Rust: Der Clavierpoet – Keyboard Sonatas

Jermaine Sprosse fortepiano & clavichord
76:01
deutsche harmonia mundi 88985369272

This is a highly significant addition to the catalogue. Friedrich Wilhelm Rust was born into a musical family in the small Saxony-Anhalt town of Wörlitz in 1739. He undertook studies in law at Halle-Wittenberg University, at the same time deputising for W. F. Bach as church organist in return for lessons. Later he attracted the attention of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Dessau, who sent him to continue his studies firstly in Zerbst and then Berlin and Potsdam, where he was a violin pupil of Franz Benda and studied keyboard with C. P. E. Bach. In 1765-6 he travelled to Italy in the retinue of the prince, meeting Tartini, Nardini and G. B. Martini. He subsequently settled in Dessau, where he remained for the rest of his life, becoming Kapellmeister in 1775, the same year as a theatre was founded there under his auspices. He died in 1796.

Rust’s extant compositions include a substantial number of chamber works, including some 50 violin sonatas, a rather smaller body of keyboard works and both secular and sacred vocal works, including seven stage pieces. The present CD introduces three keyboard sonatas from different periods of Rust’s creative life, along with a charming set of variations on the song ‘Blühe liebes Veilchen’, a late work dating from 1794.

Judging from the three sonatas the major influences in forging Rust’s keyboard style were J. S. Bach’s two eldest sons and Franz Benda. Italy appears to have played little part, certainly in these works. The earliest of the three sonatas, in G minor, probably dates from the mid-1760s, the period during which Rust must have been heavily influenced by the north German style of Benda and C. P. E. Bach. In its at times wild spirit and lack of discipline in the opening movement it also surely betrays the eccentric hand of W. F. Bach. A thorough exploration of expressive sensitivity, the central Adagio sostenuto might have been created as a classic illustration of Empfindsamkeit. The performance, played on a copy of a Hubert clavichord of 1772 boasting a fine range of tonal colours, is outstanding. Jermaine Sprosse not only has a splendid technique that boasts nimble finger work and clean articulation, but he also responds with admirable empathy to the often-improvisatory character of Rust’s writing.

The mid-career Sonata in C (c. 1780) opens with bright confidence, but the feel of impetuosity remains. The development is full of restless modulation tempered by brief passages of poetic meditation, but some of the most remarkable music on the disc comes in the massive central movement, a quasi-rondo founded on an improvisatory, hymn-like theme. The long central episode, marked Adagio sostenuto, is extraordinary music that seems to drift off, dream-like into a world of its own, while the final movement breaks out into impulsive virtuosity. The spirit of the whole sonata is again completely captured by Sprosse’s involving performance.

The final two works, a late sonata in D dating from 1794 and the variations mentioned above, are played on a fortepiano built by J. A. Stein of Augsberg in 1792, so for once the excellent instrument is thoroughly contemporary with the music. However, this brings me to my single reservation regarding the disc, although it is an important one. Unfortunately, the engineering has cheated to allow the clavichord to be heard at the same volume as the fortepiano, which as anyone who has ever heard the small-voice of the former will know is a nonsense. The construction of the D-major Sonata is interesting. It consists of a brief Adagio con espressione founded on dark, portentous chords, before proceeding to a large-scale Haydnesque Allegro with another extraordinary development section that constantly seeks to discomfort the listener, but ends with an exquisitely tranquil coda, all passion now spent. The variations are based on a charming song of folk-like simplicity, while the succeeding twelve variations run a gamut from the bravura of variation 2 to the minor key darkness of its successor.

With the exception of the caveat noted, this is a CD I’ve found totally compelling. The highest praise is due to Jermaine Sprosse for bringing Rust out of the shadows in such sympathetic performances. I am in no doubt he is a major figure certainly in need of further investigation.

Brian Robins