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Joseph WÖLFL (1773-1812)
Piano Concerto No. 2 op 26 in E major [34:13]
Concerto da Camera WoO. 97 in E flat major [14:39]
Piano Concerto No. 3 op. 32 in F major [21:36]
Nataša Veljković (piano)
Südwestdeutsches Kammerorchester Pforzheim/Johannes Moesus
rec. December 2016, Johanneshaus Niefern-Öschelbronn, Germany
CPO 555 149-2 [70:34]

The German CPO label has, over many years, been held in high regard, not only for its fine recordings of regular repertoire, but more so for filling niches that often remain untouched, because of the seemingly lesser profits to be made. But having devoted whole series of recordings to music by Loewe, Pfitzner, Reicha, Sallinen, and Spohr, to name but a few, these CDs have become equally as sort-after, if not more so, and have already unearthed some real treasures along the way.

In 2008, CPO released its first volume of Piano Concertos by Joseph Wŏlfl (CPO 777 374-2), which I bought at the time, even though I’d not heard anything else by the Salzburg-born Austrian composer until then. A UK CD Dealer, writing at the time, commented that the composer was new to CPO, who commemorated this by issuing three world-première recordings of his piano concertos. The CD was the subject of a recent review by MWI’s Rob Barnett, who, in fact, has just reviewed this present second CD.

In terms of performers, the new issue features a change both of orchestra and soloist, while German conductor Johannes Moesus remains, to add some consistency to the interpretation overall. The CD booklet is most comprehensive, especially in terms of Wŏlfl’s biographical details, and makes for an entertaining, and informative read, as does the subsequent section on the music itself. Unsurprisingly, all references to the composer use the German spelling, whereas you will sometimes encounter the English version, Woelfl, elsewhere on your travels.

Just to put his music briefly into perspective, Joseph Wŏlfl was a pupil of Leopold Mozart and was a much talked-about performer in his day. His keyboard skills amazed music experts, and in 1799 the Viennese ‘Allgemeine Wiener Musik-Zeitung’ published a report on the city’s most important pianists, ranking Wŏlfl alongside the likes of Beethoven, and which fuelled the friendly rivalry between the two composers. But while he and Beethoven were from the same generation, Wŏlfl, no doubt, saw himself mainly as continuing the classical traditions of Mozart and Haydn.

The CD opens with the Piano Concerto no. 2 in E major, op. 26, which received its première in Paris in 1804. The analysis of the opening Allegro moderato by Bert Hagels, is very detailed indeed, and he follows suit in the rest of the works to be heard. He includes timings, when he wants to refer to specific passages, features, or stylistic elements. For anyone interested in how the music has been put together, this is certainly well worth following with the score, but not, I feel, on the initial hearing, when the music speaks so eloquently for itself. But Hagels definitely knows his stuff, and while the writing is erudite, and probably requires the reader to have some prior knowledge, it’s literally streets ahead of the often badly-translated waffle that we sometimes have to endure in a similar context.

There is a lyrical slow movement (Andante) in the key of A, which is then followed by a jaunty 6/8 finale, which Hagels rightly describes as a ‘hybrid combination of sonata and rondo form’, and which we would simply refer to as a sonata-rondo. You would be forgiven if you felt that you were listening, perhaps, to a corresponding Mozart finale, or even early Beethoven, in his Concerto No 2 in B flat. But there are equally here, and elsewhere on the CD, some occasions with interesting chord juxtapositions, and short modulations to quite remote keys, all of which might well prompt you to conclude that, perhaps it’s Mozart – but not quite as we know it. Either way, it’s a very well-constructed work, tuneful and inventive, makes little demands on the listener and, in these still uncertain times, can provide that little bit of welcome light relief.

The next work is the so-named Concerto da camera in E flat major, WoO 97, published in London in 1810. Literally a ‘chamber concerto’, here it is described as being ‘for piano, flute and strings’. As Hagels comments, it is very much a concerto ‘on a reduced scale’, as witness its scoring and overall length, but still preserves the formal constraints of a concerto. However, mindful of the commas in both the English, as well as the German title, this is simply another piano concerto, with the accompaniment comprising a string orchestra, to which a single flute has been added. The booklet’s title pages also confirm this, where the flautist is just highlighted as regular-orchestra-member, Karin Geyer.

The business-like opening Allegro moderato is followed by an Andantino Romanza in the dominant key of B flat, cast in the style of a berceuse, or lullaby. Again the flute has an orchestral-only part to play, but does get a modicum of ‘question and answer’ work with the piano, but where the two instruments are by no means intended as equal protagonists. Then, after a mere two minutes, the movement comes to rest on a dominant chord, and leads straight into the finale, an affable little Allegro moderato in triple time, which, as Hagels concurs, is an oft-encountered rondo alla polacca, or polonaise. Here, especially given that this was a form that Chopin made use of later, it becomes clear that Wŏlfl’s piano-writing, and his adventurous harmonic palette look more towards the Polish composer, than Beethoven, and which the likes of Hummel would refine, as the century unfolded.

The final work – the Piano Concerto no. 3 in F major, op. 32 – according to Hagels, must have originated in the early months of 1805, since it was with this work that Wŏlfl introduced himself to the London public the same year. It opens with an impressive Allegro in triple time, where the writing for the solo instrument is clearly designed to thrill and impress. In the expert hands of Serbian-born Nataša Veljković, who counts both Paul Badura-Skoda and Rudolf Firkušný among her teachers in Europe and subsequently at New York’s Julliard School, it most definitely does.

The virtuosic and delightfully-charming opening Allegro in triple time is followed by an equally lovely Andante in C, full of Romantic calm, where the soloists shows the eminently sensitive side to her playing, but which soon becomes agitated as it encounters a short period in the minor, before the opening calm returns, and again the filigree fioriture that now decorates the melody, again looks forward to Chopin, as well as conjuring up the ambiance of a John Field Nocturne – in fact one of those ‘real treasures’ mentioned above.

The Presto finale is a set of variations, on a theme that immediately suggests a village dance with a distinctly Austro-Hungarian, even Russian flavour. Wŏlfl gets the most mileage out of this, not only with the sheer variety of his invention, but also his use of the orchestra, where his idiomatic use of the bassoon, for example, really heightens the light-hearted humour of the music. The composer shifts temporarily into a fast triple time as the end nears, which then leads to an extended cadenza, which, after a series of short trills, reverts to the original duple time and an accelerated coda rounds things off to great effect. You can almost hear the spontaneous cheers and burst of applause from the London public, who had just been treated to a work that ticks every box – and more – by a composer hitherto unknown to them.

This, then, is a more-than-worthy successor to CPO’s first CD, and very much enhances the reputation of a composer whose music is only now beginning to get the recognition it surely deserves. This is always going to be more difficult, though, when Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven are your three main contemporaries. But the players of the Südwestdeutsches Kammerorchester Pforzheim have come up trumps, and conductor Johannes Moesus has again fashioned authentic, stylistically compelling, as well as highly-entertaining performances of the works, which have been captured on disc with the utmost fidelity. But in a recording dedicated to three piano concertos, it’s ultimately down to the soloist to ‘sell’ the CD, and in Veljković, CPO could scarcely have found a better, and more sympathetic ambassador.

This is truly pleasant and cheerful music, as well as being so easy and undemanding to listen to. But the closing work, in particular, deserves to be much more popular, since it very much confirms that Joseph Wŏlfl is a composer well worth getting to know, especially as more of his works are now being released, and which all tend to have such an uplifting, and upbeat feel about them.

Philip R Buttall

Previous review: Rob Barnett



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