Ground-Breaking Dussek in Egarr Performance

Beethoven, Dussek, Schubert: Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Richard Egarr (conductor/piano), Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 17.1.2013 (SRT)

Beethoven: Overture, The Creatures of Prometheus
Dussek: Piano Concerto in G minor
Schubert: Symphony No. 6

An evening with Richard Egarr is always a treat. The SCO have made him their Associate Artist as an indication of the closeness of his relationship with them, and he has a wonderful way of bringing out the best in a piece of music you think you know well. In The Creatures of Prometheus, for example, the opening thwack raised the temperature from the off, leading into an introduction pregnant with expectation, but still with a hint of threat from the brass and timpani, before the onset of a high-octane allegro whose scampering character was tempered by a tendency to legato in the violins. Likewise, Egarr conducted Schubert’s “Little” C major Symphony with energy but also a careful grading of the sound so that Schubert’s humour was allowed to breathe naturally, something underscored further by the clean, precise playing of the orchestra, particularly the winds.

But the most interesting part of the evening came with the Dussek Concerto. This Bohemian-born composer was a contemporary of Mozart, but that’s hard to believe when you place this piano concerto side-by-side with his. Svend Brown’s programme note makes the point that Dussek doesn’t really fit into our linear perception of the piano concerto’s history. Beethoven’s C minor Piano Concerto is said to have picked up the baton from Mozart and Haydn and developed the genre into a more ruggedly expressive form. Based on the evidence of tonight, however, Dussek was already doing this before Beethoven got there.

This G minor concerto is muscular, dramatic and craggy. The piano writing is powerfully wrought, but the orchestration is particularly remarkable for 1801, with even some Brahmsian touches to the string writing. The intense opening is balanced by a perky second subject, and all three movements have an element of surprise in their endings. A beautiful bed of string tone underpins an Adagio which is alternately light-hearted and intense, and the finale is a serious but high-spirited Rondo with a Bohemian lilt that is not a million miles away from the folk-melodies of Dvořák.

This evening definitely left me wanting to explore more from this composer, and it’s remarkably to think that he was writing at the same time as Haydn! Egarr and the orchestra were clearly revelling in the thrill of sharing a new discovery, and Egarr’s trademark improvisatory touches were evident in the way he introduced each movement and busked along to the tutti passages. Dussek is definitely a worthwhile discovery.

Simon Thompson