Who was Josef Elsner? Outside of Poland, he’s known (if at all) as Frederick Chopin’s teacher. In Poland, he’s best known as a composer of sacred music — his masses, oratorios, and cantatas are still frequently performed. Elsner, like Antonin Dvorak, fused native folk traditions with classical forms, creating a national classical music style.

Profil’s four-CD set provides additional insight to this talented composer — both for those inside and outside Poland. These recordings have been issued before, but bringing them together makes sense.

The keyboard(s) used in all of these recordings is a fortepiano rather than a modern piano, giving additional insight into Elsner’s compositional process.

Although Elsner taught Chopin, you won’t hear pre-echoes on the younger composer here. Elsner’s musical language is more of a late Classical than early Romantic style. The Op. 10 violin sonatas are a good example. Stylistically, they resemble Beethoven’s (with a little less fire). Themes are clearly stated and worked out in a logical fashion. Harmonies are mostly triads, almost Mozartian in simplicity.

Especially surprising are the three piano sonatas. Published in 1805, they sound very much like Haydn’s later sonatas. Chopin’s first published work, the 1817 Polonaise in G minor sounds far more complex than Elsner’s efforts. But listening for what’s there — instead of what isn’t — I heard three well-written late-Classical sonatas.

Elsner’s Op. 8 string quartets, published in 1789, land somewhere between Beethoven and Haydn stylistically. I recently reviewed another recording of these works (also played with authentic instruments). I prefer the sound of the Hoffmeister Quartet on this release.

Across the board, I found the performances quite good. I couldn’t say the same for the sound of the instruments, though. Period instruments can provide added insights into the music. But sometimes they can detract from it. The violins seemed a little squeaky at times, especially when moving to the upper register. And the overtones of the fortepiano had a bit of an edge that wasn’t always pleasant.

Overall, though, these were minor distractions. Overall I enjoyed my exploration of Elsner’s chamber music. I’m now curious to hear some of his orchestral works.

Josef Elsner – Chamber Music
String Quartets; Violin Sonatas; Fortepiano Sonatas & Rondi; Fortepiano Duet; Fortepiano Trio
Trio Margaux; Hoffmeister Quartet
Profil PH19033
4 CD Set