the biographical details, but then handed over to the performer, to write specifically about the music itself. But while Italian pianist Riva is still heard on Volume Two, he does not contribute to the CD booklet this time.

Haider-Dechant points out the importance of the Op 6 set, since they were the first to receive attention in Leipzig’s Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung where a distinctly positive review appeared. Each sonata is a fully-fledged three-movement work lasting around twenty minutes. No 1 in A minor opens with a regular Allegro, but where the mood is decidedly more melancholic than the run-of-the-mill first movement. As the sleeve-note suggests, there is certainly a likeness to the opening of Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ Sonata, which appeared slightly later in 1801.Woelfl’s slow movement (Adagio ma non troppo) continues the somewhat dejected mood of the opening, which tends to be the case with the two successive slow movements. There is a distinct feel of an early Beethoven slow-movement to it, but with some quite abrupt (for the time) harmonic juxtapositions and modulations, which tend to be one of the defining fingerprints of Woelfl’s style. The Presto finale, though, dispels any of the sadness that has gone before, and is a jaunty little movement with a dancelike feel, with the composer also demonstrating his well-honed contrapuntal and canonic skills. It provides the perfect close to the work as a whole, and really begs the question as to why Woelfl’s music is so rarely, if ever heard in the concert hall.

The second Sonata in D is quite different from the first. The initial Allegro offers glimpses of both Beethoven, and Schubert later, is in triple time, and makes an effective use of silence. One of the noticeable things here, is not only Woelfl’s freer use of harmonic progression, which wouldn’t, however, have made Schubert bat an eye-lid, and Woelfl’s piano writing where both hands can be seen as more equal protagonists. The ensuing Andante opens with a chorale-type melody, to which the composer adds a simple chordal accompaniment, after which the movement continues, cast loosely in the manner of a simple theme and variations. If you’re listening to this music for the first time, no doubt you are already impressed – and entertained by what you have heard so far. Now Woelfl concludes Sonata No 2 with a superb rondo, where the piano-writing is really inventive, and by no means an easy touch, as witness the rapid passages in semiquaver triplets.

The third sonata in the Op 6 set is in A major, and opens with a toccata-like Allegro section, which supplies some of the later musical ideas. Woelfl makes a more telling use of chromaticism here, which goes hand-in-hand with his more-shifting harmonic style. Again there is a strong feeling of Beethoven in the Largo slow movement, as well as more than hint of Schubert, and again this lovely little movement could easily function as a standalone piece. The sprightly 6/8 Presto Finale is a truly sparkling creation, quickly dispelling any of the pathos from the preceding movement. As the finale moves towards its close, Woelfl introduces a passage of some eighteen bars where he asks for senza sordino. In normal playing practice, the right-hand, or sustaining pedal is used in a manner to avoid harmonic smudges, but on this occasion, the performer is asked to keep the pedal down, so that all the dampers are raised, which produces a somewhat muffled, ethereal effect. Haydn had already used the effect in his own Sonata in C, Hob. XVI/50, and Beethoven was to use it later, in his ‘Moonlight’ Sonata. Whereas the first and second movements had rather understated endings, Woelfl definitely makes up for this in the short, virtuosic coda that ends the sonata, and where the piano figuration provides the performer with a few unwelcome challenges in the closing bars.

The final work on the CD is the Sonata in D, Op 58, which is thought to have appeared in 1811, and was first published in London. The Op 6 Sonatas were all conventional three-movement works, cast in the usual fast-slow-fast configuration. However, Op 58 is not only in just two movements, but the opening Allegro is preceded by a short Adagio introduction of a mere fifty seconds or so. Furthermore, the sonata-form Allegro is monothematic in construction, something we do see in Haydn and Mozart, on occasions. It simply means that, instead of there being a second subject that provides contrast with the first subject in as many ways possible, in Woelfl’s movement the first and second subject are essentially the same, save for the key the latter is presented in. Additionally, here the first subject is taken directly from the Adagio introduction.

But if all that wasn’t enough, the composer writes a Theme and Variations for his second movement, which can then stand both as slow movement and then finale. The theme is a simply-harmonized affair, marked Andante, but eminently suited to variation. Woelfl is content, during the four variations that follow, to eschew writing one in a minor-key, or one that investigates and manipulates the basic harmony of the theme. The third variation comes to rest on a dominant pedal, giving the piano an opportunity for a brief cadenza-like link to the quasi-virtuoso final variation – a brisk 6/8 Presto, which serves as an effective close both to the finale, and the sonata itself.

In my earlier review I concluded that Riva is a most sensitive and highly-accomplished player, who crafts his melodic lines with flexibility, thereby allowing the music to breathe at all times. He is very much at one with the demands of Woelfl’s style, and while he has the power of a flagship 9’6” (ca. 290 cm) Bösendorfer Imperial Grand at his disposal, never once does he abuse this, nor does the equally-fine recording ever allow the instrument to exceed the dynamic range indicated in the score itself. As far as the present CD goes, I can only add that Riva has come up trumps yet again, and further endorsed everything I felt, the first time round, particularly here in terms of his abundant technical prowess and finger dexterity.

With Riva’s ongoing mission to get as much of Woelfl’s music known as possible, he certainly shouldn’t run out of repertoire, given that the composer actually wrote some sixty-eight piano sonatas. Coupled with the bold vision of Toccata Classics, I hope to be enjoying the next disc in the series as soon as possible. This Volume Two is certainly one not to be missed.

Philip R Buttall

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