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CLASSICAL  February 2006

CLASSICAL February 2006

Subject:

Hummel Solo Keyboard Music

From:

Donald Satz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Wed, 22 Feb 2006 00:38:20 +0000

Content-Type:

text/plain

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   Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837)
       Works for Solo Keyboard

Piano Sonata No. 2 in E flat major, Op. 13 [25:52]
Piano Sonata No. 3 in F minor, Op. 20 [20:04]
Variations in F major on a Theme by Gluck, Op. 57 [10:41]
Bagatelles (6) for Piano, Op. 107 no. 3 "La Contemplazione" [8:22]
Polonaise in B flat major, Op. 55 "La Bella capricciosa" [14:00]

Christoph Hammer, fortepianos
Recorded May 2003
Released April 2005
Oehms OC 360 [79:35]

Comparisons: Hobson/Arabesque, Hough/Hyperion

The discography of Johann Nepomuk Hummel's music continues to grow at
a past pace.  His solo keyboard works, chamber music, concertos, and
sacred choral music are now regular fare for many recording companies,
and Hummel certainly deserves the attention.  He may not be at the exalted
level of Mozart or Haydn, but he's an exceptional composer whose music
displays a wonderful charm and exuberance in addition to expert structural
properties.  Further, Hummel's more mature works convey an enhanced range
of emotional content and thematic development.

Concerning Hummel's solo keyboard efforts, he composed six piano sonatas
and a host of variation works, fantaisies, and other forms for solo
keyboard.  Although Hummel's concertos remind me of Mozart's music, the
piano sonatas are very much Haydnesque in nature: rhetorical declarations,
ceremonial displays, and abrupt changes in tempo and dynamics.  Each
sonata is a gem representing the initial flowering of romanticism, and
lovers of Mozart, Haydn, and early Beethoven piano sonatas will surely
be won over by Hummel's.

Now is a good time to bring up the issue of fortepiano vs.  modern piano.
We have all heard the familiar refrain that composers of the 18th and
19th centuries would have much preferred the modern piano, if it had
been available, and thrown out the fortepiano with the bath water;
therefore, playing their keyboard music on an inferior instrument is a
disservice to both the composer and listener.  There are two reasons I
can't buy into this premise.  First, those composers would not have
written the same exact music for the modern piano.  Second, the fortepiano
has an intimacy and sparkle not found on the modern piano.  I'm not
suggesting that the fortepiano is superior to its modern counterpart,
just that it offers its own unique rewards.  For the recording at hand,
Hammer plays two fortepianos: a copy of a five-octave instrument made
by Anton Walter for the sonatas, and a copy of a six-octave fortepiano
made by Joseph Brodmann for the remaining three works.

The Oehms disc turns out to be a mixed bag.  Hammer's performance of the
F minor Sonata is superb as he makes the fortepiano sing and sparkle in
delicious fashion.  The urgency and exuberance of the outer movements
are fully captured as well as the poignancy and gorgeous melodic lines
of the 2nd Movement Adagio maestoso.  Also, the all-important rhetorical
nature of the music is never slighted.  When making comparisons to the
excellent recordings from Ian Hobson and Stephen Hough, one notices that
Hammer is more spontaneous and rustic with much sharper contours and
more frequent use of staccato and changes in tempo and dynamics.

I wish I could be as enthusiastic about the E flat major performance,
but Hammer uses a heavier touch here than in the F minor, losing some
sparkle and wit.  Also, although the booklet notes clearly state that
the same instrument and venue is used for both sonatas, there is a
difference that is somewhat confusing; the mid-point of the soundstage
for the F minor is center-right, while it's center-left for the E flat
major.  Why Hammer would apply a heavier touch to the sonata in a major
key is beyond my comprehension.  Suffice it to say that the heavy
performance leaves it a distant second to Hobson's wonderfully vibrant
interpretation.

I am also not enthusiastic concerning the disc's programming.  Instead
of giving us a third Hummel sonata, Hammer offers three lesser pieces
far below "prime-time" Hummel.  The Variations in F major tends to be
a slap-happy work of little consequence and possessing only moderate
entertainment value; it also doesn't help that Hammer is overly polite
in music that needs special pleading in the form of a more daring and
exciting interpretation.  The Bagatelle no.  3 is a slow and reflective
piece very much in the manner of Haydn's rhetorical piano works, but I
have to say that the melodies are rather ordinary.  Melodic inspiration
and variety of form does improve with the Polonaise, but there's a lot
of note-spinning as well.  Yes, a third sonata would have been much
better.

Don's Conclusions: Christoph Hammer's recording is not among the more
compelling Hummel entries on the market.  I recommend passing on it and
investigating these superior Hummel recordings in addition to the solo
piano discs from Hobson and Hough:

Various Chamber Works - The Music Collection (period instruments)/Naxos
Masses - Richard Hickox (period instruments)/Chandos (3cds, oas)
Missa Solemnis and Te Deum - Grodd/Naxos
Piano Concertos - Hough/Thomson/Chandos
String Quartets - Delme String Quartet/Hyperion
Piano Trios - Trio Parnassus/MDG (2cds)

If the above list is too big for the bank account, my first two picks
would be the Hough/Concertos and Trio Parnassus recordings; Hummel doesn't
get any better than this.

Don Satz
[log in to unmask]

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