WÖLFL Piano Concertos: No. 1 in G; No. 5 in C, “Grand Military”; No. 6 in D, “The Cuckoo”; No. 4 in G, “The Calm”: Andante • Yorck Kronenberg (pn); Johannes Moesus, cond; Southwest German RSO Kaiserslautern • cpo 777 374 (76:06)
Contrary to the claim of at least one misinformed writer, Joseph Wölfl (1773–1812) was not rediscovered and brought back toRead more life only as recently as 2003 by pianist Jon Nakamatsu who recorded four of the composer’s sonatas for Harmonia Mundi (see review in 27:6). To seekers of dwarf planets rendered invisible by the blinding luminosity of the sun—i.e., Beethoven—Wölfl has been long known to orbit unobtrusively in the Mozart-Haydn-Beethoven solar system, perhaps one of the last remaining best-kept secrets of the late-Classical/early-Romantic Austro-German galaxy. A vinyl recording of Wölfl’s sonatas once graced my LP collection some 25 or more years ago. Unfortunately, I no longer have it, but perhaps some reader still does. The pianist and the label—Orion perhaps?—were relatively obscure, but I remember being quite taken with the music even then, which indeed did sound a lot like early Beethoven. In the hands of an artist as accomplished as Nakamatsu, and with the benefit of modern, state-of-the-art recording technology, it was clear that my initial impression of Wölfl was not misplaced. Though familiar with his works for solo piano, this was my first encounter with any of Wölfl’s concerted works; and to be quite frank, I was not as taken with them as I was with his sonatas.
In physical stature, Wölfl, at over six feet, and with a finger-span large enough to comfortably accommodate a 13th (an octave plus a fifth) must have towered over Beethoven; but in their famously recounted 1799 piano “duel” in which the two combatants pitted wits and technique in a contest of extemporizing, the David trounced the Goliath. Whereupon the defeated hulk lumbered off to Paris and thence to London, attempting but never quite succeeding in regaining his former reputation. Wölfl had studied under both Michael Haydn and Leopold Mozart, and may have given a few lessons to the budding Wolfgang Amadeus. He is known to have written at least one opera, Der Höllenberg, which was staged in Vienna in 1795. There are also at least two symphonies and seven piano concertos from Wölfl’s hand. Three of those concertos and the Andante movement from a fourth will be found on this disc.
The two earliest concertos—of which we have only the G-Major here—were published in Paris in 1802–03, after Wölfl had ceded Vienna to his victor. There is little, if anything, in this concerto to suggest that Wölfl had ever heard anything by Beethoven, let alone knew him personally. The musical spirit that hovers over its pages is Mozart, even to the point that its first movement flirts with an instantly recognizable paraphrase of the aria “Non più andrai” from Figaro.
The remaining concertos date from Wölfl’s London period, and were published between 1806 and 1812; but the influence of Beethoven is still distant. The “Grand Military” Concerto, with its trumpet flourishes and florid keyboard figuration is closer in style to Beethoven’s other great rival, Hummel. Again, in the D-Major Concerto, Mozart seems to be playing peek-a-boo from behind its triadic striding and scampering scales. The “Cuckoo” tag comes from the descending third that sets off the rondo theme in the last movement, a shopworn cliché if ever there was one.
Some confusion is introduced by Bert Hagels’s booklet note, or by translator Marie Praeder, with reference to the Andante movement subtitled, “The Calm.” The CD track listing tells us that it comes from the fourth of Wölfl’s concertos; yet in the English translation of the notes, it is stated that Wölfl wrote the Andante in question as a replacement for the slow movement of the Piano Concerto No. 1 for its London publication. Whatever the case may be, this is the one movement amongst these concertos that comes closest to Beethoven; and it stands out as the most memorable on the disc. Without quoting or paraphrasing any actual piece by Beethoven, Wölfl manages to capture a similar sense of suspended time and contemplative serenity to that which one finds in the slow movements of Beethoven’s “Emperor” and Violin Concerto, albeit on a far less expansive scale.
For all of his alleged technical prowess, Wölfl seems to have eschewed virtuosic display for its own sake in these works. The solo instrument is well integrated with the orchestral writing, and the technical demands on the pianist, while not negligible, do not sound as taxing on the player or the instrument as do other concerted works for piano and orchestra written at exactly the same time, for example, Carl Maria von Weber’s two concertos of 1810 and 1811. Pianist Yorck Kronenberg, joined by Johannes Moesus and the Southwest German Radio Orchestra, are exemplary and, along with cpo, are to be commended for bringing these long dormant works to our attention. Recommended.
Excellent ProgramJuly 28, 2018By Henry S. (Springfield, VA)See All My Reviews"Although the CD notes accompanying this excellent CPO disk do not specifically identify the composition or publication dates of Joseph Wolfl's 3 piano concertos contained herein, it can be inferred from the notes that they date from the very early 1800's. Austrian-born and educated, Wolfl is described in the notes as a musical prodigy, one who engaged in a 'piano duel' with none other than Beethoven (and reportedly more than held his own). Wolfl's rather carefree lifestyle took him throughout Europe as a performer, teacher, and composer. The works contained on this CD (Piano Concertos #1,5, and 6) reveal a style that seems perfectly in synch with the musical reality of his time- the emerging transition from the pure classicism of Mozart and Haydn to the early romanticism that Beethoven brought to the table. All are of very high quality and well worth hearing. Wolfl seems to have had a preference for long opening movements, as in all 3 cases, the first movement is almost twice the length of the remaining movements. Piano Concerto #5 is subtitled 'Grand Military Concerto', undoubtedly due to its martial trumpet calls and march-like character. The sixth concerto also has a subtitle- 'The Cuckoo'-due to repeated short sequences of notes in the final movement, which critics have likened to the sound of a cuckoo bird. Such seemingly minor details only serve to emphasize my main point: these are excellent concertos and are given a fresh, engaging performance by pianist Yorck Kronenberg and the SWR Radio Orchestra of Kaiserslautern, Germany. I believe you will find this recording to be a truly pleasant discovery, and I highly recommend it."Report Abuse
Another great recording from ArkivMusicJanuary 12, 2016By John D. (Wichita Falls, TX)See All My Reviews"I have listened to this recording several times and have found it to be most enjoyable."Report Abuse