Johann Nepomuk Hummel was no Beethoven, and his ten piano sonatas
do not rival the mastery of Beethoven’s. They are - or
at least the earlier ones recorded here are - structurally rather
wayward, somewhat rhapsodic, and by no means great. Nevertheless
they’re enjoyable and make for pleasant listening. One
does not mind the genial company of Hummel even as one remembers
that, for instance, the rather plain fantasy “La contemplazione” dates
from after Beethoven’s sublimely contemplative final works
for the keyboard.
The E flat sonata, Op. 13 No. 6, is quite extroverted and bold,
at least at its onset. The opening theme brings to mind (oddly)
a sort of proud, major-key version of the Dies irae chant.
This music is very Haydnesque, and pleasingly so, with many lovely
turns of phrase and appealing melodies, although Hummel is rather
more verbose than Haydn: this sonata is thirty-two minutes long.
Even so, it is formally more concise than the second sonata on
the program, with an unusually eloquent slow movement.
The F minor sonata, Op. 20, is made interesting by its piquant
opening theme and the first movement’s interesting emotional
mix. There is no drama here, except perhaps of the domestic kind:
quietly earnest, troubled but not about to alert us to the fact.
The finale is stop-and-start, with one pause memorably interrupted
by the sudden appearance of Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony,
thinly disguised and not at all relevant to the rest of the musical
material. “La contemplazione” is a modest
little work of ten minutes which dates from considerably later
than the two sonatas, though Hummel’s musical style is
not appreciably different for the two decades which had passed.
My main pleasure in listening to this album was the marvellous
instrument which Susan Alexander-Max plays; it is an 1814 Joseph
Brodmann fortepiano, with a marvellously warm sound, somewhat
less vivid in color than modern instruments but possessive of
its own kind of beauty. Connoisseurs of fortepianos will want
to hear this CD as a matter of course - that is why I picked
it up - but this is one of the most attractive instruments I’ve
heard and thus one of those I would be most likely to recommend
to a newcomer to period performances.
Alexander-Max herself plays with dedication and poetry, very
much committed to the advocacy of these works. The Chandos sound
is very good, and in sum this is a good find for admirers of
the era and the fortepiano, or for those interested in Hummel
and the contemporaries of Beethoven. That said, the name “Beethoven” does
call to mind many things which Johann Nepomuk Hummel, for all
his charm, was never to be. The liner-notes, by Alexander-Max
herself, say that “the biggest jolt to Hummel’s self-confidence
came with the arrival of Beethoven in Vienna.” At least
Hummel was intelligent enough to appreciate, in Beethoven, a
man who achieved the kind of greatness he would never attain.