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GP671 - VOŘÍŠEK, J.H.: Piano Works (Complete), Vol. 2 - Theme and Variations / 2 Rondos / Le Desir / Le Plaisir / Impromptus (Urban)
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Jan Hugo Voříšek (1791–1825)
Complete Works for Piano • 2


Jan Václav (Hugo) Voříšek (1791–1825), who had early shown a gift for playing the piano, began the study of law in Prague, but left that field when music took over his life. He took piano lessons with the esteemed Czech pianist and composer, Václav Jan Tomášek (1774–1850), who noted next to his name in his list of pupils that he was a “great talent,” and gave him free lessons. In 1813, Voříšek moved, as had so many Bohemians before him, to Vienna, where he took piano lessons with Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778–1837), whose students he then took over when Hummel left Vienna for Stuttgart. Voříšek achieved some reknown as a virtuoso pianist, finished his studies of law at the university, and got a job in the bureaucratic machinery and another as an organist. At one point, too, he was the piano teacher of François Charles, Napoléon’s son, then in exile in Vienna. He met Beethoven, who thought highly of his compositions, and became a friend of Schubert. Indeed, much of the trajectory of his compositional life can be traced in his friendships with these four composers.

Voříšek’s compositional career, like his life, was short, most of it coming in his last six years. If we can see some of his first piano compositions, a set of German Dances, a funeral piece, and some of the Rhapsodies, Op 1, all from 1813, as taking their cue from his teacher, Tomášek, it seems clear that his time in Vienna let him further develop the incipient Romanticism in his work. These are pieces that clearly look forward to and are part of, the new Romantic surge.

The earliest pieces here are the Stammbuchblatt and the Impromptu in B flat, both from 1817. A Stammbuch is an album or notebook, and its pages may contain diverse small annotations. Such is the piece here. It has a simple and clear form, and doesn’t pretend to be more than it actually is. The Impromptu, however, is of sturdier stuff. It is a more serious working out of some of the figurative and thematic implications of the Stammbuchblatt. It may also represent Voříšek’s first use of a term just then showing up in music publishers’ catalogues.

The pair of tone-paintings, Le désir, Op 3, and Le plaisir, Op 4, come from 1819 and are clearly intended, on the one hand, to call up images of the galant French court of the time of Rameau, and, on the other, to characterize specific emotions. What is interesting here is how Voříšek, though drawing on the older notion of character piece, seems both to share some of the harmonic ideas also being used by Schubert and to suggest, as well, something to come later in Schumann. Le désir is filled with grand, surging, moments, while Le plaisir begins with a dance, perhaps of a wish fulfilled, from which emerges a more thoughtful section, based on an 1817 chorus by Voříšek, Gott im Frühling, before a return to the opening material and shape, giving the rounded ABA form he commonly used.

In 1824, Voříšek contributed a variation on Diabelli’s famous waltz (No 50), but in 1822, he had already published six Variations, Op 19, on a less-simplistic theme than that later one. Some have seen its less-demanding technical requirements as consideration of the skill of its dedicatee, Rosalie Haupt, but it is still impressive in what it requires.

Like the two tone-paintings, the Rondos in C and G (also called Rondeaux mignons), Op 18, from 1824, look both backward to Tomášek and forward to Schubert, but there is a lot of Beethoven there, too, especially in the first one, in C.

The Eclogue in C, also from 1824, picks up an idea and its title from Tomášek, who had written a series of pieces with this title. An eclogue suggests something pastoral, and that fits both Tomášek’s pieces and this one by Voříšek. Indeed, Voříšek may even have intended it to be the start of a new series of his own eclogues.

As did Beethoven, Hummel, and Schubert, Tomášek also contributed a variation to Diabelli’s collection, and is sometimes seen as the precursor of the impromptu. The Impromptu in F, from the same year as the Eclogue and the Rondos, is a heftier piece than the earlier one from 1817. It is less flashy, but its pastoral first theme is gracious in its shape. If we can see its ABA form as keeping a foot in earlier practice, its minor key B section clearly proposes new sounds to his listeners.

In an age in which we prefer to see history as a succession of periods, even dates, to which we can affix names—Baroque, Classical, Romantic—we have a hard time getting that physical and intellectual feel of any art of earlier time as it appeared to people then in terms of Now, as something Contemporary. At the same time, it is impossible for us to clear our ears of all that we have ever heard: what is New takes its place in our experience on a sound-palette filled with other sounds we have already accommodated in our aural memory. Part of the problem is that we become so attached, if often with good reason, to certain earlier names in the history of any art that we tend to allow them and their art to define the boundaries of their time. We speak of the Age of Beethoven, for instance, instead of the Age of, say, Hummel, or Dittersdorf, or Salieri, who are in some ways the more typical of the period, quite apart from which Beethoven stands. Then, too, tastes and perceptions change: Bach is the classic example. Equally problematic, however, are those who walk, as we see it from our perspective, in more than one comfortably-bounded period.

The boxes we have built and labelled to contain the art we use are convenient, but they are inadequate as a way of saying much that is useful about that art. In this recording, we can hear something of the fairly-rapid development of Voříšek’s style. If we say he “straddles” the movement from the Classical to the Romantic, we say nothing more than that he was of his time. His Now was also that of Beethoven, Hummel, Schubert, and, even, Tomášek, all of whom died after him. But it is useful, too, to remember that the physical context was important for him and his contemporaries. Vienna from, say, 1780 to 1830 was feverishly alive with music and musicians of all kinds and from all places, and that confluence offered opportunities for all of them to hear, interact, and react to the newest musical propositions. In this way, then, we can see Voříšek and his music as taking full part in what was New and about to be called “Romantic,” while still keeping audible its roots in a time we now call “Classical.”

Alan Swanson

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