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Ferdinand Hiller (1811-1885)
Piano Concerto No 1 in f minor, Op 5 (1829-1831) [24:22]
Piano Concerto No 2 in f sharp minor, Op 69 (1843) [19:55]
Piano Concerto No 3 in A flat major ‘Concerto espressivo’, Op 170 (1874) [31:39]
Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra/Howard Shelley (piano)
rec. Concert Hall, Hobart, Tasmania, 14-17 May 2007.  DDD.
The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 45
HYPERION CDA 67655 [76:20]
Experience Classicsonline

I’m straying here onto territory normally occupied by colleagues who are both more in love with and more knowledgeable than myself about the Romantic Piano Concerto.  Normally I find myself reviewing Hyperion recordings of medieval, renaissance and baroque repertoire or one of their CDs of 20th-century English music, in all of which areas they excel.  I’m taking up the challenge of a reader who asks why we haven’t reviewed this volume in their equally acclaimed concerto series.

If we had a review copy, one of my colleagues must have misplaced it so, for speed, I downloaded the recording from iTunes.  You may be wondering if a download can do justice to the recording, so let me say at once that now that iTunes have upgraded all their recordings to 256kbps they represent a much fairer approximation of the original.  320k would be better still – that’s the base level now for classicsonline, theclassicalshop and passionato; the last two also offer even better lossless recordings, as classicsonline will also be doing soon – but I found this download more than acceptable.

Hiller’s music hasn’t had much of an outing on record: the first and third concertos here receive their first recordings and I don’t think there’s even a current rival recording of the second.  I’d previously only heard his Op.113 Konzertstück, on a Vox CD primarily devoted to Henselt’s Piano Concerto in f (now part of a 2-CD set, CDX5064), a decent performance of an attractive work but not one that made me think to explore his other compositions.  The second concerto has been recorded before and there’s even a 2-piano reduction of the score available free online – follow link.

Hiller was a member of the Berlioz-Liszt-Chopin circle, a friend of Mendelssohn until they fell out over Hiller’s appointment as conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, a friend of the Schumanns and a supporter of Wagner’s music.  Famous in his own time but forgotten within 20 years of his death, he merits only a short entry in the current Oxford Companion to Music, which mentions only one of his works, the opera Die Katakomben, dismissed as ‘an overambitious attempt at German grand opera’.  The Shorter Grove contains an even briefer entry, which refers to the solo piano works which are still in the teaching repertory, making them sound like Czerny’s Studies, but with nary a mention of the concertos.

I’m not going to claim that Howard Shelley and Hyperion have rediscovered a neglected genius, but I am grateful to our reader for directing me towards this recording.  I wouldn’t quite call it ‘really marvellous’ as s/he does – there are too many moments of mere romantic posturing for that – but the second concerto in particular is very well worth hearing on those occasions when one doesn’t want to be too severely challenged.

In fact, ‘posturing’ is not really the right word – there’s plenty of bravura but also moments of great delicacy, both of which are very ably presented by Howard Shelley, here both in the solo role and directing the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra.  I’ve already praised his ‘technical virtuosity and delicacy of touch’ in his performances of the Mendelssohn Piano Concertos for Chandos (CHAN2025, An Introduction to Mendelssohn – see review); if anything, those qualities are even more in evidence here.

If I say that there’s more of Chopin than of Liszt in these concertos, that isn’t meant to imply that Hiller’s music is derivative or imitative, merely to indicate the kind of music that it is.  The first concerto was, in fact, composed in Paris at the same time as Chopin’s two concertos, so there is bound to be some commonality.  Hiller’s second concerto, which followed over a decade later, shows much more originality and the third, three decades later, even more.  I often like to turn on Radio 3 and guess the composer; I’d be hard put to play the game with any of Hiller’s concertos.  There are moments in the second and third concertos where I might have guessed Mendelssohn.  Though he had been a pupil of Hummel, I don’t hear anything of Hummel in Hiller’s music.  Nor is it much like the Schumann Piano Concerto, though Hiller was the dedicatee of that work.

This is not, then, the music of a Chopin, a Liszt, a Mendelssohn or a Schumann, but it is that of a highly talented composer.  I’m pleased to have got to know these concertos and I’m sure that the performances are unlikely to be bettered.  Shelley is very ably supported by his Tasmanian orchestra and the recording is very good.  Hyperion’s notes are of the usual high standard and the booklet is attractively presented – it can be downloaded and printed out from their website; iTunes, of course, offer no notes.

Despite my reservations, which I hope I haven’t over-emphasised, I played the CD straight through again for enjoyment immediately after listening for the purpose of making notes.  I think it’s that second concerto that I’ll be returning to with the greatest pleasure; with the piano entering from the very start, it’s not exactly revolutionary – Beethoven had already done that – but it makes an unconventional and effective opening to an attractive work, which grew on me more every time I heard it.
Brian Wilson


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