This will, I imagine, be the oddest CD cover that I will encounter
this year. At first glance the young lady with a parasol seems
to bear some resemblance to a Jane Austen type. As such, her
image might be pretty appropriate for a couple of discs of music
written in the years when Pride and Prejudice and Sense
and Sensibility were first published. On closer inspection,
one doubts very much whether Misses Elizabeth Bennett or Elinor
Dashwood would ever have been found relaxing on one of those
very modern plastic sun-loungers that are clearly visible on
the beach in the background. So what on earth has the cover
to do with the music at all?
Fortunately, the music itself is rather less perplexing. In
recent years, Hyperion’s Romantic Piano Concerto series
has offered convincing proof of the classical CD-buying public’s
sweet tooth for long-forgotten nineteenth century composers
in full-blooded concertante mode. Its remarkable commercial
success has, I suspect, encouraged both soloists and other record
companies to scour the music libraries for neglected works that
might appeal to the same market.
Hérold’s four piano concertos - the first, it seems, written
by any French composer and given their world premiere recordings
here - are, from a chronological point of view, a pretty early
entry in the field. It would be foolish, therefore, to expect
to find Romanticism of the later full-throttle variety here.
The booklet notes get it just about right - as far as their
somewhat idiosyncratic command of English allows - when they
describe Hérold as “a “classic” composer, but already “romantic”
at some moments” (my emphasis).
The concertos - all written in a concentrated creative burst
between 1811 and 1813 - clearly demonstrate that element of
transition. Some passages appear to look back towards Mozart,
others forward towards Chopin or even, very occasionally, beyond.
Unfortunately that leaves Hérold left stranded somewhere in
the middle, apparently oblivious of the Zeitgeist;
there is little Beethovenian conflict or drama here, even though
the Emperor had been completed in 1810. As such, he
may be justly accused of failing to display a strongly individual
musical personality. That deficiency, allied to the fact that
two of the four concertos have no central slow movements, gives
the distinct – if, to some extent, unfair - impression that
this is essentially inconsequential music that lacks any real
profundity or depth.
While it may be hard to argue against that assessment, soloist
Angeline Pondepeyre and South African conductor Conrad van Alphen
are clearly intent on making a strong case for the concertos
as melodically enjoyable romps. In that, they are eminently
successful, performing these unfamiliar scores confidently and
with a self-evident appreciation for the composer’s musical
idiom. The Cologne orchestra is fully up to its task and makes
a very positive contribution whenever Hérold gives it its head:
sample, for instance, the dramatic orchestral introduction to
the second concerto or a later very dramatic passage in the
same opening movement between about 10:15 and 11:30. I must
also give credit to violinist Egor Grechisnikov who gives, in
the third concerto’s slow movement, a winning account of a singing
violin obbligato that beautifully complements the solo
piano line; it is a pity that some inexcusably poor proof-reading
manages to spell this fine player’s name in two different ways.
The open and clear recording, with piano and orchestra well
balanced, places the performance in a flattering acoustic setting.
My only grouch - apart from the cover artwork - is playing time.
One CD plays for less than 50 minutes and the other for less
than 40. Surely there was a missed opportunity here to add at
least a sampling of Hérold's music for solo piano?
Perhaps, though, now that I come to think of it again, that
cover image might not be so inappropriate after all. After all,
while I might not want to make a special trip to the concert
hall to hear this music again, I can easily imagine an alternative
scenario where I am listening to Hérold’s cheerfully exuberant
and light-hearted scores while stretched out on a Mediterranean
beach sun lounger, with an iPod glued to my ears, a thirst-quenching
bottle of cold beer to hand and an attractive young Jane Austen
type lady hovering somewhere not too far away.
also review by Rob Barnett.