This recording, on a Stodart square piano of 1823 and an Erard Grecian harp, was made in 1996 but is none the less welcome for appearing now. It consists of three works: two of the Duos Concertants op. 69, nos 1 and 3, and the solo sonata in F sharp minor, Elégie Harmonique , comprising just over an hour of delightful and significant music.
As the music of Dussek (1760-1812) is infrequently performed or recorded, it is worth being reminded that he was the most famous pianist of his generation. He was ten years older than Beethoven, and is now mostly remembered only for the lighter salon pieces that he provided for an amateur market, hungry for such light entertainment. Both his sister and his wife, Sophie Corri, played piano and harp, and Dussek’s large-scale piano duo sonata op. 32, entitled Grand Overture , was issued in about 1796 ‘as performed at Mr Salomon’s and other concerts by the author and Madame Dussek’. Later he played the Duo Concertants with J Naderman in Paris. Dussek also write what has been considered the first Romantic piano concerto, with its introduction con fuoco ed anima . No fewer that thirteen concertos followed, among them one for two pianos and orchestra, three harp concertos (also playable on the piano), chamber music with piano, and 29 sonatas for solo piano, which were much published and appreciated by his contemporaries including Haydn, who considered him ‘concerning music – most excellent’. His influence is detectable in the music of Clementi, Moscheles, Hummel and even Chopin, who was just two years old when Dussek died.
There is not a large choice of recordings of Dussek’s music for harp and piano duet, and prestoclassical.co.uk has been helpful in my search for the contenders. A CD which I bought a year ago , recorded in 2004 for Et’cetera , is entitled Grand Desserts , and features Masumi Magasawa and Richard Egarr. They, too, use interesting period instruments and yet they evoke a completely different sound world, offering just the first op. 69 Duo Concertant but also the F sharp solo sonata op. 61. Edward Witsenburg (harp) and Jacques Ogg (fortepiano) recorded all three Concertanti op. 69 for Globe , but this CD may no longer be available, and Janine Johnson and John Khouri have recorded them on two pianos for Music & Arts .
Whilst a comparison of recordings is not my present brief, it is nevertheless pertinent when deciding which to buy. Dussek;s music was composed on the cusp of a new century, and we might ask ourselves, as a very generalized thesis, whether we prefer the inherent emotions to be expressed with 18 th century reticence and charm, or with a more 19 th century extrovert display. I mentioned earlier that the difference in choice of instruments and acoustic between this and the Et’cetera recording is immense. The sound quality of the Athene CD is glowing and has a brilliant clarity which puts it firmly in the drawing room, without the distraction of an overblown acoustic. This is a performance of sensitivity and integrity, with a real understanding of the cadence, and the balance between both instruments and players is just right.
Richard Egarr and Masumi Nagasawa are musically in agreement but technically less well-balanced and, although the performance is exciting, at times there is an uncomfortable difference between the quietest harp passages and the loudest pianoforte dynamics. The sound seems un-damped and at a distance, but their performing style is dramatic and would be persuasive in a live performance. The interpretation of Joanna Leach and Derek Bell also offers considerable contrasts of dynamics, but this is a more restrained presentation, particularly in the March Funèbre (the second movement ) of op. 69 no.1. Joanna Leach absolutely shines in the stunning F sharp minor sonata which contains Dussek’s outpouring of grief at the ddeath of his patron, Prince Louis Ferdinand, and is a fitting contrast to the cheerful opening of the Concertant no. 3, which I defy anyone to listen to without smiling.
I recommend buying the Joanna Leach and Derek Bell CD, as a recording to enjoy over and over again. And most of all, I recommend a reappraisal of this important composer; I hope that the 200 th anniversary of his death in five years time, will bring much more of his music to the attention of both performers and music-loving audiences.