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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Johann Nepomuk HUMMEL (1778-1837)
Mass in E-flat major, Op. 80 (1804) [43:39]
Te Deum in D major (no opus given) (1805) [10:24]
Quod In Orbe, Op. 88 (1806) [7:51]
Susan Gritton, soprano
Ann Murray, mezzo
James Gilchrist, tenor
Stephen Varcoe, baritone
Orchestra: Collegium Musicum 90/Richard Hickox
Rec. Blackheath Halls, London, 8-10 Sept 2003. DDD
CHANDOS CHACONNE 0712 [61:54]



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Until fairly recently, posterityís verdict on the music of Johann Nepomuk Hummel (who for some reason makes every reviewerís list of "Composers Who Are Always Identified by All Three Names"Ö) has been slightly tinged with condescension. He was one of the first virtuoso pianist/composers, and not surprisingly the bulk of his compositional output consisted of works suitable for his own performance, either for piano solo or piano in combination with chamber ensembles. While skillfully written and undeniably effective, many of these works have justifiably been characterized as facile, showy and relatively shallow. Hummelís reputation hasnít been helped, either, by the fact that his most productive years were overshadowed by two colossi: Haydn and Beethoven.

No doubt, Hummelís output is often lacking in High Seriousness (relative to Beethovenís) and sheer melodic/rhythmic genius (relative to Haydnís). However, seeing as how both of those gentleman had complimentary things to say about Hummelís music, it hardly seems fair to relegate him to the historical purgatory reserved for "interesting" composers.

Of course, he was quite an "interesting" man, if only because of the company he kept! His teachers included Mozart, Haydn, Clementi and Beethoven; his pupils included Henselt, Thalberg, Mendelssohn and Hiller. His wide-ranging and sometimes extravagant piano-writing certainly had a direct influence on Chopin and Liszt, and a discernable, if less pronounced, influence on Saint-Saëns, Moszkowski, and other pianist/composers of the Late-Romantic period.

In his orchestral and choral/orchestral works, Hummel generally eschews emotional profundity (the man knew his own strengths and wisely chose not to poach on Beethovenís turf), but his expressive range is greater than was once supposed. His inventiveness within that range is sometimes extraordinary.

His two piano concertos, for instance (the A minor, Op. 85, and the B minor, Op. 89) were long represented in the record catalogues by a handful of dutiful, letís-get-this-over-with interpretations by soloists who played them with all the enthusiasm of a dental patient waiting for a root-canal. Both works bristle like barbed wire entanglements with technical challenges and fiendish complexities. Just playing through them at all is a major accomplishment for any pianist. Fully realizing their worth as music was beyond the call of duty.

All the "accepted wisdom" about Hummelís concertos underwent a seismic revision in 1987, when the formidable Stephen Hough tore up the pea-patch with them on a Chandos recording that has earned the status of a classic. I remember being absolutely blown-away the first time I heard Houghís assault on these works. What earlier pianists saw as egregious difficulty, vapid ornamentation and elaborateness-for-it-own sake, Hough fearlessly transformed into vivid, thrilling, red-blooded music. Hummelís reputation has been in a constant state of upward-re-evaluation ever since.

The release under consideration here will only add to our growing appreciation of Hummel Ė up to a point. Here we have three of his more significant choral/orchestral works in vital, committed performances that demonstrate his consummate professionalism while also pointing up the difference between a very good composer and a truly great one; in this case, Haydn, whose influence on the Mass is abundantly clear.

Thatís a good thing, mostly. While thereís nothing on this disc thatís so inspired, or inspiring, as to carve a new groove in your memory, youíll probably feel as I do that listening to them is time well spent.

The major work, of course, is the substantial Op. 80, the first of five masses Hummel composed during his tenure as Konzertmeister to the court of Prince Esterhazy. Hummelís indebtedness to Haydn is openly and honestly come-by. It was Haydn, in fact, who recommended Hummel for the Esterhazy post, and since Haydnís last composition for the Esterhazys was the sublime Harmoniemesse, the element of continuity is both appropriate and quite intentional. In a sense, the Opus 80 Mass was a job application, and since Hummel knew full well that Haydn was a hard act to follow, he wisely solicited, and generously received, considerable advice from his older colleague. When the work was premiered, in May, 1804, it was well received; Hummel remained Konzertmeister for the Esterhazy court until 1811, and wrote some of his best music during that period.

Even if one discounts Hummelís relative youthfulness (he was twenty-six when he finished the composition), the E-flat major Mass is an ingratiating and impressive work. It may not storm the heavens or display the highest level of inspiration, but it contains many passages of startling originality.

