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Hyperion Records

CDA67390 - Hummel: Piano Sonatas
Felsentor (1818) by Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781-1841)
National Gallery, Berlin / AKG-Images, London
Recording details: January 2003
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: October 2003
Total duration: 68 minutes 53 seconds


'I doubt whether anyone today could play these sonatas better than Stephen Hough, who spins an exquisitely limpid cantabile, has an instinctive understanding of the rubato crucial to this style, and keeps the textures marvellously lucid … If you want to explore these brilliant, intriguingly diverse sonatas, this fabulous disc is the one to go for' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Stephen Hough turns his attention to the three most compelling of Hummel’s five mature solo piano sonatas. The F sharp minor, Op 81, and D major, Op 106, from 1819 and 1824, are large-scale works, revelling in an early-Romantic virtuosity that was to attract both Chopin and Liszt. The four-movement Op 106 is a huge creation of dramatic rhetorical gestures, while the much earlier F minor sonata, Op 20 (1807), gives a taste of the youthful Hummel’s exuberantly Haydnesque style. Hough proves a dazzling advocate for all three works.' (The Sunday Times)

'I have no hesitation in according this CD the highest marks' (Fanfare, USA)

'…no composer could ask for a better champion. His playing is fierce, sharply etched and eloquent throughout, with an emphasis on the formal balances that set this music teetering on the edge betwen Mozartean symmetry and the fiery impulsiveness of the Romantics' (San Francisco Chronicle)

'No matter how difficult the music, Stephen Hough's effortless technique and eloquent, characterful musicality make everything sound easy' (

Piano Sonatas
Allegro  [8'21]
Allegro vivace  [6'11]
Allegro moderato  [8'03]
Adagio maestoso  [5'28]
Presto  [3'59]

Once more Hyperion is proud to champion music that has little seen the light of day in the shadow of the greats. Hummel was revered in his lifetime not only ahead of those we call the greats today but by the greats of his day, Schumann, Liszt, Chopin and Mendelssohn among them. Hummel's unjust posthumous neglect lasted until only very recently.

Never having been content with a repertoire of warhorses, Hough has throughout his career made a point of playing Hummel, whose music of such fresh imagination pre-echoes more familiar music. Chopin in particular was happy to use ideas prompted by Hummel's example. We are at the bridge between the classical and the romantic styles and Hough's instinctively virile elegance brings out the sense of adventure that is at the heart of Hummel's vibrant imagination.

A disc to explore and re-visit.

Other recommended albums
'Bowen: Piano Music' (CDA66838)
Bowen: Piano Music
'Gottschalk: Piano Music, Vol. 5' (CDA67248)
Gottschalk: Piano Music, Vol. 5
'Schubert: Piano Sonatas' (CDA67027)
Schubert: Piano Sonatas

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Rarely has a composer seemed so assured of immortality as Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778–1837), so overrated in his own time, so underrated in ours. Born in Pressburg (Bratislava) just inside the Czech border on 14 November 1778, Hummel was a child prodigy who, when he was only eight, went to live and study with Mozart in Vienna for two years. Returning to the city in 1793 he had lessons in counterpoint and composition with Salieri and Clementi, and studied organ with Haydn. By his teens Hummel was rated as one of the top pianists of the day. His concert tours took him all over Europe (including England, Scotland, Poland and Russia). Among his friends and acquaintances were Beethoven (the two later fell out), Cramer, Dussek, Moscheles, Weber, Mendelssohn, Schumann and Chopin; he himself taught Hiller, Henselt, Pauer, Pixis, Thalberg and many other virtuosos of the succeeding generation.

As a keyboard improviser Hummel was held to be the equal of Beethoven, and a significant number of their contemporaries held him to be Beethoven’s equal as a composer as well. His piano works certainly had a remarkable influence on the young Romantics: Mendelssohn, Schumann and Liszt all revered him and Chopin was captivated by his music. It is hard to escape the similarities between the openings of Hummel’s A minor (1821) and Chopin’s E minor (1830) concertos, while Hummel’s B minor concerto (1819), a work frequently played by the young Liszt, contains some remarkable anticipations of the Polish composer. Hummel’s 24 Préludes, Op 67 (1815) and 24 Etudes, Op 125 (1828), both covering all the major and minor keys, starting with C major, were surely models for Chopin’s Opus 28 Préludes (1839) and Etudes, Opp 10 and 25 (1829–34), respectively. Of even greater importance and influence was Hummel’s Ausführliche theoretisch-practische Anweisung zum Piano-Forte-Spiel (‘A Complete Theoretical and Practical Course of Instruction on the Art of Playing the Piano Forte’); published in Vienna in 1828 in three volumes, it contains over 2200 technical exercises and musical examples (most of them a few measures in length). For the remainder of the nineteenth century it was regarded as the guide on fingering, playing of trills and related ornaments.

