Jan Ladislav Dussek

Richard EgarrMon 7th January 2013

Making the case for a neglected master pianist

Richard Egarr is an associate artist of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and will perform Dussek’s Piano Concerto in G minor, Op 49 with the ensemble on January 17-19, 2013. Here he makes his case for the much-neglected composer:

2012 saw the 200th anniversary of the death of the great pianist-composer Jan Ladislav Dussek (1760-1812). During this year I can guarantee that he was wholly neglected by every major pianist on the planet, except by perhaps a few specialists with an interest in early piano. To my mind this is an utter crime. It is also hugely indicative of the present state of the mainstream piano world and its attitudes toward the performance and promotion of repertoire, both on the concert platform and in conservatories. Surely it must be healthy to seek out and promote artists gutsy enough to play new and excellent unknown repertoire which can illuminate and excite audiences, rather than churning out the same programmes of grindingly familiar pot-boilers played by the latest cloned mega-virtuosi.

I have been a fan of Dussek's music for years, and have done my bit to put him out there. I made two CDs of his complete output for harp and piano (using my 1804 John Broadwood piano), and have insisted that all my students (of both modern and period piano) explore his music. The reasons are simple. He is a composer of the first order.  His music is highly skilful, both compositionally and technically, and is incredibly advanced in its musical language. Born only four years after Mozart, his style is highly 'romantic' (for the want of a better word). The harmonic language and keyboard style (particularly in the works from 1790 onward) prefigure those of both Chopin and Schumann - indeed Chopin gave his students Dussek's sonatas and concertos to learn. Its emotional language is highly charged, and his scores are jam-packed with performance indications, demanding a high degree of flexibility and openness of expression.

Dussek is responsible for many hugely important developments in both piano playing and piano construction.  As I have indicated, technically and musically his piano music pushes the boundaries of style and technique. He worked closely with John Broadwood to develop and expand the massively important English concert piano in the 1790s.  He met everyone of importance and (mostly) managed to insinuate himself into their close company. He was absolutely recognised as the leading player-composer of his generation. He is even responsible for the introduction of pianists sitting in profile to an audience - not (as you would perhaps think) for acoustical reasons, but because his own profile (in his early years) was considered so beautiful that his public demanded such a presentation.  His hedonism led to gout and obesity in later life, but it is this delight in over-indulgence which is so delicious in his musical personality.

I totally recommend, urge and beg pianists to explore his solo sonatas, concertos and copious amounts of chamber music. His 30 or so solo sonatas demand just as much recognition as those of Mozart and Beethoven, and in fact represent much more the kind of music that was contemporary and cutting-edge. In my experience, his music has as great a public appeal now as it did in Dussek's time.

I am embarking on a project to perform and record the solo works, and hopefully also the chamber music and concerti.  This is music worth getting to know and indulging in. As a final thought, I leave you with this - if you delight in Nigella Lawson, you will love Dussek.

Richard Egarr

Richard Egarr is an associate artist of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and will perform Dussek’s Piano Concerto in G minor, Op 49 with the ensemble on January 17-19, 2013. He has worked with all types of keyboards, performing repertoire ranging from 15th century organ music to Berg and Maxwell Davies on modern piano, and is in demand throughout the world as a pianist, chamber musician and conductor. He has been music director of the Academy of Ancient Music since 2006. (photo: Marco Borggreve)

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