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Hyperion Records

CDA67655 - Hiller: Piano Concertos
CDA67655

Recording details: May 2007
Government House, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia
Produced by Ben Connellan
Engineered by Ben Connellan
Release date: April 2008
Total duration: 75 minutes 49 seconds

'[Second Concerto in F sharp minor] is one of the gems of the genre, the first to be written in that key and with many surprising features such as the soloist kicking off proceedings fiercely and without any introduction … No 1 is a brilliant display vehicle … in No 3, presumed lost until recently, Hiller again strives to be innovative in terms of structure and handling of material … once more, one has to take off one's hat to Howard Shelley for leading such exuberant performances while simultaneously tackling demanding keyboard writing with amazing agility, innate elegance and complete stylistic empathy' (Gramophone)

'One of the more successful of Hyperion's prodigal disinterments of Romantic Piano Concertos. We have learnt from Howard Shelley's previous contributions to the series to expect brilliant and stylish playing, and he does not disappoint here. He also give full value to the lyrical elements' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Ferdinand Hiller is yet another of those gifted, yet unaccountably quite forgotten romantic composers only now coming to light … here is another splendid entry in Hyperion's seemingly inexhaustible 'Romantic Piano Concerto' survey' (American Record Guide)

'These dextrous and remarkably self-confident concertos … are studded with delights … as a pianist, Hiller was known for his delicate touch—and Shelley reflects that characteristic in the breathtaking finesse of his playing. At the same time, there's plenty of bravura here, too, which Shelley handles with enviable technical panache … all in all, another triumph in this ear-opening series' (International Record Review)

'It is clear that soloist/conductor and ensemble share a close musical relationship, with often-thrilling interplay occurring in the inordinate amount of back-and-forth between piano and orchestra in these works. Plenty of this is on display in the Third Concerto, a particularly fine work that balances devilishly demanding pianistic pyrotechnics with the prevailing significance of expression as specified by the composer … Shelley's virtuosity and musicianship glisten in the opening movement, with its haunting development section … Shelley and his TSO ensure that the F sharp minor Second Concerto is every bit as successful, from its attention-wresting opening gambit, to the marvellously angular piano melody at about 2:08 in the Andante espressivo, to the uplifting appearance of the second subject in the major at the end of the concerto. Even the early, bravura F minor concerto is full of deft wit and charm, its finale a magnificent and forward-looking crossbreed of waltzes by Chopin and Johann Strauss that allows Shelley to exploit his magnificent pianism to the full … an enchanting disc' (Musical Criticism.com)

The Romantic Piano Concerto
Piano Concertos
Allegro moderato  [10'20]
Adagio  [5'52]
Allegro con anima  [12'35]

The Romantic Piano Concerto series continues to bring undiscovered works to the listening public, performed by the greatest piano virtuosos of today. The composer Hiller was admired by Schumann, who described him as the exemplar of ‘how to combine orchestra and piano in brilliant fashion’. One of the most imposing musical personalities of the nineteenth century, close friends with the likes of Rossini, Liszt, Berlioz and particularly Mendelssohn, Hiller was nevertheless largely forgotten less than twenty years after his death as musical fashion changed. The Second Concerto is a genuine forgotten masterpiece, and Hyperion has been looking for the right opportunity to record it for many years. The First and Third concertos are both first recordings, and indeed the Third was never published. A combination of the appealing and the unknown makes this a classic RPC disc. Howard Shelley is a veteran of the Romantic Piano Concerto series. He conducts the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra here from the piano.


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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Anyone who is accorded such recognition, who could claim close friendships with the likes of Mendelssohn, Cherubini, Rossini, Berlioz, Liszt and Meyerbeer, cannot have been a normal human being or an insignificant composer. And yet it cannot be denied that Ferdinand Hiller, less than twenty years after his death, has been largely forgotten—he, who possessed so many talents, a single one of which would, surely, have sufficed to guarantee him lasting fame’ (Carl Reinecke, Gedenkblätter an berühmte Musiker, 1900).

Indeed, Ferdinand Hiller possessed talent in abundance. He began his career as a musical prodigy and later became a celebrated piano virtuoso, successful composer, conductor, writer on music and impresario. With his social skills, his artistic versatility and organizational flair, he can be compared with Felix Mendelssohn as one of the most imposing musical personalities of the nineteenth century.

Born on 24 October 1811 in Frankfurt am Main, the son of the prosperous Jewish businessman Justus Hiller and his wife Regine (née Sichel), Ferdinand Hiller grew up in a time of cultural change, during which his home town attracted numerous artists, writers and musicians. His parents were quick to encourage his musical talent. He received violin, harmony and counterpoint lessons, and made his successful concert debut at the age of ten. In 1825 he moved to Weimar where he continued his musical education with Mozart’s pupil Johann Nepomuk Hummel, then considered to be one of Europe’s greatest composers and pianists. The next milestone in Ferdinand Hiller’s career was the period he spent in Paris from October 1828. Letters of recommendation gained him entry into the great salons, where he quickly got to know musicians and writers. He became Cherubini’s protégé, met Meyerbeer, Rossini, Kalkbrenner and Berlioz, and enjoyed a close friendship with Liszt and Chopin. Financially independent, he was able to devote himself exclusively to music—composing, teaching and giving concerts.