The New Grove lists over 175 compositions by Hummel comprising stage works, church music, orchestral works, piano and orchestra works, chamber music, a host of music for solo instruments with piano, and an impressive number of piano solos. Among his most popular pieces was his celebrated Septet which Czerny reported, when it was first heard in Vienna in about 1820, ‘created such a sensation by virtue of its novelty and brilliance that men would stop each other on the streets to talk about it as they would some great national event’.

Only forty years after his death, Hummel’s standing in the Pantheon had been eroded so far that the cloth-eared Edward Dannreuther (a pupil of Moscheles and the man who introduced the Liszt, Grieg and Tchaikovsky concertos to England) could write confidently of him: ‘Endowed with curiously little inventive power, rarely warm, and quite incapable of humour and passion, but fully equipped with every musical virtue that can be acquired by steady plodding, he appears expressly cut out for the hero of respectable mediocrity.’ Sixty or so years ago, distinguished commentators on the piano’s literature remained remarkably sniffy. Here is Albert Lockwood: ‘… it is interesting to turn his musty pages once in a while. They show an inventive, fluent, sophisticated, attitudinising, and somewhat shallow mind which planned compositions on a pretentious scale’ (Notes on the Literature of the Piano, University of Michigan Press, 1940). And Ernest Hutcheson: ‘Chopin seems in his teaching to have favoured the concertos above those of Beethoven. Together with the tawdry Bella Capricciosa and the surpassingly dull Piano Septet they have passed into the limbo of forgotten things’ (The Literature of the Piano, Hutchinson & Co, 1947).

Until well into the 1950s only two works by Hummel had ever been recorded: Emmy Destinn (in 1908) and Rosette Anday (1929) singing his Hallelujah; and the Rondo favori in E flat, Op 11, committed to shellac by Benno Moiseiwitsch, Lubka Kolessa, Ignaz Friedman, Galina Werschenka and, in an arrangement for violin and piano, Jascha Heifetz with Arpad Sandor.

Now turn to the present Sonatas (and, if you haven’t already, to Mr Hough’s celebrated resurrection of Hummel’s A minor and B minor concertos recorded some years ago for another label, already considered a gramophone classic). We hear an individual voice, idiosyncratic themes, figurations, development (or rather the notable lack of interest in the device), a virtuoso’s vade mecum of contemporary styles and technical challenges, and an innate grasp of the instrument’s available sonority and potential (his early music was written for the five-octave Viennese piano, FF-f3, later expanded to six octaves, FF-e4). We may at times hear echoes of Mozart, Haydn, Clementi, Dussek and Beethoven in some, perhaps of Weber, Schubert and Field in others, and also the prescient sounds of Chopin and Schumann. But Hummel, within certain limitations, is unmistakably his own man. If his music, generally, falls short of the Olympian heights, if the Sonatas do not have the lofty aspirations and touches of genius that mark out the greatest works of this period in this form, Hummel stands head and shoulders above all but a handful of his contemporaries.

Hummel composed about twenty-five sonatas in all – four duets, twelve with other instruments, and nine for solo piano. Of these latter, five can be considered mature works. Stephen Hough’s selection of the three most interesting also allows us to chart Hummel’s development as a composer. The two earliest solo sonatas are Hummel’s Op 2 No 3, written at the age of fourteen and published in 1793 (a work that shows the youngster had fully absorbed his Mozart and Clementi), and the Sonata in E flat Op 13, his first fully mature work of its type, dedicated to Haydn and published in 1803.

