David Smith
Presto Classical
July 2015

Hyperion's Romantic Piano Concertos series really is a gift that keeps on giving—now into its 66th volume, it has brought back into the spotlight numerous concertos that for various reasons had lapsed into obscurity, and revealed many lost and forgotten gems. This week's disc is no exception—showcasing a composer I must admit I'd never even heard of. Henri Herz, an Austrian-born composer who spent most of his career in Paris, seems to have been rather unfairly written out of history as a pianist who should have stuck to performing—but his compositions, both in number and in quality, are much more than mere forays.

Indeed, the main work on this disc—his Piano Concerto No 2 in C minor—reduced music critics at the time to incoherent praise (practically unheard-of today!), and was especially well thought-of for its substance rather than for mere virtuosic fireworks. Herz was a rough contemporary of Chopin, and the parallels between the two Frenchified Central European composers have led to comparisons being drawn between their compositional styles. There's certainly an element of Chopin to be heard in the Concerto, as well as shades of Brahms and even of Tchaikovsky, not to mention some distinctly Rossinian sequences—but I think it's also possible to hear Herz as his own man rather than merely dismissing him as a patchwork of his contemporaries. His gift for melodies is particularly worth remarking on—both the larger musical sentences and unique little moments, such as the dramatic chromatic descent in the bass right at the start of the first movement and a delightfully cheeky cadential figure near the end.

Herz was composing at a time when the very nature of the piano was in a state of flux. The Industrial Revolution permitted physically stronger instruments to be built—primarily through the replacement of wooden frames with metal ones, which could sustain far greater tension in the strings. Not surprisingly, these developments piqued the interest of composers at the time, Herz included, and their experiments with the limitations of the new generation of pianos drove forward the instrument's evolution apace. Herz was indeed involved in manufacturing himself, having run a piano factory in the 1840s, so he would have been very much aware of the state of the art—and his music reflects a desire to take the instrument to the limits of its capabilities. His rapid filigree passagework—executed effortlessly by soloist Howard Shelley, who of course has the benefit of a modern instrument!—would have taxed the action of the instruments of his day, and in fact Herz himself patented certain improvements to the piano mechanism which would have made such passages more playable. It's in the final movement of the Concerto that the showmanship really comes into its own—Shelley may enjoy the advantages of a modern instrument but he's still put through his paces by Herz's cadenzas and ornaments. I found the style strangely reminiscent of Rossini at several times—as if the great operatic master had been a concert pianist instead and written concertante works for the instrument. The same optimistic tunefulness that made Rossini's operas so popular is on display here.

Perhaps, then, it's no coincidence that Rossini himself makes an appearance—at least, in disguise—on this disc as well. As well as a Grande fantaisie militaire on an aria from Act I of Donizetti's La fille du Régiment, which in Herz's hands seems at times to resemble a meditative impromptu, the march from Rossini's Otello comes in for the same paraphrasing treatment. Both these works are substantial, lasting roughly a quarter of an hour each and constituting miniature concertos in their own right—their technical demands are no less than those of the concerto and offer Shelley further opportunities to show off his dazzlingly agile passagework.

Rounding off the disc is a piece that shows how centrally involved Herz was in the world of piano composition of his time, and how sadly his reputation has suffered since. The concertante polonaise seems to have been quite a popular genre, with examples from Moscheles and, of course, Chopin emerging in the 1830s and remaining in the repertoire to this day. Yet Herz's own offering, the Grande polonaise brillante, remains almost unknown—despite its strongly Chopin-esque flavour, which has invited speculation that it may even have inspired the latter's popular piece.

There are not many series that could claim to still be going strong after their sixty-sixth instalment, but Hyperion's Romantic Piano Concerto project is certainly one such, and this disc is just one more reason to celebrate the series' longevity. While Herz's music doesn't shatter the earth or rewrite the musical textbooks, it's incredible to think that he could have fallen into such obscurity—it is full-blooded, melodious, Romantic stuff, expertly and sensitively performed and definitely worth getting to know.

Presto Classical