Ján Levoslav Bella (1843-1936) was a prolific Slovak composer active in the heyday of late Romanticism. Although he was barely known to the public except as a teacher and exponent of Slovakian nationalism, he had connections with many musical figures such as Liszt, Bülow, Dohnányi, and Richard Strauss. As far as I know, Marco Polo is the only label to showcase Bella's music and they have released two volumes of his chamber music (Bella: String Quartets | Bella: String Quintet in D minor; String Quartet in C minor). I have not heard these recordings, but I am most impressed with Bella's piano music, which is drenched in the sound world of Liszt.
Bella's Piano Sonata in B-flat minor dates from 1882 and is a dramatic work spanning 35 minutes in length. The first "Allegro energico" movement is tempestuous and unabashedly Sturm und Drang. Bella's two themes are powerful and memorable with exciting modulations and spectacular harmonic shifts. Bella's piano-writing is clearly Lisztian, with roaring octaves and stormy runs that pianist, Daniela Ruso, plays with panache and muscle. The second "Andante" movement is pleasantly tender but somewhat pedestrian; Bella shows greater inspiration in the expressive "Scherzo," which stems from Beethoven's and Brahms's idea of the form. Bella's flare for balancing virtuosic splashes with poetic melodies is apparent in the "Finale" movement. Some of the modulations here have the flavor of middle Beethoven, but the musical language is entirely Romantic akin to Liszt or MacDowell.
Equally successful is Bella's "Piece for Piano in C minor," an unfinished sonata in two untitled movements. Like the opening of the previous Piano Sonata, the first movement of this C minor sonata is passionate and explosive. Liszt's shadow looms large over this weighty movement full of grand gestures and virtuosic passagework. Bella is a gifted melodist and knows how to write substance in addition to pyrotechnics. But Bella is also a craftsman and is more than competent with doing interesting things in the sonata-allegro form. By contrast, the last movement is predominantly gentle and there are some gorgeous harmonic sequences that would have pleased Brahms.
The other piano works on this disc are less interesting. Bella's "Sonatina in E minor" was composed in 1870 but looks way back to Mendelssohn. There are attractive ideas and enough charm to encourage repeated hearings, but nothing too remarkable. Both of the "Variations" works on this disc are barely five minutes long and the themes are borrowed from Slovakian folk songs. Bella's variations are conservative for the time (1860s) and recall similar works by Weber. The "Variations on 'In Pressburg by the Danube'" also contains moments reminiscent of Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies. I'm not particularly enthusiastic about Bella's "Four Little Pieces," which are somewhat bland and mediocre.
Bottom line: Bella's Piano Sonata in B-flat minor is an excellent composition with exciting melodic material and riveting moments of fiery drama. The unfinished C minor sonata is similarly grandiose and potent. Daniela Ruso has recorded Mendelssohn's complete "Songs Without Words" on the Amadis label and knows how to communicate Bella's lyricism in addition to pulling off the virtuosic demands of this Lisztian piano music.