KUHLAU Piano Sonatas, op. 59: in A; in F; in C. Sonatinas, op. 20: in C; in G; in F • Jen? Jandó (pn) • NAXOS 8.570709 (59:07)
Ill-fated Friedrich Kuhlau (1786–1832) suffered a number of life’s mishaps. The first, at age seven, was the loss of his right eye in a street accident. The second, many years later, was the loss of all his unpublished manuscripts in a fire that burned hisRead more house to the ground. But perhaps the greatest misfortune of all to befall him was Beethoven, or, more specifically, to have been born and lived in Beethoven’s shadow. Born in Germany, Kuhlau fled to Copenhagen in 1810 to avoid conscription in the Napoleonic Army. What? No 4-F exemptions for one-eyed musicians? He remained in Denmark for the rest of his life, never gaining much traction as a composer except for his Danish opera, Elverhøj (Elf Mound). He did, however, achieve some recognition as a concert pianist; as a great admirer of Beethoven, Kuhlau introduced a number of Beethoven’s works to Copenhagen audiences. Of Kuhlau’s manuscripts that escaped the flames and made it to publication, there are approximately 200, consisting mainly of chamber works, solo piano pieces, and enough pieces for flute to have earned him the nickname “the Beethoven of the flute.”
Kuhlau is said to have been most heavily influenced by Beethoven, and as one listens to these sonatas and sonatinas, it’s clear that he had at least the more superficial aspects of Beethoven’s early style down pat. I’m speaking here of the keyboard figurations, the harmonic progressions, and the gestural articulation. A perfect example is the Adagio e sostenuto movement of the G-Major Sonatina, op. 20/2. But here the comparison ends. Kuhlau is but a dinghy caught in the wake of an aircraft carrier. Had he lived 25 years earlier, these mostly slight works might have been seen as a significant advance in keyboard style, but he didn’t; and this is what I meant above when I said that Kuhlau’s greatest misfortune was to have been born and lived in the shadow of Beethoven. Consider that the op. 20 sonatinas on this disc are dated 1820; the op. 59 sonatas, 1824. By this late date, Beethoven was done with the piano sonata as a vehicle for expressing his musical ideas. The “Hammerklavier” and the three last sonatas were behind him.
The taxonomic division of the works on this disc into sonatas and sonatinas is a bit of a puzzler. Keith Anderson’s booklet note homes in on this very point, informing us that the three op. 59 works are often published as sonatinas rather than sonatas. The crux of the matter is that in musical lexicography a sonatina refers either to a small-scaled, modest sonata or, more properly, to a sonata-allegro movement without a development section. The op. 59 set on the disc does feature the requisite first-movement development sections to qualify as sonatas, but oddly, they are all relatively brief works and in only two movements. The op. 20 set, though called “sonatinas,” are all more extended three-movement works and, at least in one case—the F-Major—there is a short development section.
It is likely that most, if not all, of these pieces were written for students, as Kuhlau earned no small amount of his income teaching and publishing just such sonatas and sonatinas intended for young fingers. In a 2006 New York Times article I came across on the Internet (http: //www.nytimes.com/2006/07/02/arts/music/02holl.html), Bernard Holland acknowledges that “none of these sonatinas prepare the student for Beethoven at his most ornery,” and asks “Why play Kuhlau in the first place?” He answers his own question thus: “It is easy to dismiss this annoyingly perfect music as a product of mindless rote or a series of bad habits having outlived their time. But the sonatinas have their uses.” What they are, according to Holland, strike me as a bit misguided. “Really interesting composers like Haydn and Beethoven” he continues (leaving Mozart and Schubert out of the equation—my italics), “violated the unwritten road maps with glee; but fully to understand the originality of the violators, it is nice to have a Kuhlau or a Muzio Clementi to show you just what is being violated.” Apart from the fact that the road maps of harmonic progression and sonata form were hardly unwritten by the late 18th century, what Holland seems to be saying is that Kuhlau’s only purpose is to provide us with a sextant by which to measure the degrees of deviation from true north practiced by the “really interesting composers.”
I have a rather different take on it. In the grander scheme of things, which we cannot know, it may be that neither Kuhlau nor any of the “really interesting composers” has any purpose at all, other than to afford us some pleasure and comfort while we wait to shuck off this mortal coil. Kuhlau is never less than harmonious, pleasing to the ear, attractive, and entertaining. As music, it’s a vacant sand lot, but one I’d rather trudge through than the barren dunes of some of what passes for music today.
Jen? Jandó is one of Naxos’s “house” pianists. He plays everything they throw at him smartly and stylishly. These pieces, of course, make no technical demands that a polished professional such as Jandó isn’t up to. The recording was made in 2007 with Jandó playing a modern grand piano. While recordings of Kuhlau’s keyboard works abound, the current CD appears to be the only one currently available containing these specific opus numbers. Buy, enjoy, and be happy.
Sonatinas (3) for Piano, Op. 20by Friedrich Kuhlau
Jénö Jandó (Piano)
Period: Romantic Written: by 1819; Denmark
Piano Sonata in A major, Op. 59, No. 1: I. Allegro
Piano Sonata in A major, Op. 59, No. 1: II. Rondo: Allegro scherzando
Piano Sonata in F major, Op. 59, No. 2: I. Allegro
Piano Sonata in F major, Op. 59, No. 2: II. Rondo: Allegro
Piano Sonata in C major, Op. 59, No. 3: I. Allegro con spirito
Piano Sonata in C major, Op. 59, No. 3: II. Rondo: Allegro vivace
Piano Sonatina in C major, Op. 20, No. 1: I. Allegro
Piano Sonatina in C major, Op. 20, No. 1: II. Andante
Piano Sonatina in C major, Op. 20, No. 1: III. Rondo: Allegro
Piano Sonatina in G major, Op. 20, No. 2: I. Allegro
Piano Sonatina in G major, Op. 20, No. 2: II. Adagio e sostenuto
Piano Sonatina in G major, Op. 20, No. 2: III. Allegro scherzando
Piano Sonatina in F major, Op. 20, No. 3: I. Allegro con spirito
Piano Sonatina in F major, Op. 20, No. 3: II. Larghetto
Piano Sonatina in F major, Op. 20, No. 3: III. Alla polacca
Average Customer Review: ( 1 Customer Review )
Love it.June 21, 2012By Steven Howes (Winnipeg, MB)See All My Reviews"I just bought this CD and the 55 & 88 CD as well. I could listen to them both all day. At 7.99 they're a total bargins and they're probably my favourite CDs so far this year."Report Abuse