Howard Shelley’s exceptional ability to make the byways of the concerto repertoire sound like bona fide masterpieces reaches new heights in this follow-up to his previous volume of piano concertos by Czech composer Jan Ladislav Dussek, which launched the Classical Piano Concerto series in 2014. Here are three out of Dussek’s 18 surviving piano concertos, carefully chosen in order to trace his creative journey from dedicated Mozartian, to an enthusiastic admirer of Weber’s and Hummel’s virtuoso derring-do, to his gentle embracing of Beethoven’s minor-key, early-period Sturm und Drang; by the time we reach his Op 49 Concerto of 1801 one can even detect premonitions of Chopin.
Along the way many thousands of glittering notes have flowed past, yet Shelley miraculously creates the impression not only that they all matter but succeeds in convincing one that Dussek’s powers of melodic invention are more fertile than is actually the case. Yet Dussek was very much his own man. He played an axiomatic role in phasing out the traditional first movement solo cadenza as well as extending the tonal range of the keyboard—his friend, piano maker John Broadwood, adapted a number of his ideas—and, according to Spohr, it was Dussek rather than Liszt who first established the now commonly accepted custom of performing sideways-on to the audience.
It would be all too easy for Dussek’s Mendelssohnian propensity for extended passages of semiquavers to pall, yet such is Shelley’s velvet touch and sensitively to exquisitely shaded dynamics that it seems not a note too long. Providing the icing on the musical cake is the Ulster Orchestra, which responds with alacrity to Shelley’s skilful direction.