Summer 2013, Vol. 69
Jan Ladislav Dussek Sonata Élégie
harmonique in F sharp minor, op.61
ed Jeremy Eskenazi
Edition HH @Haydn, HH305.Sol, Bicester,
2012 (pbk, £12.50)
ISMN 979 0 708092 54 4
The year 2012 saw the bicentenary of Dussek (1760-1812), so it is good to see a new edition of this fine, relatively late sonata. Dussek was widely regarded as one of the finest pianists in Europe in his later life, by which time his compositions and wide-ranging concert tours had brought him many accolades. Carl Czerny commented: ‘Beautiful Cantabile, the avoiding of all coarse effects, an astonishing equality in the runs and passages, as a compensation for that degree of volubility which is less thought of in his works, and a fine legato, combined with the use of the Pedals’. The publication by Breitkopf & Härtel of his complete works for piano soon after his death is a further testimony to the regard in which he was held.
This sonata appears to have been written between late 1806 and early 1807, before his final move back to Paris; it was composed in response to the death of Dussek’s patron, Prince Ferdinand of Prussia. This new edition is based on the early Pleyel and Cianchettini editions which incorporate the corrections Dussek made – previous modern editions have been based on the Breitkopf edition of 1808, which seems to have been based on manuscripts pre-dating Dussek’s corrections. The number of early editions suggests that it was popular during the composer’s lifetime.
The key of F sharp minor was quite unusual even at that time, and since equal temperament was not universally adopted by 1806, Dussek might have chosen this key for its specific colour, appropriate to the commemorative nature of the sonata. The work opens with a Lento patetico: senza ornamenti, which immediately introduces syncopation between the hands – a feature which later becomes an integral part of this work. The chromaticism, rhetorical gestures and varied textures in this opening are very striking, and anticipate similar ideas in late Beethoven and Clementi – and we know that much earlier in Dussek’s life, his London piano works such as ‘The sufferings of the Queen of France’ influenced the young Beethoven.
This introduction is followed by Tempo agitato: non presto. Throughout this sonata the number and variety of expression marks are notable, as are the pedal markings. At bars 159-161 there is an open pedal mark through a low non-harmonic semiquaver figuration which gives a very dark colour, and would be impossible to replicate on a modern piano. The final three bars are also given a single pedal mark, again creating a ‘halo’ of sound at a very quiet dynamic level. This is one of a range of colours with which composers experimented during this period of rapid development in piano construction, and the music ideally needs the right instrument to gain its full impact.
The second (and final) movement is marked Tempo vivace e con fuoco quasi presto, and is not of the same quality as the first. It relies heavily on syncopation between the hands throughout the movement of 210 bars, as if Dussek is experimenting with an almost minimalist approach, and there is much of interest harmonically, but the sterility of the rhythmic structure eventually becomes somewhat boring.
The edition is well printed and clear, with an excellent preface in English and German; where possible, page turns have been facilitated by placing the musical text intelligently on the pages – something many publishers forget.
This is an important work of the period, which certainly deserves attention; the first movement, in particular, shows Dussek at the forefront of pianistic development. Despite my misgivings about playing such music on a modern piano, intelligent use of the instrument and subtle changes to the pedal markings will enable this music to live and be heard by wider audiences than would be possible on period instruments, so I hope pianists will embrace it.
We are grateful to the editor of The Consort for permission to reproduce this review.