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Jan Ladislav Dussek & George Frederick Pinto: Works for pianoforte

[I] Jan Ladislav DUSSEK (1760 - 1812): Piano Sonatas Op. 9, The Sufferings of the Queen of France Op. 23
Marek Toporowski, fortepiano
rec: May 1 - 3, 2017a & August 1, 2018b, Katowice, Karol Szymanowski Academy of Music (Concert Halla, Boleslaw Szabelski Auditoriumb)
Dux - 1578 (© 2019) (63'40")
Liner-notes: E/PL
Cover, track-list & booklet

Sonata in B flat, op. 9,1a; Sonata in C, op. 9,2a; Sonata in D, op. 9,3b; The Sufferings of the Queen of France, op. 23a

[II] George Frederick PINTO (1786 - 1806): "Complete Piano Music"
Marek Toporowski, fortepiano
rec: May 2 & Sept 1, 2017, Katowice, Karol Szymanowski Academy of Music; June 21 - 23, 2018 & March 9, 2019d, Zabrze, Fortepianarium; March 11 - 12, Katowice, State Secondary School of Fine Arts
Piano Classics - PCL10177 (2 CDs) (© 2019) (2.32'25")
Liner-notes: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Cory Owen, A Favourite Irish Air arranged as Rondo; Fantasia and Sonata for the Piano Forte in c minor; Grand Sonata for the Piano Forte in c minor; Minuetto in A flat; New Waltz; Rondo for the Piano Forte; Sonata in E flat, op. 3,1; Sonata in A, op. 3,2; Sonatina in G, op. 4,1; Sonatina in B flat, op. 4,2; Sonatina in C, op. 4,3; Three Favorite Airs with Variations for the Piano Forte op. 2

One does not need to be a vehement supporter of historical performance practice to state that many composers who had the tough luck to be contemporaries of the three great composers of the classical era - Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven - would still be firmly in their shadows, if the representatives of that approach to music of the past would not have taken care of them. Back in 2012, Richard Egarr wrote in the liner-notes to his recording (with Masumi Nagasawa) of pieces for harp and pianoforte by Jan Ladislav Dussek: "I write these notes at the beginning of 2012. (...) 2012 is the 200th anniversary of Dussek's death. I can safely predict that none of the major pianists playing recitals in major venues this year will programme any music by this most important piano genius: composer, arranger, virtuoso, publisher, technical innovator, and all-round fascinating character". Although I am not following the career of the 'major pianists', I am pretty sure that he was right, and that his statement is still true. It can be extended to many other keyboard players annex composers of his time, including the one to whom the second disc reviewed here is devoted: George Frederick Pinto. Having said that, it is unlikely that the modern instruments the 'major pianists' use to play, would be able to do the works by Dussek and Pinto real justice.

Dussek was one of many musicians of the second half of the 18th century from Bohemia. His father was an organist and composer who also played the harp. Three of his children became professional musicians; the eldest of them was Jan Ladislav. The latter led an adventurous life which brought him in many countries across Europe. He performed as a virtuoso at the keyboard - which in his days was mostly the fortepiano - and as a teacher. In 1786 he settled in Paris where he moved in the highest circles and became acquainted with Marie Antoinette. Because of his connections with the aristocracy he fled to London when the French revolution broke out.

Dussek's oeuvre is pretty large. Obviously, music for the pianoforte - either solo, with other instruments in chamber formations or with orchestra - take a central stage in his output. Petra Matejová, in her liner-notes to Marek Toporowski's Dussek disc, states that he left sixty solo pieces. It is a token of the growing interest in his compositions that some years ago Brilliant Classics started a project of recording his complete sonatas for pianoforte. To date, nine volumes have been released. Not everyone will be interested in a complete recording. Fortunately, the volumes in that project are available separately, but the present disc is also a nice introduction to Dussek's keyboard music.

The sonatas Op. 9 date from 1789, when Dussek was living in Paris. That same year the Revolution broke out, and Dussek left France for England. In France, sonatas for keyboard with the accompaniment of a violin had become very popular in the second half of the 18th century. Often, the violin did not contribute anything substantial, and in such cases, its part could be omitted. Dussek's sonatas Op. 9 were also conceived for this scoring, but the addition of the violin part was likely merely a bow to convention and the expectations of music lovers. These sonatas may well be intended for Dussek's own public performances in the first place. They show an advanced technique, which may well be beyond the capabilities of many amateurs of the time. Piano music became increasingly virtuosic and intended for professional players or very advanced amateurs. One would like to know what kind of instrument was in Dussek's mind when composing these sonatas and what kind of instruments he played while living in Paris. Toporowski decided to play these three sonatas on a copy of a fortepiano built by Anton Walter in 1780, which is today in the Haydn Haus of the Burgenländisches Landesmuseum in Eisenstadt. Considering that several composers of German origin worked as keyboard players in Paris, this may well be a logical choice. According to the website of Robert A. Brown, who made the copy, it is not an exact copy of the Eisenstadt instrument. "Several deliberate departures have been made, most of which were influenced by Walter's later instruments."

