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Music review: Dussek’s Mass in G

15 November 2019

This composer’s ‘lost’ Mass is ambitious, says Roderic Dunnett


THE name Dussek (in its alternative forms) is not one familiar even to some lovers of Classical music. Yet Jan Ladislav Dussek, born in Bohemia to a distinguished musical family in 1760, was one of the most significant musical figures spanning the late 18th and early 19th centuries. His recently disinterred Mass in G, performed at the Barbican Hall in a memorable period-instrument performance by the Academy of Ancient Music under Richard Egarr, gave some indication why.

Dussek began his illustrious career, which spanned the late Classical and early Romantic periods, as a pupil of C. P. E. Bach in Hamburg (1782). He soon became famed as a superb soloist and concert pianist, acclaimed first in the Netherlands. During a subsequent decade or so in London, having fled the Revolution in Paris, he also appeared with, and was highly rated by, Haydn.

But he shone as a composer, too: 34 piano sonatas, 13 piano concertos, numerous works for piano trio or quartet, as well as violin sonatas galore and some 16 flute sonatas, flowed from his pen; much won high fame in his day. And there is a worthy Mass in C.

Egarr has explored much of this composer’s music, and it is to him that we owe the rediscovery (in Florence) of a Mass in G. This seems to have been its second performance of which we know since the early 19th century (it is being recorded).

It has been suggested that Dussek’s music borrows or derives from the styles of a multitude of others. In fact, the period embraced a host of common practices. Like Clementi, he composed initially, and very successfully, in the manner of his day. When playing, “his fingers were like a company of ten singers,” one contemporary wrote. He turned the piano sideways on to the audience (instead of facing the conductor from behind, as was the custom).

One of the first composer-pianists to tour widely, he earned the patron­age of rulers across Europe. One of his most intimate relationships was with Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia, a promising composer, to whom he acted as mentor. The Prince, however, died fighting pour la patrie (as Dussek wrote), aged 33: Dussek’s moving Harmonic Elegy in F sharp minor, op. 61, and La Consolation, op. 62, were written in memory of his royal friend. Ironically, he, then, for his last five years, entered the service of Talleyrand, one of Napoleon’s adherents.

One of Dussek’s habits was gener­ating exciting, unexpected dynamic contrasts and almost jarring key changes. This is a salient feature of this Mass, vividly brought out in the performance. The Credo is not omitted in this setting. Although a couple of sections felt rather less inspired, there was much else of excellence: indeed, the Mass’s grand scale — the vastly extended and thrilling Kyries, for instance — has been likened to that of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis.

It was commissioned by Haydn’s patron, Prince Esterhazy (in honour of his wife Marie Elizabeth’s name day, a common practice). If the work, at nearly an hour, had its longueurs (perhaps chiefly in the extended “Dona nobis pacem”, although it balances in length the opening Kyries), the orchestral detail stood out: Dussek’s use of the violas, given prominence; the disposition of solo woodwind (notably oboe), and vivid hunting horns — evincing some unexpected rustic dancing passages that patently record the composer’s Bohemian roots. One tympani solo featured, prominently.

There are several moments when Mozart comes to mind, notably in an exquisite soprano solo (Stefanie True) in the Credo. But easily the most outstanding soloist, both in perfect timing and a thrilling delivery, was the tenor Gwilym Bowen. His stance, delivery, and fabulous dramatic sense brought his every aria (there are several) to life. He is a performer already in wide demand.

Beethoven’s 250th anniversary falls in 2020. Egarr got in early with a fascinating idea: a performance, with onstage speaker (Stephen Fry, a mite too subdued, but admirably disciplined and self-effacing) of Beethoven’s music for Egmont, composed at exactly the same time as Dussek’s Mass.

Egmont, like Schubert’s Rosamunde, does not consist only of the often played Overture (and final Siegesymphonie), but also of a series of scenes (text by Grillparzer, after Goethe’s 1787-88 play) that depict the ill-fated fortunes of the Dutch resistance fighter Lamoral, Count of Egmont (1522-68).

The special feature of this work was its obvious anticipation of not only the “Ode to Joy” of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, but of the spirit of defiance and the fight for freedom of Florestan and Leonora in Fidelio, reflecting Beethoven’s growing fury at the domineering of Napoleon. The Academy’s strings displayed the perfection that makes them a leader among authentic early-music consorts.

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