In the 250th Beethoven anniversary year, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet has chosen this programme of works by contemporary composers to illuminate and contextualize Beethoven’s extraordinary output for piano. In his explanatory note for the album, the pianist writes: ‘Just as a mountain peak is always surrounded by other perhaps less lofty but no less fascinating summits, the major works of Beethoven are not isolated rock formations rising from the desert, but, as it were, “Himalayas”, forming part of a range in which other mountains might be the best pieces by contemporaries such as Clementi, Hummel, Dussek, and Wölfl. These composers all knew Beethoven well and were in contact with one another. It is essential to know and to make known their music in order better to understand and more thoroughly appreciate the lingua franca of the music of the time, which in turn is part and parcel of the “spirit of the age”, and to be aware of that which unites them, as well as to recognize that which differentiates them and renders each unique. In this year of plentiful Beethovenian commemorations, it appears to me natural, indeed essential, to pay admiring and enthusiastic homage to these composers, each of whom, in his own way, followed his route to the summit.’
Ostensibly, this disc is intended to present significant music by Beethoven's contemporaries, thus showing the musical climate of the day and making comparisons of style. All four of these composers knew each other and knew Beethoven well, and all were excellent pianists who composed many works for their instrument.
Joseph Wölfl is little known today but his E major sonata suggests he may be unjustly neglected. While this is not a profound work in any way, it is a fine one well worth your time. Bavouzet seems utterly on target in his choice of tempos, dynamics, accenting, rubato (which is limited) and other aspects of phrasing, and so it would be hard to imagine a better performance —or at least a significantly better performance - than this.
Muzio Clementi is far better known than Wölfl but this sonata, Op. 50, No. 1, despite having several recordings, is not among his more often performed keyboard works. To me, this is a vastly underrated sonata, one that clearly deserves greater attention. Overall, Bavouzet's tempos throughout the work tend to be on the brisk side but he captures the heart of the music, all its spirit, joys, sorrows and brilliance. A stunning performance!
The Hummel F minor Sonata is also rarely encountered in the concert hall, though it has gotten some attention on records. It begins with a dark theme of Romantic leanings, even bringing to mind Schumann and Chopin. But it turns to a more Classical manner when the tempo quickens, and throughout the first movement one notices this mixture of styles. The development section is quite stormy and the whole movement is very serious, at times grim. The second movement Adagio is weighty and again shows Hummel quite advanced stylistically for a work dating to around 1807. The Presto finale turns back to the Classical era, even using fragmentary material from the finale of the Mozart Jupiter Symphony.
The Dussek F-sharp minor Sonata is the most progressive of the works here in its expressive language. The first movement Introduction, marked Lento patetico, heralds some of the darker music of Liszt even. Dark indeed, as its dedication reads: “Harmonic Elegy on the Death of His Royal Highness Prince Louis-Ferdinand of Prussia.” In fact the whole work exudes a mournful character. The Tempo agitato music that follows the Introduction is brimming with angst and a pensive sort of sorrow. Angst also drives the second and final movement (Tempo vivace e con fuoco quasi presto). As its marking suggests, it is very fiery and driven. Overall, this must be regarded as a quite profound and rather original sonata, one that, as Bavouzet suggests in comments in the album notes, clearly has strong Romantic leanings well before the movement had begun.
In the Hummel and Dussek sonatas, Bavouzet is convincing in every way, again exhibiting the same virtues as in the preceding works. His dynamics, accenting and tempos always seem to fit, and he never sounds wayward or eccentric. He always infuses the music with spirit too, and in both cases he effectively unearths the music's forward-looking character, its auguring of the coming Romantic era.
The Chandos sound reproduction is vivid and well balanced, in the end yielding one of the finest sounding piano recordings I've heard in recent years. This recording is a winner, and thus if the repertoire appeals, you won't be disappointed by this fine CD.
– MusicWeb International (Robert Cummings)
Bavouzet’s keen intelligence and pristine musicianship are evident throughout, not least in his vivid delineation of the individual characters of these four composer-pianists. In Hummel’s overtly virtuoso Op 20 Sonata from 1807, Bavouzet’s focus is on its extraordinary pathos and startlingly original formal procedures. In the Andante cantabile, Bavouzet gives full vent to Wölfl’s unabashedly operatically inspired writing.
– Gramophone (Editor's Choice, July 2020)