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Johann Nepomuk HUMMEL (1778-1837)
Sappho von Mitilene, ballet suite, Op. 68 (1812) [46:48]
Das Zauberschloss, ballet suite [19:13]
Twelve Waltzes and Coda (1817) [9:38]
London Mozart Players/Howard Shelley
rec. St. Silas the Martyr Church, Kentish Town, July 2006
CHANDOS CHAN 10415 [75:39] 


To the extent most of us today are familiar with Hummel, it's primarily as a piano composer: his sonatas and sonatinas still serve as teaching pieces, while his piano concertos have received more recent recorded attention. To encounter him as a composer of symphonic ballets, then, comes as a bit of a shock. The two ballet scores represented here were apparently composed for the dancer-choreographer Giulio Vigaṇ, the brother of Salvatore Vigaṇ, for whom Beethoven wrote The Creatures of Prometheus. Stylistically, these scores are also something of a surprise. Where Hummel's linear piano writing and clean textures constitute an exemplar of Classical clarity, these ballets incorporate both forward- and backward-looking elements, now juxtaposing them, now blending them. 

Thus, the opening tutti of Sappho von Mitilene is firm and proclamatory in the Classical manner, but the brass is more prominent than it would be, say, in Beethoven - indeed, throughout the score, the brasses sound unusually "present" in supporting chords. The Allegretto (track 6) has a recognizably Classical structure, its recurring march theme alternating with more smoothly lyrical material, and the drone bass of the Pastorale (track 9) underlines a kinship with country-dance models. "La furia" (track 11) supports busy string and woodwind activity with a rigorous rhythmic framework. On the other hand, the horn solo in the Larghetto (track 8) suggests Weber, while the English horn in Madame Vigaṇ's solo (track 4) evokes an operatic aria. The oboe's graceful, sinuous waltz in the Andante maestoso (track 11) foreshadows similar melodies in the great Romantic ballets of Tchaikovsky and Delibes. 

From the start, Das Zauberschloss veers explicitly into the programmatic and pictorial, with its pastoral woodwind duets and ominous fanfares. Later, a series of courtly-sounding dances evokes medieval models while serving a function analogous to that of "characteristic dances" in the big popular ballets, while the score's closing section fairly bristles with forward energy. The Twelve Waltzes and Coda anticipate the symphonic waltzes of the Strauss family. After an opening trumpet fanfare, calling the listener to attention, there follows a series of brief dances, each less than a minute in length, capped by a rousing coda. 

Don't let all the discussion of various stylistic fingerprints obscure the fact that this well-wrought, substantial music is unfailingly tuneful and engaging. These scores are not "light" or "Pops" fare, but transitional works in the development of ballet which repay listening. 

Howard Shelley realizes both the Classical and Romantic aspects of this music superbly, firmly etching its rhythmic and harmonic contours while allowing the broad singing melodies room to expand lyrically, though his generous rubato in the clarinet's rustic theme of the Twelve Waltzes and Coda belies its presumed purpose as dance music. The tuttis, especially in the codas, go with a hurtling, airborne momentum. The London Mozart Players sound surprisingly large as recorded, but their playing is refined and suave; the oboe makes particularly delicate, piquant contributions. 

Chandos provides its favored long resonance, which may produce harsh or opaque results on some equipment. The ambience doesn't obscure important musical detail, however, and the "big" recorded sound reinforces the impression of these as robust, Romantic scores. 

Stephen Francis Vasta



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