Jan Ladislav Dussek’s sonata in F sharp minor, Élégie
, is a stunner. It writhes in pain, takes bewildering
harmonic turns and in many ways sounds like it was written at least
a hundred years later. It’s a masterpiece, and if anything the only
thing keeping it out of the concert hall is that it’s too modern. As
you listen for the first time, you’re kept in a near-constant state
of mystery: what on earth is going to happen next?
The sonata was written in 1806 and 1807, after the death of Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia. Louis Ferdinand was a warrior, which is how he met his fate, but he was also a pianist, who worked with Dussek. Beethoven’s third concerto was dedicated to the prince. Based on the evidence here, Dussek was deeply saddened by the loss of his employer. According to the booklet, Dussek took to “travelling in the prince’s entourage from one battlefield to another”.
From a few years earlier we have Beethoven’s first set of bagatelles, with their echoes of the classical period, signs of the new master finding his voice, and in the case of the Scherzo in C major, a striking foreshadowing of Schubert’s last symphony. The program’s second half is more familiar: Beethoven’s final sonata and Mendelssohn’s Variations sérieuses
. This is an album entitled Transitions
, looking at the move from the classical to the romantic era, and the ways those lines blurred. The idea is good and the execution is frankly brilliant.
Olga Pashchenko, who has studied with period-instrument luminaries Alexei Lubimov and Richard Egarr, dips into the collection of the Museum of Musical Instruments, Austria, for two pianos very well-suited to the music at hand. An 1812 piano by Donat Schöfftos - first time I’ve seen that name - immediately establishes itself as perfect for the spooky impassioned cry of the Dussek elegy. We also get to hear it in the Beethoven bagatelles, although it gets clanky when played fortissimo. An 1826 piano by Conrad Graf is warm, burnished and powerful in the sonata and Mendelssohn variations. If I could own a fortepiano it would be a Conrad Graf; see also Penelope Crawford’s superb Beethoven CD
Pashchenko’s playing in the Dussek is imaginative and haunting, Mendelssohn’s variations offer the chance to show her playing at its most accomplished and she has the measure of the Beethoven bagatelles. While I’m a little concerned about a couple of technical slip-ups and tiny pauses in the great Beethoven sonata, and while Penelope Crawford
uses her fortepiano more imaginatively in the final variations, truth be told, Pashchenko offers an extremely good performance. It only barely falls short of the best and does not diminish the value of this album.
With excellent sound and truly superb booklet notes that address the album concept, the composers and the pianos themselves, this is a very strong entry. An album I’ll treasure.