The Sonata in F minor, Op 20 (1807) marks as much of an advance in appropriating an individual voice as Op 13 does from Op 2. It was written in Eisenstadt where Hummel had taken up the post of Kapellmeister to Prince Esterhazy in succession to Haydn. Though the opening bars of the first movement (Allegro moderato) might be mistaken for a passage from a Mozart piano concerto, there is little use of the Alberti bass – that mainstay of the classical sonata – and, right from the outset, a freer, more improvisatory tone than either Mozart or Haydn conceded; the patterns are irregular, there are abrupt tempo changes (a bar of Adagio before a new Allegro agitato early in the exposition) and a rather self-conscious polyphony. Though this is the least difficult sonata to play from a technical point of view, Hummel introduces many passages of great brilliance, already looking forward to the formidable challenges of the concertos. A contemporary review in the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung commented unfavourably on the length of the slow middle movement (Adagio maestoso) and found little in the sonata that might justify the effort to master its difficulties (the reviewer even suggested that the score might be an arrangement rather than original keyboard music). There is certainly plenty to keep nimble fingers occupied in the Presto finale with its whirling triplets and Scarlattian left-hand crossed-hand leaps. Ancor più presto, urges Hummel, for the sonata’s closing pages in the major tonic.

Of all Hummel’s keyboard sonatas, the Sonata in F sharp minor, Op 81 (1819) is the most adventurous, the one that turns its back resolutely on the Classical era and hoists its colours to the new expressiveness of Romanticism. On this occasion, the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung reviewer found the work ‘meaningful, noble, spirited, pathetic, skilful, logical, novel, and pianistically resourceful to an extent truly deserving the term “Grosse Sonate” and making it the finest, also the most difficult, among all sonatas to date’. The youthful Schumann struggled to master this ‘epic, Titanic work’, the one composition of Hummel’s that would survive, he later considered.

The first movement (Allegro) surges dramatically, pauses to reflect, rushes onwards with sparkling passagework, lingers introspectively before roaring on again – a stylistic mélange of writing that more closely resembles a fantasy than a formally structured sonata first movement (there is no exposition repeat, for example). Clementi was famous for his rapid passages in thirds (Mozart addressed his own inferiority in this respect by never writing such passages), a skill which he clearly passed on to his pupil, and Hummel’s episodes of con brio semiquaver runs in fourths and thirds must have challenged many others besides Schumann (Hummel’s B minor concerto written in the same year as this sonata, and the A minor concerto of 1821 are no less intimidating).

The slow movement (Largo con molt’espressione) opens not with a gentle sigh but an angry outburst (fortissimo), the first of a series of unexpected explosions that punctuate it. Hummel’s novel pianistic decoration during its course offers a fascinating anticipation of Chopin’s, even if its thematic material is less memorable. Jolting us abruptly from this meandering reverie comes the striking opening subject of the finale (Vivace), an impulsive folk-like dance. This, at last, is Hummel with the gloves off, the athletic writing on occasion using the entire compass of the keyboard in a single measure, making all kinds of cruel demands on the player, not least in stamina. Hummel provides two brief intervals of quiet relief (one a fugal passage in the major tonic) in an otherwise relentless drive to the thrilling conclusion.

The Sonata in D major, Op 106 (1824), like the F sharp minor Sonata, was composed in Weimar where Hummel had become Kapellmeister to the Grand Duke of Saxony in 1819, a post he held till his death. (In Weimar, Hummel was close friends with Goethe and often performed at the poet’s house. Together they were considered one of Weimar’s most popular tourist attractions – ‘without seeing Goethe and hearing Hummel play’, wrote one visitor, ‘no visit [to Weimar] was complete’.)

Hummel’s longest piano sonata (836 measures against the 601 of Op 81), and the only one to have four movements, is a retreat from Romantic fantasy and innovation. It is a conscious return to his neo-Classic style, albeit in a far more mature guise, with tighter motivic writing and a conservative harmonic language. The temperature throughout is cooler, its most memorable material found in its idiosyncratic figurations rather than its themes. After the episodic and comparatively mundane first movement (Allegro moderato, ma risoluto), the work’s happiest feature is its second movement. It is entitled Un scherzo all’antico: Allegro, ma non troppo, the first section emphasising the work’s allegiance to an earlier era, its second (marked, curiously, Alternativ) an intriguing passage with its pre-echoes of Schumann and late Beethoven. The third movement (Larghetto a capriccio, to be played cantabile ed espressivo) is in A major and sets out as a Field-like nocturne before Hummel the melodist gives way to Hummel the improviser: its last pages have the left hand’s simple triplets set against the right hand’s blocks of delicate demisemiquavers. The finale (Allegro vivace) is arguably the most tightly knit, closely worked of the four movements, its individual sections (with an emphasis on contrapuntal writing) again proving more ear-catching than its thematic content.

Jeremy Nicholas © 2003

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