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

The prodigious Acte Préalable label is probably best known for championing Polish music and composers, with some 500 or so CDs in its catalogue. However, it is also prepared to fight the cause for composers from other lands, like the relatively unknown Frenchman, René de Boisdeffre, who already has some 16 CDs to his credit on the label, whereas some years ago, he might not even have had one single recording to his name.

This time, though, the new release features music from Germany, by Joseph Christoph Kessler, also seen as Kötzler – a pianist and composer active mostly in the Austrian Empire. His Études, Nocturnes, Variations, Preludes, and Bagatelles were praised by such eminent personages as Liszt, Thalberg, Moscheles, and Kalkbrenner, and he was the dedicatee of Chopin’s 24 Preludes, Op 28.

Kessler was born at Augsburg, and received his first music lessons locally, before studying Philosophy at Vienna. He became a piano teacher in Lemberg, today known as Lviv, and the largest city in western Ukraine. It was here that Kessler wrote his 24 Études, Op 20 – one in every key – which were published in 1827, and were much celebrated in their day. Liszt played them in his concerts, while Fétis, Moscheles, and Kalkbrenner, all used some of Kessler’s works in their own pedagogical material.

Chopin became exposed to Kessler's music in Warsaw, while he was in his teens. The German composer had arrived in the Polish capital, and quickly became part of the city’s musical life, and was one of a number of people who gave regular musical soirees attended by Chopin. It was at one of these Kessler-soirees, that Chopin heard works such as Beethoven’s Archduke Trio for the first time, as well as becoming firm friends with Kessler. Kessler's 24 Études, Op 20, were arranged in a circle of fifths, unlike the Preludes and Fugues in Johann Sebastian Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, which are assembled in ascending chromatic order. It has been suggested that Chopin may have even borrowed the title, ‘Étude’ from Kessler, as well as the idea of using metronome marks in his scores.

Kessler dedicated a set of 24 Préludes, Op 31 – one in each of the major and minor keys – to Chopin. A decade later, the Polish composer repaid the dedication in his own 24 Préludes, Op 28, as well as also adopting the circle of fifths that Kessler had used in his Études. However, Chopin might have been influenced by Hummel’s Préludes, Op 67, which appeared in 1815, and also used the same format.

In 1836, Schumann wrote an article in the ‘Neue Zeitschrift für Musik’ comparing the significance of Études written by various composers. Bach, Clementi, Cramer, Moscheles, and Chopin were considered ‘the most important’, while Kessler was described as ‘merely capable’. But Schumann did at least describe Kessler as a ‘Mann von Geist und sogar poetischem Geist’ – a ‘Man of spirit and even poetic spirit’. Kessler moved back to Vienna, then returned to Warsaw, spent some time in Breslau, then another twenty years in Lemberg, before finally returning to Vienna, where he died in 1872.

Magdalena Brzozowska informs us that Kessler composed a lot of piano miniatures, but it’s really his Préludes, Op 31 and the Op 20 Études, that are more significant in the history of Piano-Playing, and it was these two sets of works that she first recorded for Acte Préalable back in 2014 – the CD was the subject of a MWI review at the time. In this new release, Brzozowska describes the contents as ‘different pieces, from different periods of Kessler`s life’.

Pensées fugitives (Fleeting Thoughts), Op 72 is a cycle of four short pieces, comprising Le Lutin, Le Sylphe, Chant du Savoyard, and Gigue, respectively. However you want to translate ‘lutin’ – elf, hobgoblin, leprechaun, imp, for example – Kessler has come up with an appealing little number mainly in the minor key, so perhaps a more petulant and menacing creature, than just a playful little gnome. With its numerous reprises, in the manner of a movement from an earlier keyboard suite from the Baroque, Kessler’s catchy little theme just about manages not to outstay its welcome – but only just, I’d say.

If the first piece captured the programmatic aspect of its title, then Le Sylphe does the same, with its somewhat more adventurous harmonic palette, irrespective of your definition of the word, as an imaginary spirit of the air, or a member of the hummingbird family. The next piece is an altogether calmer number, and with its frequent reliance on a tonic-dominant ostinato in the piano left-hand, it is not difficult to visualize perhaps a plaintive shepherd-song from the Savoy region, with the French Alps looming in the background. Like Le Lutin, the final piece could also have come from a Baroque keyboard suite. Gigues (or Jigs) are usually in 6/8 time, which essentially creates a two-in-a-bar feel. Initially with Kessler’s example, it just takes a moment or two to get your rhythmic bearings, as the composer uses 3/8 for his example, which technically produces a one-in-a-bar feel, which initially is strangely disorientating. Once more it’s an attractive little confection, despite the frequent repeats and reprises.

The 3 Mazury (Mazurkas) that follow, while lasting less than five minutes in total, are charming little numbers, which, despite their brevity, have an individual charm and character, especially No 3 in D major, which features some interesting cross-rhythms and accents, a technical device that the composer often seems to favour. They lack the harmonic profundity and folk-inspired modality of some of Chopin’s examples, but do give an insight into how this ethnic dance-form developed over time.

The Chansonette à la russe sans paroles, Op 61 B is very much what you’d expect, from the title – Russian melancholy, cast in the style of a Berceuse, in a simple ternary minor-major-minor design. Once again Kessler doesn’t hold back on repeating sections, which does impart a somewhat static feel to the piece overall.

The Nocturne in D-flat major, Op 48 No 2 again hasn’t really got the full-blown maturity of a Chopin Nocturne, but could certainly hold its own against one by Chopin’s predecessor, Irishman John Field, popularly known as ‘The Inventor of the Nocturne’. Kessler’s fioriture and melodic decorations are effectively contrived, and provide a clear line of development from Field to the Polish master.

According to Brzozowska, the last two tracks feature ‘bravura’ pieces, beginning with the Scherzo, Op 45. This is an effective standalone piece, which could do duty either as an encore, or as part of a recital programme. Once again, the composer seems to enjoy the effect of two against three, which he achieves by the way he groups his six quavers in each bar – he uses a 3/4 time-signature – in threes in one hand, and twos in the other, and vice versa. Brzozowska’s performance is business-like, but seems to err on the cautious side, settling for accuracy, rather than gay abandon, which I feel the composer’s tempo indication – Allegro molto vivace (Very lively) – is really asking for here. The CD’s final and longest single work – Souvenir de Grätz – is a tribute to Beethoven, in as much as it’s a set of variations based on the rondo theme from the Finale of the German composer’s Pathétique Sonata, Op 13. Kessler is especially inventive here, and the writing is impressively well-crafted. After almost eleven minutes’ worth of constant C minor, the closing Picardy Third, ending with a chord of C major, rather than C minor, really seems a fitting conclusion, not only to the last track, but also the CD as a whole – rather like a bright light at the end of the tunnel.

Magdalena Brzozowska concludes this CD selection of Kessler’s music in the belief that ‘it may be of interest to music lovers and all pianists involved in the romantic period’. Even though it’s a relatively short CD, I would still agree that it could appeal to her target-audience, especially the final set of Variations. Perhaps the performance might just have benefitted from a tad more pizzazz where appropriate, but there is still sufficient lyricism in the playing to counterbalance this. The piano sound and recording don’t let the side down either, so if your CD collection feels somewhat lacking in keyboard music from this particular era, it’s definitely well worth giving Herr Kessler a spin.

Philip R Buttall

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