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Henri Herz (1803-1888)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in A major Op. 34 (1828) [25:46]
Piano Concerto No. 7 in B minor Op. 207 (1864) [17:50]
Piano Concerto No. 8 in A flat major Op. 218 (1873) [14:14]
Howard Shelley (piano and conductor)
Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra
rec. Federation Concert Hall, Hobart, Tasmania, 9-12 September 2003. DDD
The Romantic Piano Concerto series: Volume 35
HYPERION CDA67465 [58:06]


I think the first thing to get over is the fact that none of these three concerti are ‘heaven-storming.’ They are definitely not ‘romantic’ in the sense of Liszt or perhaps Rachmaninov. ‘Overblown’ would never be an appropriate adjective to use. But then these works were never meant to be. What we have here are three extremely serviceable concertos that well deserve to be in the repertoire. This is in spite of the fact the Robert Schumann had a positive dislike for Henri Herz: he felt that his music was not sufficiently serious. Actually, the bottom line is that this music is to be enjoyed, not analysed as such. It is certainly not to be despised.

A quick look at the Arkiv database of CDs reveals that poor old Henri is not well represented on disc. In fact, apart from the three concertos on this current disc there seem to be only two other pieces in the repertoire. The first is Les Perles animées - Grande Valse Op. 211 and the second is Air Suisse National – both for piano. The Crotchet database refers only to this present CD. The programme notes further point out that only eight of Herz’s works have been ever recorded – and most of these seem to have been on vinyl. So there is not a lot to go on in making judgements about this composer. Unless one is to go delving into Grove it follows that any discussion or review has to depend on the excellent programme notes written by Jeremy Nicholas.

Henri Herz wrote for the public of his day. It would be really difficult to imagine that he was composing all these works for posterity. He was extremely well regarded as a fashionable teacher and composer by the musically literate public both in Europe and the United States. However, he has become one of many nineteenth century pianist/composers whose entire catalogue has virtually disappeared from view. We can think of such luminaries as Cramer, Moscheles and Thalberg as analogous examples. In many ways these composers were once regarded more highly than Chopin or Liszt. Yet history tells a different story. We are more likely to hear performances of second and third rate Liszt than the ‘chef d’oeuvres’ of the three gentlemen named above. We have Hyperion to thank for bringing some of these composers alive to us in the twenty-first century.

It is not necessary to analyse these three concertos. However a few highlights can be pointed out. One of my favourite movements is the Rondo Espagnol from the Seventh Concerto. I am not convinced that this is any more Spanish than Herz was; in fact the music suggests a ‘Polonaise’ rather than a ‘Bolero.’ Perhaps the triangle is meant to give it an Iberian feel? But the point is that this is actually great music and is thoroughly enjoyable.

If anyone is looking for deep and reflective slow movements, forget it! They are invariably short and straight to the point. Perhaps they could be likened to an aria by Bellini – interesting, attractive, well wrought, but not necessarily profound. If we are looking for an ‘it sounds like’ composer I suppose John Field, the ‘Irish Chopin’, springs to mind. But this is probably unfair to both composers. It may just be appropriate to say that these three works owe a lot to Chopin without being quite as subtle and for the most part lacking his genius. Yet all these concerti are full of lovely tunes, interesting, complex and extremely demanding passage work and surprisingly convincing orchestrations.

The only downside is the relatively short playing time. At 58 minutes it seems to me that Hyperion could have squeezed something else onto it - perhaps even another concerto? If this was too much I am sure there must be a couple of piano pieces or a ‘fantasia’ or two that would have filled the gap. However I am extremely glad to have these three interesting works, so no more said.

Howard Shelley takes this virtuosic music seriously - not only with his wonderful playing but also with his conducting. And this seriousness is this most important thing about this CD. It would be so easy to take a patronising view: to smile benevolently perhaps or even shake one’s head at anyone who prefers this kind of music to that of ‘The Greats’. But this is definitely not the case with this production. It is well recognised that this music was once ‘Top of the Pops’ and deservedly so.

John France

Hyperion Romantic Piano Concerto Series

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