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Henri HERZ (1803-1888)
Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor Op. 87 (1835) [30:21]
Piano Concerto No. 4 in E major Op.131 (1843) [22:40]
Piano Concerto No. 5 in F minor Op. 180 (1854) [15:59]
Howard Shelley (piano/conductor)
Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra
rec. Federation Concert Hall, Hobart, Tasmania, 2-4 September 2004. DDD
The Romantic Piano Concerto Vo. 40
HYPERION CDA67537 [69:24]
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Howard Shelley and the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra have already recorded Herz’s concertos nos. 1, 7 and 8 in this series (Hyperion CDA67465 review), so one further issue of the remaining two concertos might safely be predicted to be in the pipeline.

Henri Herz is a name which was completely new to me, and my inquisitiveness has been rewarded with a pleasant surprise. Herz was a composer, teacher and all-out piano nut whose playing was regarded as the most sensational of his day. In the 1840s he outsold and commanded higher fees than Liszt and Chopin. While his commercially successful music might have been lambasted by Schumann there is no evidence here that these works are merely trendy pot-boilers. Sir George Grove observed that ‘Herz found out what the public liked and would pay, and this he gave to them’. On the strength of this recording the public of the time had good taste.

The little orchestral touches which support the piano solo with brush-strokes of colour in the first movement of the Concerto No. 3 remind me of Schumann a little, but as a Parisian by adoption Herz avoided the more weightily teutonic musical statements of the German school. For this reason his music has long been dismissed as superficial and irrelevant. Even without plumbing the profoundest of emotional depths the music here is filled with exuberance, is cleverly orchestrated, and goes far beyond mere technical bravura in the piano writing. There are some beautifully expressive moments in the second Andante sostenuto movement in this concerto, and the Finale: Allegro is indeed (con fuoco ed appassionato).

The Concerto No. 4 is shorter and less ambitious in terms of content and structure than the 3rd, but nonetheless contains some remarkable passages. Herz has a sneaky way of wrong-footing the listener with something entirely gorgeous and then moving swiftly on to more standard musical business, making you want to play the thing all over again. Such ‘moments’ were no doubt part of the attraction of Herz’s work to audiences both in Paris and on his American tour (1845-51), which provided him with the wealth with which to expand his piano factory, and which paved the way for names such as Gottschalk and Anton Rubinstein.

The Concerto No.5 in F minor has an attention-grabbing opening, with the entry of the principal theme being delayed behind a rhapsodic prelude. In his excellent programme notes Jeremy Nicholas suggests that the finale might have been written first, given its thematic relationship with the first movement. Certainly the rising patterns of each are comparable, but the atmosphere of each movement could hardly be more different. Once again, the central Andantino is a beautifully conceived slow movement, but Herz has another little trick up his sleeve, waking the sleepy listener with a ff final cadence.

This is the kind of thing we old lags of Farringdon Records would have called ‘a winner’ and would have received multiple daily airings over the shop HiFi – almost invariably whipping up interest and selling copies each time. The orchestral playing is warm and sensitive, and Howard Shelley is on top form. He gives just the right kinds of gentle rubato and dynamic expression which are idiomatically sensitive, but prevent such music from turning into stylistic parody. I am grateful to Hyperion for introducing such a neglected name into the catalogue, and am happy to recommend this recording wholeheartedly.

Dominy Clements


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