The sonatas include many brilliant runs that span most of the keyboard, including triplets in one hand and runs in which both hands move in parallel. A historical instrument with Viennese mechanics helps ensure that the sound remains clear and transparent and does not become blurred, and allows a speaking articulation that ensures that Toporowski can actually play the last part of the third sonata prestissimo. The large dynamic contrasts sound quite natural here. Toporowski has presented a completely convincing interpretation which impressively demonstrates the qualities of these sonatas and their composer.

In addition to the sonatas Op. 9, Toporowski plays The sufferings of the Queen of France, which graphically displays the fate of Queen Marie Antoinette, ending with her's being guillotined. Originally, the various stages are explained in words; in live performances these are often recited, but they are omitted here. This piece was printed in 1793, and at that time Dussek was already living in London, where he had become acquainted with the pianos of Broadwood. From that perspective, an English instrument would have been more appropriate than a Walter copy.

The second disc is devoted to a composer who was considered brilliant, but died before his talents could fully develop. George Frederick Pinto was a child prodigy, who started to study the violin very early; at the age of eight he became a pupil of Johann Peter Salomon, the violinist and impresario who played such an important role in bringing Haydn to London. At the age of ten, Pinto performed a violin concerto in public. In the next years he frequently played in concerts in London and elsewhere, and possibly made two excursions to Paris. He also learnt the pianoforte, which developed into his favourite instrument.

His contemporaries did not hold back in praising his talents. "Samuel Wesley said that 'a greater musical Genius has not been known'; Salomon remarked that 'if he had lived and been able to resist the allurements of society, England would have had the honour of producing a second Mozart'" (New Grove). Salomon's remarks came after Pinto's early death, which prevented him from becoming "a second Mozart": in 1806 he died, apparently from tuberculosis.

It is not only his qualities as a performer which earned him the praise of his contemporaries, but also his compositions. His oeuvre includes pieces for pianoforte, including a number of sonatas, chamber music and songs; a violin concerto has been lost. Nicholas Temperley, in his article on Pinto in New Grove, mentions that Pinto was almost forgotten by the public within a few years after his death. It is interesting that Marek Toporowski, in his liner-notes, includes a quotation from the Monthly Magazine of 1803, which shows reservation towards Pinto's sonatas. "We certainly find in these sonatas some bold and original ideas... but to these recommendations are opposed such chromatic incongruities, abrupt modulations, and constrained evolutions of harmony to form great drawbacks upon the composer's pretentions to our praise." He concludes that Pinto's piano music was not fully understood, and suggests that this was due to his being ahead of his time: "Nowadays, we would appreciate the boldness of Pinto's harmonic ideas, which were indeed far ahead of his time."

This may well be the reason that he decided to perform Pinto's piano works on instruments which date from long after his death. "An English piano built ca. 1800 seemed a good choice. Nevertheless, using a piano with Viennese action would highlight certain affinities with Haydn's, Mozart's, Beethoven's or even Schubert's music. Playing Pinto's piano music on later instruments sheds light on the early Romantic quality of his music." He plays five different instruments: two identical copies of the Walter piano he also plays in Dussek (as mentioned above), a copy by J.C. Neupert (1934) of a Heilmann fortepiano of 1785, a square piano by J.D. Rädecker (shortly before 1831) and a grand piano by Traugott Berndt from Breslau, which is undated but was built after 1836.

I find this rather problematic. Basically, the line of argument is the same as used by many pianists of today who believe that Beethoven's intentions come off best, if his piano sonatas are played on a modern concert grand. It is an unhistorical approach: the composers had to deal with what was at hand, even if they may have liked more 'advanced' instruments. Moreover, we will never know exactly what they would have liked. One may also consider that, if they had access to other instruments, they may have written different music. Basically, playing music on the 'wrong' instrument likely gives a wrong idea of its true character.

We can only be grateful to Toporowski for recording Pinto's piano music, which deserves much more interest, and for his excellent interpretations. At the same time, we have to hope that some time we will see a recording on the historically appropriate instruments - the kind of pianos Pinto may have played himself and on which he conceived his piano works.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

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