At the end of April 1836 Hiller returned to Frankfurt, and for a year assumed the Directorship of the Cäcilienverein; the next five years were spent abroad, mostly in Italy. After the failure of his opera Romilde in Milan he enjoyed success in Leipzig with his oratorio The Destruction of Jerusalem Op 24. It was also in Leipzig that Hiller, as Mendelssohn’s deputy, conducted the 1843 Gewandhaus concerts, and in the following year he and his young wife settled in Dresden. His plan, as conductor, to create a series of subscription concerts failed in the same way as his two operas Traum in der Christnacht (1845) and Konradin (1847).

In 1847 Hiller accepted the post of Kapellmeister in Düsseldorf, where in the years to come he would play an active role in the city’s politics. In 1850 he was appointed as Kapellmeister in Cologne, which from then on became the centre of his artistic activity. He founded an orchestra which, under his influence, acquired a considerable reputation. He also worked tirelessly for the Lower Rhine Music Festival, and as Director continued to increase the renown of the Cologne Conservatoire. His numerous articles concentrate mostly on musical life and personalities. As a pianist he gave concerts throughout Europe. In the winter of 1852 Hiller went to Paris as chief conductor at the Italian Opera, but in the second half of his musical life he remained loyal to Cologne, where he died on 11 May 1885.

Ferdinand Hiller’s artistic legacy, which even today has not been thoroughly researched, was one of the most extensive and comprehensive of the era. Apart from his numerous writings, he left behind a musical output of more than two hundred works. Hiller regarded himself principally as a composer, and his most celebrated pupils include Max Bruch, Friedrich Gernsheim and Engelbert Humperdinck. As a staunch conservative in musical matters, he regarded the New German School increasingly critically. He deliberately pitted his own works against such modern developments. Praised in his youth as a most promising composer, he found it increasingly difficult to make his mark. He was always highly praised, however, as a pianist of perfect technique. He played his own compositions with success, but was also considered to be an excellent and authoritative interpreter of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. A substantial portion of Hiller’s output was for the piano, and of all the works for solo piano it was his Rhythmical Studies Op 52 and his Ghazèles Op 54 that, because of their innovatory elements, aroused the greatest interest. He also composed chamber music with piano, and several works for piano and orchestra, which Hiller, like many composer-pianists, wrote to be included in his own repertoire. The three piano concertos (Opp 5, 69 and 170) and his Konzertstück, Op 113, were composed at various times throughout his career.

The Piano Concerto No 1 in F minor Op 5 was composed during Hiller’s Paris period between 1829 and 1831, and it is dedicated to the piano virtuoso Ignaz Moscheles. Although the concerto, with its exceptionally brilliant solo part, was designed to give Hiller the opportunity to display his virtuosity, the ambitious composer also took great care to write a highly musical piece. The work was first performed at the Paris Conservatoire on 4 December 1831 at a concert in which his Symphony No 2 in A minor and a Faust Overture were also performed.

In the Allegro moderato, the orchestra announces the strikingly rhythmic first subject. After a lyrical second subject the piano enters with a dramatic fortissimo. The first subject leads to another pianistically conceived theme, which, with its ornamentations, resembles Chopin. Hiller’s first attempt at writing a concerto, his first essay in composing for a large orchestra, introduces us to his characteristic use of a twofold exposition, whereby he displays his ability to handle appropriately the two different sound worlds of the piano and orchestra. Before the piano introduces the second subject, there is an extended virtuosic passage in which the pianist can display his technical abilities. With the return of the first subject comes a transitional section, played mostly by the orchestra, which dispenses for the most part with any thematic development. The piano eventually introduces the reprise, which takes up the second subject. As in the coda, the piano part is dominated by ornamentation.

In the Adagio the orchestra introduces the piano, which enters ad libitum and almost fantasy-like. A dialogue between piano and orchestra leads to a more lyrical, dance-like section, before a poco agitato rhythmical accompaniment provides contrast. Material from the first two sections closes the movement.

The rondo finale, Allegro moderato e con grazia, with its loose structure, resembles an extended sonata rondo. The piano enters alone with the brilliant opening theme (dolce); the lyrical second subject is also introduced by the piano in writing that is markedly pianistic in style. This is followed by a sort of transitional section, and also a repeat of the second subject in the tonic. There is opportunity for the pianist to display his virtuosity in no fewer than five sections.

The Piano Concerto No 2 in F sharp minor Op 69 is considered to be Hiller’s most successful contribution to the genre. The work, which is dedicated to Wilhelmin Szarvady, was composed around the time Hiller moved from Frankfurt to Leipzig in the autumn of 1843. Despite the lack of rehearsal time, the premiere in the Gewandhaus on 26 October 1843 was a success. In this concerto Hiller clearly moved away from the Parisian virtuoso style: compared to his earlier concerto Op 5 this work finds a different solution to the ‘concerto problem’. All three movements are, in their form and development, conceived in a much more multi-layered manner, with piano and orchestra dovetailing more frequently.

