Notes and Editorial Reviews
Piano Sonatas: No. 5; No. 6; No. 8; No. 9. Nocturne in E?
Martin Jones (pn)
5832 (2 CDs: 150:56)
The name Carl Czerny is hardly an unknown one, but for most he exists as a sideline figure and program-note reference, one of a tight circle of Beethoven’s younger friends and pupils (including Ferdinand Ries and Ignaz Moscheles) who formed a critical core of early Romantic keyboard composers. Their music isn’t often performed, although most piano students have fond (or
not so fond) memories of Czerny’s technical exercises.
Pianist Martin Jones has already given us complete accounts of the works of Granados, Szymanowski, Grainger, Mendelssohn, Debussy, and others, and is now embarking on a thorough examination of the sonatas of Czerny. Nimbus has released Volume 1 of the set, and while there is much to admire here (most noticeably the composer’s workmanlike consistency), we will have to wait for future volumes to determine if there are any hidden masterpieces in this corner of his vast repertoire.
This double-disc set contains four of his 13 sonatas as well as an attractive filler piece, the Nocturne in E?. The opus number 647 (!) of this work gives an indication of the protean task a cycle of his complete piano works might provide for a future devotee of this Viennese composer of Czech extraction. For reasons that remain unclear, his sonatas largely date from an eight-year span beginning in 1820 at the age of 29. Though he was a dedicated disciple of Beethoven, he appears not to have emulated the older master’s compositional style to any significant degree. While his mentor preferred to construct works from smaller motives and their subsequent exhaustive development, in these sonatas, at least, Czerny prefers more expansive melodies and extended key sections. This is evidence of a kinship with such close contemporaries as Hummel, Schubert, and especially Mendelssohn. This latter composer seems particularly relevant when Czerny reaches back to resuscitate fugues and chorales from earlier times. When trying to summon dramatic stress in minor keys, such as the opening to Sonata No. 9, the resemblance to Schubert can be uncanny, but only for short stretches. The same composer’s lyricism is evoked in the slow movement of this and other sonatas, although Czerny’s melodic gifts are decidedly inferior. There is one superficial resemblance to some of Beethoven’s late piano sonatas and string quartets, and that is a disinterest in maintaining the traditional four-movement structure of a sonata on a consistent basis. All four of these sonatas have between five and seven movements, with a duration in this recording of 32 to 50 minutes each. Calum MacDonald’s excellent notes don’t suggest the possibility, but could this predilection for length reflect the influence of the classical divertimento? While it’s possible that their duration could be one factor in their lack of acceptance into the canon, that explanation doesn’t account for the hundreds of his shorter pieces that posterity has also been unkind to.
Sonata No. 6 is the one work that suggests a composer not entirely satisfied with the status quo. With six movements and clocking in at over 50 minutes, it surely ranks as one of the most ambitious piano works from any era, a status underlined by the fast tempos in nearly every movement (in fact, slow movements are quite rare in all four of these sonatas). It boasts far more than mere length; there are sections that foreshadow titans from later in the century, most notably Brahms and Liszt. This seems to be the only sonata with some notable parallels to the music of late Beethoven (especially the quartets), more in the outward structure of some movements than the inner mechanics.
There is a smattering of music (piano and otherwise) by Czerny on disc, but only Daniel Blumenthal (on Et’Cetera) and Anton Kuerti (for Analekta) have tackled the sonatas. Martin Jones, as usual, is embarking on this latest project with admirable aplomb and gusto. One can’t expect the same level of finish on projects of this type as with recordings of works in a pianist’s regular concert repertoire, but the playing is solid and engaging throughout. Jones plays with enough color and flexibility to give shape to the melodic content while avoiding impediments to the classical architecture favored by Czerny. On rare occasions, he overpedals and compromises clarity, normally one of his strong suits. Development sections in minor key sonata form movements in particular seem to cause him some difficulty, as do a few thorny passages in the scherzos and the treacherous variations of Sonata No. 5. The recorded sound is clear and present, fairly close but not overbearing.
FANFARE: Michael Cameron
Important, intelligently conceived and very rewarding.
This looks set fair to be a valuable corrective to the partial, more generally held view of Czerny as a composer of an exhaustive number of pedagogic studies. In the first volume of a promised complete run we have four sonatas written between 1824 and 1827 and a single Nocturne, dated provisionally to around 1840.
Czerny certainly proves to have operated on a wide canvas – his Sixth sonata, in D minor, lasts over fifty minutes in Martin Jones’s impressive sounding performance. It might be as well to start there because here we feel his striving for a heroic canvas at its most palatial, its most extended. It was written in the year of Beethoven’s death and its six movements might be seen as an analogue of the older man’s own multi-movement writing in the late quartets. After an opening Adagio sostenuto ed espressivo and a correspondingly fast capriccio, Czerny unleashes an Allegretto, a Scherzo and trio, a Bohemian Chorale, a Presto and finally an Allegro con fuoco. The indications alone give some idea as to the sweep and drama enshrined in the work. From a tense almost crepuscular opening we are launched on the driving excitement of the Capriccio Appassionata; from there an alternately stately and lyric Scherzo and Trio; and from there to the heart of the work, a noble unfolding of the theme and five variations. Extensive, finely laid out and warmly played this is a particular high point of the two discs. It shouldn’t be forgotten that, despite his Viennese birth, and as his name so obviously suggests, Czerny’s first language was Czech.
The Fifth sonata is a more concise work though in five movements which again features a penultimate Theme and variation device. Despite the proximity of Beethoven and Hummel stylistically – or at least in terms of potential influence this is the sonata that sounds most completely Schubertian. Although Schubert is often quoted as one of the strongest influences on Czerny’s more extended compositions, its influence is not always direct; here, one feels, it is, and unashamedly too. The placid theme that launches the variations is a genial case in point. The whole work in fact though hardly small scaled is very amiable, though not especially personal.
The Eighth sonata was another product of 1827 and again is cast in six movements, this time ending with a Fuga. Here we find Czerny serious, even at points rather gruff, though it’s a gruffness matched by a perky march theme. The Scherzo sports abrupt injunctions and phrases and alternates them with a lyric Trio. Even the Adagio is unsettled with volatile moments. There’s a second Scherzo and – my favourite and I think the most admirable movement – a forward-looking and quite complex Rondo before the final fugue. The Eighth sonata opens in standard sonata form and does rather flirt with salon sentiment in its not-terribly-serious Adagio; marked con sentimento to reinforce the point. The agitato mutterings that later emerge in this movement seem out of place in respect of the thematic material – but never mind, there’s a pert and witty Scherzo to enjoy. So too the later Nocturne.
Over a decade ago Anton Kuerti recorded the First and Third sonatas for Analekta [FL23141] and Daniel Blumenthal has recorded the first four for Etcetera [KTC2023]. Other than that things have been pretty quiet. So Jones’s splendid playing, the good Nimbus sound and extensive booklet notes stamp this out as an important, intelligently conceived and very rewarding start to the series.
-- Jonathan Woolf, MusicWeb International
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