The opening Kyrie is stately and sonorous; the Gloria satisfyingly festive; I loved the virile, braying horns! When we arrive at the Credo, Hummel deploys one of his most original touches: a gentle, rocking, almost lullaby-like opening, which he gradually transforms by means of surprising strokes of instrumental color, soaring vocal lines, and imaginative harmonic changes, into a major statement. Thereís a meltingly beautiful oboe melody about 30 seconds into the "Et incarnatus", followed by a tenor aria so heartfelt and compelling that it makes me curious to hear a sample of Hummelís operatic work. When Hummel gets to the "Dona nobis pacem", he scores against-the-text by means of assertive bass and rattling drums Ė this is not a humble supplication!

As a whole, the E-flat major Mass doesnít leave the same majestic impression as the work it most closely resembles, Haydnís Missa in tempore Belli, but itís still a remarkably assured and well-wrought work, especially for a youngish composer who knew that comparisons would inevitably be made between his music and Haydnís. Hummel didnít let that circumstance intimidate him in the least. This music rewards repeated hearings, and it certainly whets the appetite for Hummelís other four masses Ė which we shall hear in due course, since Chandos is embarking on an integral set. If you have a special fondness for choral/orchestral fare, youíll find this disc a worthy addition to your collection. If it is not quite a neglected "masterpiece", itís still a major discovery.

The relatively brief Te Deum, composed to commemorate the signing of the Peace of Pressburg, 26 December 1805 Ė a treaty that, in effect, paid a large territorial bribe to Napoleon in exchange for Bonaparte ordering his troops not to trash Vienna Ė was written in only four or five days and unfortunately sounds that way. "Generic jubilance" characterizes most of the piece Ė I found its relentless bounciness rather annoying up until 9:35 into the proceedings, when a brief puff of genuine inspiration fills the sails and invests the closing with an exciting burst of pomp. Considering the deadline pressure poor Hummel was under, we ought to admire his skill rather than disparage his reliance on clichés; and at ten-and-a-half-minutes, the Te Deum hardly outstays its welcome.

For this listener, the shortest composition on this disc is also the most interesting. Little is known about the circumstances surrounding the composition of the Quod in orbe. Itís a stand-alone "Gradual", i.e., a musical interlude intended for performance between the Gloria and the Credo of an ordinary (non-musical) Mass, and the program annotator, Mr. David Wyn Jones, postulates 1806 as the date of its first and maybe only performance.

The text Hummel chose to set (or was commanded to set; we simply donít know which), is not one with which I am familiar (anyone want to help me out, here?), but itís such an odd collage of apocalyptic imagery that itís worth quoting in full:

What has been bound on Earth,
will be loosed in the Citadel of Heaven,
because what the supreme Power loosens here
will be released in the heights of Heaven at the
end of the world when You shine in terrifying power;
Therefore glory be to You and Your Son forever.

Not exactly the most mellifluous passage for a musical setting, and Hummelís approach is intriguingly strange, even a little bit weird. He divides the chorus into four parts, male voices predominating, and embroiders the words with a spare, dark, rather ambiguous orchestral accompaniment. Given the brevity of the composition, Hummel manages to work in more than a few strikingly individual colors and dynamic shadings. Especially effective are the two "book-end" passages for solo timpani at the beginning and end Ė decorative, stern, and tensely restrained rather than overtly dramatic, these curious little flourishes are played with exquisite finesse by Charles Fullbrook, on a set of regimental kettledrums built in 1870 "by George Potter of Aldershot".

I presume Mr. Potterís name is significant to students of the percussive arts, because thereís definitely a distinct and commanding timbre to the sound of these drums, throughout the entire disc. This is a real asset, because Hummelís timpani parts are often quite imaginative and in this recording they register perfectly: clean, distinct, just penetrating enough to cut through the surrounding textures or to grab your attention during a silence.

Richard Hickox conducts each of these scores with conviction and a splendid sensitivity to balances and dynamic gradations. The Collegium Musicum (38 instrumentalists, performing on a mixture of authentic period instruments and modern reproductions thereof, along with a chorus of 24) has just the right heft and sonority for this music. Their playing, and singing, is always alert, stylish, and ultra-transparent Ė which allows us to hear the many felicities of Hummelís scoring; yet thereís plenty of juice in the beefy sections. The four soloists are well-matched and sound as though theyíre really enjoying the often-challenging solo lines Hummel assigns, pretty even-handedly, to each voice.

Chandos provides superb sound -- neither over-reverberant nor obsessively clinical.

William R. Trotter

 



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