Ferdinand HILLER (1811-1885)
Piano Sonata No.2 in A flat major, Op.59 (c. 1853-56) [10:36]
Piano Sonata No.3 in G minor, Op.78 (c.1857) [15:09]
Ghasèles Op.54 Nos. 1 and 2 (1853) [4:39]
Six Klavierstücke Op.130 Nos. 1-3 and 5 (c.1857) [13:11]
Miscellaneous Piano Pieces Op.81 Nos. 1-3 (1859) [15:26]
Alexandra Oehler (piano)
rec. March 2010, Kammermusikstudio, SWR Stuttgart
CPO 777 584-2 [52:48]
Ferdinand Hiller, who was born in Frankfurt am Main in 1811, was admired in extravagant terms successively by Chopin, Mendelssohn and Schumann. Talent, imagination and passion were the qualities they lauded. As a travelling virtuoso pianist, and composer, Hiller met the great and the good: Hummel, with whom he had studied as a boy, Beethoven, Schubert, Liszt, and Berlioz amongst the most prominent. Later he became music director of various city societies and conducted prestigious orchestras in Germany and beyond.
All the works in this disc were recorded in the 1850s and 1860s whilst he was living and working in Cologne, where he was the director of the Rhine Music School. The two piano sonatas are brief works. The Second lasts ten minutes in this performance and fuses long lyrical lines with more agitated left hand accents ending with a Mendelssohnian finale section full of spirit and bravura. The Third Sonata again has plenty of surging dynamism, albeit of the rather formulaic kind, and one can’t help but feel that it says less than the earlier work it’s half as long again.
On the evidence of the sonatas Hiller was more gifted as a composer of character pieces: indeed he is probably best known, pianistically, for his Ghasèles. The ghaza is a long-established Arabic poetic form that had undergone a nineteenth-century renaissance in the West and was popularised by such German writers as August von Platen and Friedrich Rückert. Hiller sought to convey this poetic form in music and it unleashed his instinct for narrative and passion not necessarily audible in his more conventional works. Thus Op.54 No. 1 sounds indebted to John Field and its opus companion No.2 has an even higher degree of poetry, and is more dapper, more dancing and more alive.
Alexandra Oehler plays four of the six Klavierstücke Op.130, of which No.5 is another Ghasèle. Hiller has gone for maximum contrast. The Ballade is fresh, the Idyll rather sturdy, and the Romance similarly big-boned. Oehler programmes three of the miscellaneous piano pieces, though there was room for more, as indeed there was easily room for all of the Op.130 set. No.3 is a most attractive, rather hymnal piece, whilst No.2 is yet another Ghasèle, but this is possibly Hiller’s best, and a perfect example of his art at its most poetic and convincingly characterised. He’s often at his best when he seems to be improvising. We end the disc with the first of the Op.81 set, a march that sounds like a tamer version, a less exotic version, of a Chopin Polonaise.
Oehler provides sturdy pianism in this well recorded programme. I wondered if at some points she wasn’t selling Hiller a little short in his more overtly romantic moments. Still, this is certainly a very fair survey of his piano works from that two-decade period.
Jonathan Woolf 

A very fair survey of Hiller’s piano works. 

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