Once again we are indebted to Howard Shelley for his untiring efforts to unearth little-known composer/pianists from the footnotes of history, enabling us to reassess whether they actually made any significant contribution to the development of the music of their time—or if they were merely also-rans whose music is justly neglected.
Dussek is possibly one of the more interesting cases. Born in Bohemia, he was given early musical instruction by his father, who taught and played the organ. What is documented of his subsequent education, however, seems to lack any focus on either composition or performance. He was, in any case, reportedly a rather lazy student. It is therefore somewhat surprising that he rose to become one of the best-regarded pianists in Europe before Beethoven, celebrated for his technical prowess. His somewhat chequered career encompassed performances in concert venues and courts around Europe and he spent ten notable years in London, between 1789 and 1799, during which period he seems to have been responsible for several musical innovations. One of these derived from the relationship he developed with the piano-maker, John Broadwood, wherein Dussek encouraged Broadwood to extend the range of the piano from five and a half octaves to six. Other innovations include being the first pianist to sit sideways to the concert audience and the first composer/pianist to indicate specific pedalling in his scores.
Dussek’s list of compositions runs to over three hundred works, although the attribution of some of these is dubious. My own familiarity with Dussek’s name, for example, began with a fine harp sonata, which I understand has since been reattributed to Dussek’s wife, Sophia. The chronology of the composer’s concertos—his only works involving orchestra—is somewhat difficult to pin down for several reasons. Typically, for the period, he didn’t number them; some movements were re-used in more than one concerto (as with early Hummel). Some were given several opus numbers because Dussek attempted to sell the same concertos to different publishers. Some are indicated as being for piano or harp and some are lost. The most reliable catalogue of Dussek’s works seems to be the 1964 thematic catalogue developed by Howard Craw. According to this catalogue, there are sixteen concertos for solo piano, including two that are dubious and one that is lost, and a concerto for two pianos. Six harp concertos also figure in the catalogue although three of these, too, are lost. Craw helpfully provides a concerto numbering sequence, together with opus and catalogue numbers.
A previous Hyperion disc from Shelley and the Ulster Orchestra covered the concertos 3 (Op 1/3), 9 (Op 29) and 13 (Op 70). On the present disc we get concertos 4 (Op 3), 5 (Op 14) and 12 (Op 49). All of these are in the standard three movements of the Classical period and all eschew first-movement cadenzas—this latter feature was yet another of Dussek’s innovations. All the music is entertaining and very civilised.
Op 3, dating from 1787, sounds to be of a similar level of accomplishment to some of the earlier Mozart concertos, such as nos 5, 6 or 8, from ten or so years earlier, and is similarly memorable. At just over 18 minutes it has little note-spinning for its own sake and manages not to outstay its welcome.
Op 14 appeared four years later, in the year of Mozart’s death. The booklet note writer feels that this concerto 'shows considerable growth on the part of the composer'. I feel this is true in some respects, notably in the sophistication of the scoring and the greater length of the orchestral introduction to the Allegro first movement (which helps to make the movement about half as long again as that of Op 3). I disagree, though, with the suggestion that the composer’s 'thematic inspiration seems stronger'. After the piano’s first entry, which bears little immediately obvious relationship to what has gone before, it seems to me that Dussek rather loses his way. Too many unmemorable themes are employed, the music rarely strays from the home key, it is difficult to discern what constitutes the development and it all goes on a bit too long—with the result that it comes across as pleasant musical wallpaper. Of course, lack of familiarity with the music doesn’t help, but it is easy to appreciate the extent to which Mozart and Beethoven did it better. The second movement Adagio has a beautiful orchestral opening and the seemingly unrelated piano entry jars slightly. Despite the tempo marking, the players take this at a steady Andante, but this sounds right to me. Whilst Dussek was innovative in abandoning cadenzas, at least in opening movements, Shelley has seen fit to provide an improvised cadenza to the present slow movement. Whilst the cadenza seems entirely musically fitting and appropriate, it would be interesting to know what his authority is for this. Unfortunately the booklet note writer provides no elucidation. The finale is an improvement—a spirited and virtuoso Rondo: Allegretto moderato with a memorable theme and enough development in different keys to sustain interest over 6+ minutes.
Op 49 (from 1801) is the only one of Dussek’s concertos in a minor key and the orchestral opening of the first movement (Allegro ma espressivo) makes quite an impression, with three themes. This opening may well have been influenced by that of Beethoven’s Third Concerto (from 1800) or one of the great Mozart concertos, such as K466 or K491. The soloist’s entry, however, offers a completely fresh trio of themes. Strangely, the orchestra’s first theme is subsequently never uttered by the soloist and vice versa. The second movement, Adagio, steals in with a beautifully scored quiet orchestral introduction and the piano sustains this mood, although the degree of interest is limited—despite a contrasting syncopated middle section to the movement. The final Rondo: Allegro non troppo is described in the booklet notes as 'alla Turca (or alla Hongroise)'. This uncertainty is reflected in the music, which does not really have a strong enough theme to sit in the memory for long. It makes up for that, however, by having unexpected silences and brief fortissimo exchanges between the soloist and orchestra that perk up proceedings from time to time. What is really interesting in this work, however, is the extent to which Dussek’s style is at odds with the late-eighteenth-century concerto model and anticipates future developments, such as the concertos of Field and Hummel. A better way of putting it would be to say that such composers were almost certainly influenced by Dussek. Indeed, the booklet writer suggests that some of the stylistic traits of his mature concertos extended to influencing even later romantic composers, such as Mendelssohn, Chopin and Schumann.
As regards the performances, no praise can be high enough for Shelley’s technical command and beautiful tone. The orchestral contribution is generally splendid and any occasional slight scruffiness of ensemble is barely noticeable. If the acoustic does not quite provide demonstration-quality orchestral sound, the recording is pretty well up to Hyperion’s usual standards—certainly as regards the piano. As regards competition, there is very little. Op 49 has appeared before, on a well-regarded CPO (formerly Capriccio) recording by Andreas Staier and the Concerto Kӧln, but this uses a fortepiano. If you must have period instruments then that will be your choice but, for me, the sound of the modern piano is a bonus for this sort of music and I am perfectly certain the composers of the time would have agreed.
Whilst these works exhibit some of the failings common to much subsequently neglected music of the Classical and Romantic periods, they are both civilised and agreeable and I shall attempt to improve my familiarity with them. One certainly receives the impression that the composer’s style evolved and that it could well have been a source of influence over what followed. Dussek was not an also-ran—and the real value of this splendid release is that it amply demonstrates that.