Notes and Editorial Reviews
12 Piano Sonatas.
Variations on a March by Dressler,
Susan Kagan (pn)
GRAND PIANO (2 CDs: 120:50)
Unless you really know your music history, it is quite likely that the name Christian Gottlob Neefe will not ring a bell. But before you skip on to the next review, you should consider this fact: It is probable that, without Neefe, the history of music would be very different today. Born 16 years
after Haydn and eight years before Mozart, Neefe spent much of his life as a court organist in Bonn. As fate would have it, one of Neefe’s students in this rather provincial town was a boy whose name you will most definitely know—Ludwig van Beethoven. By all accounts, Neefe’s influence on Beethoven was profound. A great admirer of Bach and his sons, Neefe introduced Beethoven to
The Well-Tempered Clavier
and provided advice and encouragement to the young composer, whom he also taught fortepiano, organ, and figured bass. Years later, acknowledging his debt of gratitude, Beethoven wrote to his old teacher, “I thank you for the counsel [that] you gave me so often. … If I ever become a great man yours shall be a share of the credit.”
Although most of Neefe’s fame as a composer came from writing popular
, he also published 12 keyboard sonatas, which are the main items on this premiere recording featuring pianist—and distinguished
alumna—Susan Kagan. Little is known about what prompted Neefe to write these works, which were collectively published in 1773, when the composer was 25. Kagan, who wrote the informative notes that accompany her recording, believes that the sonatas are a mixture of Baroque and early Classical styles. While she is no doubt correct, I hear a lot more classical elements in these works, which in many respects sound like Haydn’s early keyboard sonatas. To cut right to the chase, this is fine music, although listening to all 12 sonatas in close succession is not something I would recommend. There is certainly much to enjoy, but the music has a degree of austerity that is not always easy on the ears. (I have the same difficulty listening to Haydn’s early sonatas, although Haydn’s sense of humor and quirkiness—two qualities that do not abound in Neefe’s scores—make somewhat of a difference.) However, I found that the closer attention I paid to Neefe’s music, the more I enjoyed it, and, in fact, there are some gems here, such as the Sonata in G Major (reminiscent of Scarlatti), both sonatas in C Major (the first of which features a slow movement marked
Largo e mesto
—where have I seen that before?), the Sonata in B?, the second sonata in C Minor, and the Sonata in A Major (the last of the set, which also makes me think of Scarlatti).
The bonus item, if I may call it that, is Beethoven’s first published work, a set of variations on a theme by Ernst Dressler, a composer whom not even Beethoven could rescue from obscurity. Composed under Neefe’s watchful guidance, Beethoven’s ambitious score, which he wrote at the ripe age of 12, makes his teacher’s music sound infantile by comparison. As Kagan points out in her notes, this work already shows some of the seeds that would germinate in Beethoven’s mature scores, including most notably the mysterious ability to turn a rather perfunctory theme into something quite memorable.
I am not sure if Kagan really loves Neefe’s music, but she plays it as if she does. Neefe makes relatively modest demands on the performer, but the simplicity and aforementioned austerity of these scores make performing them no easy feat. Kagan succeeds admirably at bringing this music to life, and if there is any moment on this recording where her pianism is less than sparkling, stylish, and engaging, I must have missed it. Kagan’s way with the Beethoven variations is equally persuasive. Though the composer may have been prepubescent, you would not know that from listening to what he wrote. Of course, the variations are no
, but they pose a whole slew of technical challenges, which Kagan meets with skill and fluency.
The quality of the recorded sound is very fine.
In parting, I will simply say that if Neefe’s music was good enough for Beethoven and is good enough for Kagan, it is certainly good enough for me.
FANFARE: Radu A. Lelutiu
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