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Piano Concerto no. 1 in C minor, Op. 36 (1878)
Piano Concerto no. 3 in D, Op. 113 (1899)
Dan Franklin Smith (piano)
Stuttgart Philharmonic Orchestra/Michail Jurowski
World premiere recordings (DDD)
STERLING CDS-1056-2 [62. 31]


Knowing Huber's symphonies, I received this disc with great expectations.

There are comparatively few Swiss composers of whom Frank Martin is undoubtedly the finest but not in fashion due to the fickleness of the music public. Music lovers are unsteady, unfaithful and sometimes volatile and they move with convention, that is to say what is generally acceptable as fashionable at the time, and, as a consequence, composers suffer. Honegger was a fine Swiss composer (his work Joan of Arc at the Stake is a masterpiece) as was Willy Burkhard but whenever is he played? His cantata The Flood is a fine choral work and there is a very satisfying Violin Concerto, among many other things.

Huber was born on 28 June 1852 in Eppenburg and, in the process of time, studied at the Leipzig Conservatory studying piano and composition. All his life he was an admirer of the music of Robert Schumann and in 1874 at the age of 26 gave a public performance of Schumann's Konzertstück for piano and orchestra seven months after premiering his own composition in that form and with that title. This was, of course, a student work, and is lost.

One wonders whether the dual role of a concert pianist and composer always works. With great pianistic composers such as Liszt and Rachmaninov it does, but, I suggest, in a restricted way. I further suggest that they wrote music that suited their own techniques and this is why Chopin never wrote what could really, or truthfully, be called a virtuosic work. Some people may not be aware that fine pianists of more recent times have written works for the piano. Wilhelm Kempff is but one example.

Perhaps the Schumann Piano Concerto is the model for Huber's first concerto as it was for Edvard Grieg who clearly imitated it too closely. What concerns me about the Huber C minor concerto is that it is more symphonic than a concerto and that the music often starts strongly and then declines. If one claims that this music is fundamentally lyrical so be it, but, in that case, the content has to be of such quality as to maintain a large-scale movement if it is to be predominantly lyrical. If it is just lyrical it will lack tension and contrast and be something of a damp squib. But there are many works that begin with an impressive opening and that is all; the music thereafter falls away into ordinariness or poor quality. Britten's Sinfonia da Requiem is an example. What a splendid start, truly superb, but then, what? How many times have people admired the opening of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto no. 1 in B flat minor and regretted that that superb opening never returns? These are thoughts that one entertains with these two concertos by Huber.

Generally, I hate comparisons since that can pigeon-hole composers and affect the judgment of the innocent. For example, if someone said a new work sounded like Elgar, I would certainly not wish to hear it but that comment could be completely wrong and deprive me of what may be a good work. If you think that some Chopin is anaemic, effeminate or a little feeble (and that is a decision you must make) then we are approaching the style of the Huber works. To Hans Huber's credit he does try to shake off Chopin's dress (no pun intended) and his music tries to grow up and sound like Rachmaninov or the Brahms of his superb Piano Concerto in D minor. The first concerto of Huber starts with a limpid orchestral introduction that borders on being dreary followed by a piano flourish, but it is heavy-handed and not exciting and then proceeds, as does the Schumann, to accompany solos. The Schumann melodic influence is obvious. There are a few impressive moments but I find that leisurely and sweet music seldom convinces. It is what I call pale music, often uneventful. The second movement, which is in A flat, is devoid of any real ideas and originality. It has piano features such as broken chords which become tedious, as it does to a even greater extent in Schubert. Often the piano writing is in octaves but without any melodic or rhythmic interest. Compare the famous movement of Prokofiev's Piano Concerto no. 2 in G minor which is all in octaves and how truly magnificent it is because of the sheer energy in the music. The third movement of the Huber is a scherzo but it stops and starts and does not completely satisfy. The finale seems to run out of ideas and quotes from previous movements. However, there are some good moments. The con fuoco ending is almost breathtaking and superbly written both for the piano and the orchestra. So, perhaps we should all listen to the work several times. First impressions can be wrong and some works grow on you ... but then some works don't. Some music I admired forty years ago I do not like today and I am sure that is the same with many of us.

Basel approved of Huber and his music and in that city he spent most of his career as a composer, conductor, pianist, choral conductor and teacher.

I think it is true to say that his symphonies fared better than the piano concertos. The Piano Concerto no. 3 is , in my opinion, a better work than the first. It is more pianistic and presents some technical difficulties and challenges to the pianist. Huber was no fool. It was too difficult for him and so he dedicated it to a bravura pianist, Robert Freund, who premiered it under the composer's baton on 26 February 1899 in a concert which included Berlioz's sprawling Harold in Italy which was given a dreadful performance at last year's Promenade concerts (2003).

The Piano Concerto no 3 opens with a set of variations but the tempi are so pedestrian that the music lacks life and could pass for a corpse. Should a concerto not start with something that grasps the audience's attention? It does not have to be fast or noisy. The opening of Berg's Violin Concerto is neither fast nor noisy but is very impressive as is the whole work. A set of variations can make the work sound episodic or rhapsodic and result in the piece being formless and not hanging together - stop and start music. The second movement, a scherzo, is also in six-eight time so there is no contrast. The tranquillo section is sombre. The following Intermezzo does not work. As with much of Huber's music it starts well and then fizzles out. Here we are threatened with a big fugue but the music succumbs to dialogue between the piano and soloists in the orchestra. This leads into a finale which, thankfully, has a sense of form and therefore coherence, and is occasionally exciting. However, all too soon, our hopes are dashed and, as has already been noted, there is insufficient quality material in these works to maintain interest.

I do not have the scores and so I cannot comment on whether the performances are faithful to the scores. I think some of the piano playing is a bit hesitant, or uncertain, in the big passages but it scintillates in the mercurial sections. It appears that the orchestra are on good form and I think many people will enjoy these concertos. It seems that I have been too damning but then there is a wealth of better music that is not recorded.

This disc also poses the question as to why more music from Switzerland is not readily available. Is it a musical backwater?

Huber died on Christmas Day 1921. He was 66 years of age. Clearly he was a fine musician and perhaps readers should investigate his symphonies.

David Wright

see also review by Rob Barnett

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