Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837) has never been entirely forgotten in the 150 years since his death, but he is not likely ever again to enjoy the acclaim showered on him during his life. He was a child prodigy, the most distinguished of Mozart's students, and in his twenties he became Haydn's successor as music director at Esterhaza.
Eventually, Hummel was recognized as the greatest pianist and one of the leading composers of his time. By the 1830s his style as a performer and composer was considered rather old-fashioned -- but that kind of complaint seems less important in the 1980s.
In this anniversary year, Hummel is getting a little more attention than usual, and this is as much a service to music-lovers as to him.
His music sounds most like that of the young Beethoven, poised between the classicism of the 18th century and the emerging romantic style. It is virtuoso music that demands first-class technique, but it is never flashy. Displays of technique are contained within frameworks of great formal clarity, and emotional expressiveness, which can be quite deep, has a priority over empty pyrotechnics.
Listening to Hummel's piano sonatas, knowing that he wrote them primarily for performance by himself, and envisioning the pianist implied in the contours of this music, it is easy to see why Schubert dedicated his last three piano sonatas to Hummel. And it is hard to imagine any finer compliment for a pianist.
Hummel's six piano sonatas range in date from 1792 to 1824. The later ones are somewhat more adventurous in style and vivid in emotional expression, but all are finely wrought works. They are brilliantly performed by pianist Ian Hobson on three Arabesque discs (Z6564, 6565 and 6566), and they will give deep enjoyment to anyone who loves the piano in its pre-Liszt manifestations.
The two minor-key piano concertos (in A minor and B minor, dating from 1816 and 1819) inevitably involve Hummel in comparisons with Mozart -- a kind of confrontation that might be impossible for any composer but Beethoven to survive. But if he does not quite equal Mozart in this genre, it is amazing how close Hummel comes. Anyone who enjoys Mozart's late piano concertos (which almost means anyone who loves music) should rejoice in the Hummel concertos.
These two graceful, expressive and wonderfully well-formed works make their own case eloquently on a Chandos CD (CHAN 8507) in performances by pianist Stephen Hough, with Bryden Thomson conducting the English Chamber Orchestra. By inspiring performances as compelling as Hobson's and Hough's, this anniversary year may lead to a major -- and long overdue -- rehabilitation of Hummel's reputation.
Hobson is also featured in a new CD recording of the most memorable piano music of Richard Strauss: the bright, energetic and fairly familiar Burleske for piano and orchestra, Op. 11; the interesting but less familiar Parergon to the Sinfonia Domestica, Op. 73 and the very unfamiliar but charming Stimmungsbilder ("Mood Paintings") Op. 9 for solo piano (Arabesque Z6567).
Strauss began his musical career as a pianist, but his later achievements as a virtuoso conductor and a composer of operas and elaborate tone poems have rather eclipsed memories of those origins. It is good to have this well-played and superbly recorded reminder of how he began. The Stimmungsbilder are short pieces somewhat reminiscent of Schumann's piano miniatures. In a small way, they show the composer's skill at musical description or evocation, which became legendary in later and larger works. And they have an instant appeal in Hobson's meticulous performance.
In the two pieces for piano and orchestra, Hobson is joined by the Philharmonia Orchestra, Norman del Mar conducting, and the performances are dazzling. The Burleske is a showpiece in ripe late-romantic style, and the performers take full advantage of the opportunities it offers.
The Parergon, which uses only the pianist's left hand, was composed for pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm in World War I. It is a moody piece, inspired by the illness of the composer's eldest son, Franz, and ending with exultation at his cure. It keeps the pianist creatively busy, making few audible concessions to the original performer's handicap and integrating the piano's sound deftly into the orchestral texture. It will probably never achieve mass popularity, even on the level of the Burleske, but its attractions are eloquently presented in this performance.