Movement 1: Allegro con spirito
Movement 2: Menuetto o Scherzo: Allegro
Movement 3: Andante con variazioni
Movement 4: Finale: Vivace
The piece was a runaway success, and played no small part in establishing Hummel as a household name. John Ella (1802–1888), music critic and founder of the Musical Union concerts, described the piece as ‘preserving its stability and duration throughout Europe for more than a century – not suspended on the thread of slender fashion and caprice, but bound to the human heart by every tie of sympathetic approbation’. The Opus 74 Septet is scored for piano, flute, oboe, horn, viola, cello, and double bass. Hummel also later arranged it for the more manageable forces of piano, violin, viola, cello, and double bass.
The exuberant, but highly dramatic Allegro con spirito is dominated by the keyboard part, which consists almost entirely of a seemingly unstoppable flow of semiquavers and triplet quavers. The other instruments are allowed to have a say in the proceedings occasionally, but are inevitably overshadowed by the quick-fire piano acrobatics. One brief passage, shortly before the end of the exposition, sounds strangely premonitory of the opening of Schumann’s E flat Piano Quintet.
The Menuetto (a scherzo in all but name) is in more playful mood, with the piano reduced to an accompanimental role until the delightful D major central ‘alternativo’ section, with its characteristic dancing grace note figurations.
The F major Andante con variazioni opens with a gentle theme announced by the piano, followed by four contrasting variations characterized as follows: (i) semiquaver transformation of the theme in the piano, whilst the original appears variously in the other instrumental parts; (ii) the theme is transferred to the left hand of the piano, with demisemiquaver accompaniment in the right, whilst the flute and oboe play their own versions; (iii) moves to the tonic minor with flute and oboe, followed by cello and double bass having a turn at the theme, after which the solo piano leads into (iv), still in F minor, with constant demisemiquavers, and the rest of the ensemble gradually joining in to give a euphoniously triumphant statement of the main theme.
The Vivace sonata-rondo finale returns to the urgent mood of the opening movement, the first statement of the main theme being immediately followed by the unaccompanied viola’s introduction of a dramatic fugal idea, joined quickly by the oboe, double bass and cello in turn. A welcome release from all this tension is afforded by a more relaxed A major episode, after which the rondo theme returns with renewed vigour and energy, driving the movement relentlessly on to its forceful conclusion.
from notes by Julian Haylock © 1991