Stuart Sillitoe
MusicWeb International
October 2018

I have little of Jan Ladislav Dussek’s music: piano trios (CPO), piano sonatas (Brilliant Classics) and works on compilation discs such as the Piano Quintet in F minor Op 41 (Brilliant). He is mainly known for instrumental and chamber works, so this is my first disc of his orchestral music.

Dussek, a Czech composer born in the Moravian town of Čáslav, became one of the foremost piano virtuosos. He also played the glass harmonica. He travelled widely throughout Europe to give concerts and fulfil commissions for new music, which he was happy to perform. He was also in demand as a piano teacher, especially amongst the aristocracy, which led to a number of lucrative positions. A friend of Haydn and his wife, who—like his own wife and mother—played the harp, he is known to have composed works for the instrument.

Hyperion’s wonderful series of The Romantic Piano Concertos goes from strength to strength. This disc is volume 5 of a relatively new venture for the label, a follow-up to the first volume of this series of The Classical Piano Concerto from 2014 when the same forces presented three other concertos Op 1 No 3, Op 29 and Op 70. Like on the previous disc, the concertos here come from the distinct periods of Dussek’s compositional development, spanning a fourteen-year period. These stages show that he did not merely compose in the classical idiom, but that he was also a transitional composer, who pointed the way towards the romanticism of the likes of Mendelssohn and Hummel.

These three concertos clearly display the composer’s development not only as a composer. They also mark his own changing piano style, developed due to the changing musical agenda. As the music of other composers changed, Dussek took these developments in pianistic styles and included them in his own music.

The Concerto in E flat Op 3, with its central Andantino movement and its set of variations, is more in common with the classical style of the latter concertos of Mozart. The Op 14 F major Concerto shows that Dussek is already developing into a more competent and self-assured composer; the work is more expansive, the piano more integrated into the music. This is the only concerto on this recording where Dussek leaves the cadenza to the pianist. This occurs in the lovely second movement Adagio, where Howard Shelley produces a piano line that builds upon the melody and is well suited to the music. The final work on this disc is the G minor Concerto Op 49 of 1801, contemporary with Beethoven’s early concertos. It differs from all his other concertos: it was the only one composed in a minor key. This gives the concerto a darker and more romantic feel than the others presented here. This is further highlighted in the way that he develops the thematic material of the first movement.

Throughout this disc Howard Shelley and the Ulster Orchestra rise to the differing challenges posed by Dussek and his developing style, and play with great aplomb. Shelley is stylish and adept in the piano part, and he marshals the forces of the Ulster Orchestra well so that they play with great sensitivity. The recorded sound is well balanced. The piano is never overpowered by the orchestra. Indeed these performance only make me want to invest in the first volume of this series, as well as hope that Hyperion goes on to record more of Dussek’s piano concertos. There are after all quite a few more of them to go at.