musica Dei donum
Johann Wilhelm HÄSSLER (1747 - 1822): "Harpsichord Music"
Michele Benuzzi, harpsichord
rec: March 2 - 3 & 6 - 7, 2011, Edinburgh, St Cecilia's Hall
Brilliant Classics - 94293 (© 2012) (67'43")
Cover & track-list
Ariette mit einigen Verä[n]derungen ;
Fantasia in C ;
Fantasia in c minor ;
Fantasia in D ;
Fantasia in e minor ;
Fantasia in A ;
Rondeau in C ;
Sonata in d minor ;
Sonata in A ;
Sonata IV in D ;
Sonata VI in a minor 
 Sechs Sonaten fürs Clavier, 1776;
 6 neue Sonaten ... nebst einem Anhang von einigen Liedern und Handstücken, 1779;
 Clavier- und Singstücke, I, 1782;
 Clavier- und Singstücke, II, 1786;
 Fantaisie et sonate, op.17, 1803
Johann Wilhelm Hässler is one of the many little-known composers from the second half of the 18th century. They are overshadowed by either the sons of Bach or the classical masters Haydn and Mozart. At least one composition from Hässler's pen is relatively well-known: a Fantasia in c minor was long attributed to Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, and is still recorded now and then as being from his pen. The fact that it is relatively well-known could have been the reason that Michele Benuzzi didn't include it in his selection, even though it was this very piece which raised his interest in Hässler's oeuvre.
Hässler studied with Johann Christian Kittel, one of Germany's great organists of the mid-18th century and one of the last pupils of Johann Sebastian Bach. He started his career as organist of the Barfüsserkirche in Erfurt, where he was appointed in 1762. In the 1770s he travelled across Germany as a keyboard player. He also visited Hamburg where he became acquainted with Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. In 1789 he met Mozart who in a letter was less than complimentary about Hässler as an organist. From 1790-92 he worked in London as a keyboard player and teacher, and then went to Russia, where he first lived in Riga and St Petersburg and in 1794 moved to Moscow. He enjoyed much success as a performer and teacher, and also acted as music publisher. He stayed there for the rest of his life.
Almost the entire oeuvre of Hässler comprises music for keyboard. He composed a large number of sonatas, and also made use of various other then popular forms, such as the fantasia, the capriccio and variations. One of the main issues in regard to performance practice is which instrument to choose. Apart from the organ he played both the harpsichord and the clavichord. In his later years in Russia he certainly would have played the fortepiano. Paul Simmonds believes that the music written after 1790 is clearly intended for that instrument (in the liner-notes of his disc 'German music for clavichord', Ars Musici, 1995). Benuzzi plays just one piece which dates from the last period of Hässler's life, the Fantasia in e minor (1803). I tend to agree that this piece comes off best on a fortepiano, even though Benuzzi's performance is admirable.
Benuzzi has chosen the harpsichord for all these pieces. He plays an instrument from the Russell Collection in Edinburgh, which was built by Robert Falkener in 1773. It has the sound of instruments by Jacob Kirckman, and Falkener even used Kirckman's reputation to his advantage by affixing a nameplate with his name on it. It has two manuals and two pedals which allows some dynamic shading. Even so, it is hard to realise all the dynamic indications which one finds in these scores. These seem to point into the direction of the clavichord which is able to master to whole range of Hässler's dynamic requirements.
That said, Benuzzi makes the most of it on the harpsichord. Many pieces have a capricious character, and these show a strong congeniality with the style of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach. They also bear witness to the influence of the latter's brother Carl Philipp Emanuel. In a letter in which Mozart wrote about his meeting with Hässler he stated that "he has done no more than commit to memory the harmony and modulations of old Sebastian Bach". One piece bears witness to the old Bach's influence: the Fantasia in C from 1782 which displays a remarkable similarity with the first prelude from the first set of the Wohltemperirte Clavier. The Rondeau in C was printed in 1779 but is also a reminiscence of times gone by.
Michele Benuzzi has done us a great favour by recording this selection from Hässler's oeuvre. He turns out to be a most intriguing composer. This disc is an excellent introduction to his music, and it has made me very curious about the rest of his oeuvre. Wouldn't it be a good idea to record another disc, this time on a clavichord? The Russell Collection has some fine instruments of this kind. For the time being let's be happy with his disc which is one of the most interesting I have heard of late.
Johan van Veen (© 2012)