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CD Review

Johann Nepomuk Hummel

Works for Solo Keyboard

  • Piano Sonata #2 in E Flat Major, Op. 13 [25:52]
  • Piano Sonata #3 in F minor, Op. 20 [20:04]
  • Variations in F Major on a Theme by Gluck, Op. 57 [10:41]
  • Bagatelle "La Contemplazione", Op. 107 #3 [8:22]
  • Polonaise in B Flat Major "La Bella capricciosa", Op. 55 [14:00]
Christoph Hammer, fortepianos
Oehms OC360 79:35 Recorded May 2003 - Released April 2005
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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 #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/MD&G (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.

Copyright © 2006, Don Satz