The first movement, Moderato, ma con energia e con fuoco, begins unconventionally. Instead of an orchestral exposition, the piano opens the movement and announces the energetic first subject. After a lyrical second subject, an unaccompanied passage for piano merges into the orchestral exposition. After the first subject, a second march-like theme is introduced, with the piano adding its own lyrical and ornamented theme. A fortissimo chord, played by the piano and strings, marks the beginning of a short development section. There is then a reprise of the first subject which, after a few bars, merges into a cadenza for the piano soloist. The thematic material is suffused with embellishments. A final orchestral tutti brings about a synthesis of the first theme and the second orchestral theme. The piano, playing quasi fantasia and ad libitum, leads directly into the slow movement.

The protagonist in the Andante espressivo is clearly the soloist. In a chord-dominated movement the piano announces several lyrical motifs with frequently modulating harmonies. After a return to the first subject there is a highly embellished recitative-like passage in which the soloist plays several bars above string tremolandos and chords played by the wind section. The first subject returns in the orchestra, after which the piano brings the movement to an end with three unaccompanied pianissimo chords.

Viewed formally the finale, Allegro con fuoco, is a combination of sonata structure and development. The orchestra begins the movement, after which the soloist announces the first subject with a distinctive octave leap. The lyrical second subject is also introduced by the piano, accompanied by low-lying pizzicato strings. From now on the themes, or snatches of themes, alternate in various keys, interrupted by pianistic flourishes.

Hiller completed the score of his Piano Concerto No 3 in A flat major ‘Concerto espressivo’ Op 170 on 24 October 1874, and then wrote out the orchestral parts. The sixty-three-year-old performed his new concerto, after some delay, on 2 March 1875 in Cologne at one of the Gürzenich concerts. It was well received. The very title draws attention to the concept and character of this work, Hiller’s last piano concerto. Detailed markings vouch for the importance of ‘expression’, which is in no way restricted to the piano part.

The first movement, Allegro con anima, exhibits orthodox sonata form, even if individual parts of the structure seem considerably elongated. The exposition of the themes is divided between the orchestra and soloist. The orchestra introduces the first lyrical (dolce) theme, the piano the second theme with its simple cantabile melody (molto espressivo). Both orchestra and soloist are equally involved in the movement which, for a concerto, involves unusually dense treatment of motifs and themes.

The Andante quasi adagio also manifests a marked dovetailing between piano and orchestra. The structure, with its numerous changes of key and rhythm, as well as of tempo, is formally complex. It is noticeable that the themes are no longer developed in a strict order, and vary in their form. A remarkable feature of the movement are the unaccompanied arabesques woven by the piano.

The final, loosely structured Allegro con spirito begins with an orchestral introduction. The movement is twice interrupted by a fermata, after which the piano enters and, unaccompanied, announces the Ländler-like, free-ranging first subject (dolce, con grazia). Like the lyrical second subject (dolce), introduced by the orchestra, it is divided between soloist and orchestra. Further motifs are introduced principally by the piano, which, because of its part in the musical development, has little room for exuberant virtuoso flourishes.

Since the Piano Concerto No 3 was published neither as an orchestral piece nor as a version for piano alone, it was not widely performed and was, after the first few performances, scarcely heard. It was presumed lost as late as the 1920s. An autograph score and a set of orchestral parts do exist, however, in the University Library of Johann Christian Senckenberg in Frankfurt am Main.

All three of Ferdinand Hiller’s piano concertos are fine and demanding examples of the genre. As an ambitious composer with a thorough classical training, he never allowed these works to sink to a trivial or superficial level. Although Op 5 boasts a very brilliant piano part, it is far from being mere ‘soulless, empty virtuosity’ (Friedrich Wieck, Clavier und Gesang, 1853). When critics reviewed this early concerto in 1839, they found—even in a work written for Hiller’s own sparkling repertoire during his Parisian period—that there was more thought than virtuosity. All three works endorse Hiller’s views of ‘a most dignified striving’ for ‘pure taste’ (Hiller, Aus dem Tonleben unserer Zeit) that he thought he could detect in musical life. Even if an increasingly conservative tendency can be observed in the composition of his concertos, it cannot be denied that all three works manifest—with regard to form, structure, instrumentation and treatment of the solo instrument—an original and ambitious solution to the ‘concerto problem’. Hiller was perhaps never the genius that Robert Schumann described in his Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, in which he describes Hiller as being able to show us ‘how to combine orchestra and piano in brilliant fashion’, so that both soloist and orchestra might both fulfil their great and multifarious potential to the best of their abilities. Nonetheless, there can be no doubt that his works for piano and orchestra represent a musically remarkable and valuable contribution to the genre in the nineteenth century.

Eva Hanke © 2008
English: Roland Smithers


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