Johann Nepomuk HUMMEL (1778-1837)
Piano Sonata Op. 13 No. 6 in E flat (c. 1805) [32:41]
Piano Sonata Op. 20 in F minor (c. 1807) [25:16]
La contemplazione, una fantasia piccola, Op. 107 No. 3 (c. 1825) [9:12]
Susan Alexander-Max (fortepiano)
rec. 26-27 February 2008, Ampithéâtre de la Cité de la musique, Paris, France
CHANDOS CHAN0765 [67:07]

Johann Nepomuk Hummel was no Beethoven, and his ten piano sonatas do not rival the mastery of Beethoven’s. They are - or at least the earlier ones recorded here are - structurally rather wayward, somewhat rhapsodic, and by no means great. Nevertheless they’re enjoyable and make for pleasant listening. One does not mind the genial company of Hummel even as one remembers that, for instance, the rather plain fantasy “La contemplazione” dates from after Beethoven’s sublimely contemplative final works for the keyboard.

The E flat sonata, Op. 13 No. 6, is quite extroverted and bold, at least at its onset. The opening theme brings to mind (oddly) a sort of proud, major-key version of the Dies irae chant. This music is very Haydnesque, and pleasingly so, with many lovely turns of phrase and appealing melodies, although Hummel is rather more verbose than Haydn: this sonata is thirty-two minutes long. Even so, it is formally more concise than the second sonata on the program, with an unusually eloquent slow movement.

The F minor sonata, Op. 20, is made interesting by its piquant opening theme and the first movement’s interesting emotional mix. There is no drama here, except perhaps of the domestic kind: quietly earnest, troubled but not about to alert us to the fact. The finale is stop-and-start, with one pause memorably interrupted by the sudden appearance of Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony, thinly disguised and not at all relevant to the rest of the musical material. “La contemplazione” is a modest little work of ten minutes which dates from considerably later than the two sonatas, though Hummel’s musical style is not appreciably different for the two decades which had passed.

My main pleasure in listening to this album was the marvellous instrument which Susan Alexander-Max plays; it is an 1814 Joseph Brodmann fortepiano, with a marvellously warm sound, somewhat less vivid in color than modern instruments but possessive of its own kind of beauty. Connoisseurs of fortepianos will want to hear this CD as a matter of course - that is why I picked it up - but this is one of the most attractive instruments I’ve heard and thus one of those I would be most likely to recommend to a newcomer to period performances.

Alexander-Max herself plays with dedication and poetry, very much committed to the advocacy of these works. The Chandos sound is very good, and in sum this is a good find for admirers of the era and the fortepiano, or for those interested in Hummel and the contemporaries of Beethoven. That said, the name “Beethoven” does call to mind many things which Johann Nepomuk Hummel, for all his charm, was never to be. The liner-notes, by Alexander-Max herself, say that “the biggest jolt to Hummel’s self-confidence came with the arrival of Beethoven in Vienna.” At least Hummel was intelligent enough to appreciate, in Beethoven, a man who achieved the kind of greatness he would never attain.

Brian Reinhart

Enjoyable sonatas on a beautiful instrument … see Full Review