HÄSSLER Fantasies: in c, A, D, C, e. Sonatas: in D, A, d, A; Rondeau in C. Ariette mit einigen Veränderungen • Michele Benuzzi (hpd) • BRILLIANT 9429 (67: 43)
Although he is almost completely unknown today, Johann Wilhelm Hässler (1747–1822)—not to be confused with the Renaissance-era composer whose name is spelled without an umlaut—emerges from this CD as one of the unsung heroes of the later 18th century. You’d hardly know it from the brief article inRead moreNew Grove, and if you were to search for a recording, either on ArkivMusic or in the Fanfare Archive, you’d come up empty-handed. The present CD is therefore almost certainly a premiere recording.
Hässler stood in the front ranks of the vanguard that swept through German music after the death of Sebastian Bach. As nephew of one of the last pupils of Bach, Hässler naturally had the essence of the learned German keyboard style coursing through his veins. His later interactions with Emanuel Bach and W. A. Mozart further shaped his career and set him on a new course—in 1789 he engaged in a famous keyboard contest with the latter, which ended in a draw and caused Mozart to utter some uncharacteristically unkind remarks. Ensuing concert tours took Hässler all over Europe, to great acclaim. He moved to England in 1790, and two years later to Russia, where he entered the service of the Grand Duke. Hässler published large quantities of keyboard music, especially during his Russian years. He is credited with nurturing the nascent generation of Russian pianist/composers at the turn of the century, but it’s fun to speculate what influence his unique blend of erudition (learned from his uncle) and Empfindsamkeit (acquired from Emanuel Bach) might also have had on composers such as Beethoven, Weber, and Chopin.
The music is endlessly varied and inventive. The melodies are inspired, and Hässler uses them in novel ways, adding frequent chromatic alteration and rhythmic variation. The opening movements of the sonatas are typically bipartite in structure—essentially the sonata style inherited from Emanuel Bach. The concluding sonatas movements are usually cast as a rondo, with the exception of the A-Major Sonata, which ends with a Scherzo-Allegro. The fantasies once again pay homage to Emanuel Bach, but are usually less ruminative and more rhythmically active.
The young Italian harpsichordist Michele Benuzzi covers himself in glory with this release. He is the ideal interpreter to bring this music to light: highly sensitive to the gesture and emotion of the music, yet capable of carrying the musical narrative forward in telling fashion. The liner notes recount Benuzzi’s initial encounter with the music of Hässler, beginning with a mysterious Fantasy in C Minor, attributed to Friedemann Bach, that Benuzzi first heard on an old recording. Subsequent investigations failed to produce the piece—evidently, it was not part of Friedemann Bach’s oeuvre. Quite accidentally Benuzzi discovered an ancient edition of piano music called Le Trésor des pianists in the library. Contained therein was the music to the Fantasy (eureka!), which bore the inscription “J. W. Hässler. 1776.” Further trips to the library yielded a veritable mountain of Hässler’s music. The rest, as they say, is history.
Benuzzi has chosen an original harpsichord by Robert Falkener (London, 1773) in the Russell Collection, Edinburgh, for his recording. Clearly, this is music suited for an expressive keyboard such as the fortepiano or clavichord; at first, I thought the choice of harpsichord would prove to be a handicap. Benuzzi justifies his choice by saying that a good interpreter can fully exploit the sonority and characteristics of every instrument, whether harpsichord, piano, or clavichord, to suit late 18th-century music. Fair enough—given Benuzzi’s prowess, this program would have been successful on just about any keyboard.
The instrument has a rich, dark sound, with excellent balance between the registers. Original English harpsichords tend to be rare on CD; after hearing this recital, you’ll wonder why more haven’t been recorded. The sessions took place in St. Cecilia’s Hall in Edinburgh, where the Russell Collection is housed. Visitors to the Russell Collection know that in addition to housing the instrument collection (one of the most extensive in Europe), the hall is a noted concert venue with excellent acoustics. The recording fully captures that ambience, at the same time presenting the harpsichord in a natural perspective, as if the listener were seated six feet away or so. Absolute highest recommendation.
Simply the Best Harpsichord MusicJune 12, 2012By Anthony G. (SANTA FE, NM)See All My Reviews"Simply the best harpsichord music ever written among the masterpieces of Bach, Handel, Scarlatti, and Couperin. If you love the harpsichord, as I do, then his CD is indispensable. We need to hear more of Hassler's works in all genre. "Report Abuse