Hyperion's continuing Romantic Piano Concerto series—arguably the most illuminating long-term recording project ever produced—has been followed by parallel tours of concertos for cello and vioin. The newest entry to this growing 'series of series' is devoted to The Classical Piano Concerto. Assuming that, as in the Romantic series, the point is to skip over the most canonical composers (in this case, Mozart and Beethoven), it's hard to imagine a more auspicious starting point than Bohemian-born composer and keyboard virtuoso Jan Ladislav Dussek (1760-1812). Especially since the pioneering work of Frederick Marvin, Dussek's imaginative piano sonatas have slowly gravitated towards the edge of the repertoire; but even for fans of the composer, the concertos remain barely known. This attractive CD, which surveys his output from when he was barely out of his teens until two years before his death, should do a lot to serve the cause.
What does the music sound like? The superficial style changes significantly as we move through Dussek's career. The early two-movement G major concerto is an unassuming and resolutely classical affair, clean in its outlines, sparse in its textures, utilitarian in its accompaniments. By the time we get to the richly conceived Concerto in E flat, Dussek's last, we seem to be in a diffferent world. Lasting over half an hour (the first movement's orchestral introduction alone takes nearly three minutes), it boasts far more developed keyboard virtuosity, more complex interaction of piano and orchestra, more chromaticism, and a proto-romantic spirit that glances ahead (most clearly in its second movement) to the poetry of Chopin's Second Concerto. The Chopin connection is magnified by Dussek's unexpected (but not quite unprecedented) inclusion of a single trombone in his orchestra—an idiosyncracy that marks Chopin's concertos as well.
Yet for all these differences, there's a common strand holding these three works together—a developing spirit of exploration. It's a subtle experimentation: nothing here shocks in the way that, say, the music of Berlioz was to do in the next generation. Still, while Dussek generally remains loyal to the formulas and gestures of his times, he tends to use them in increasingly personal ways that may throw you off balance. Thus, for instance, the C major concerto begins with a 22 bar 'Larghetto'. It doesn't sound like an introduction (which would be startling enough), since it doesn't create a sense of anticipation. Rather, it sounds like a slow movement—as if we've shown up in the middle of the piece. Some of Dussek's modulations and harmonies will surprise you, too. He's likely to employ unusual phrase lengths (the finale of the C major is especially striking in this regard), to throw in an odd transition, or to warp some formal regularity that we are expecting.
Granted, the concertos are not as striking as Dussek's best piano sonatas (see Nicholas Salwey's informative discussion in February 2014). They are rewarding works nonetheless, and they sound especially effective in the persuasive hands of Howard Shelley. Shelley's sympathy for that uneasy period just before the romantic explosion is demonstrated by his exemplary recordings of Clementi (among others), and he demonstrates the same kind of expressive tact as a soloist here. Rhythms are consistently alert; the more lyrical passages bloom without excessive romantic milking; passagework is nimble; and most important, he manages to point up the music's harmonic twists without digging his elbows into our sides. His work as conductor is nearly as impressive: from the sting of the rhythms that launch the early G major Concerto to the airy dance rhythms in the finale of the E flat major, the accompaniments, inevitably attentive, complement the piano parts well. The orchestral players respond deftly, and the engineers have captured the proceedings with Hyperion's expected clarity. Add to this the fine notes by Stephan Lindeman and you have a sure-fire hit.