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Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826)
Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 2 [9:19]
Six Pieces for Piano Duet, Op. 10* [21:28]
Piano Sonata No. 1 in C major, Op. 24 [29:34]
Duncan J Cumming (fortepiano); Christopher Hogwood*
rec. 31 October-2 November 2010, Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, England
CENTAUR CRC 3231 [60:22]

Unless you’re particularly conversant with the specification of the fortepiano used on this recording, it might be a good idea if you take a quick look at the excellent sleeve-notes. I say this especially if you initially play the tracks in random order, and just happen to light upon the fourth of the Six Pieces for Piano Duet, Op. 10. There is also a similar sonic experience, earlier on, in the third of the Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 2 but this wouldn’t be individually accessed. Rather than spoil the excitement – which might firstly cause you to check your audio connections for the cause of the apparent ‘distortion’ – just check out Christopher Nobbs’s most erudite notes on the instrument itself (a Joseph Brodmann, Vienna, c1815), or Ryan Mark’s outstanding analytical section on the music, and all should be revealed.

The CD features some of the earliest keyboard music which Weber wrote, up to his time in Prague where, because he was heavily committed to the Estates Theatre, and was new to the city, he was not especially productive in this particular genre. In fact the final work recorded here, and probably the one most familiar to pianists today – the Sonata No. 1 in C major, Op. 24 – was published only the year before he left Prague. It was one which he enjoyed subsequently performing at gatherings in Berlin.

The opening work is the first the composer published – his Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 2 – written in Munich in 1800 when a mere thirteen years of age, and designed to show off his own precocious talent. The simple, four-square ‘Amoroso’ theme remains structurally and metrically unaltered throughout, with no marked tempo changes. That said, there is certainly sufficient interest in terms of piano technique and diversity of sonorities, to make it an appealing opening gambit.

Duncan J Cumming – a faculty member at the University of Albany, New York State – is joined by world-renowned conductor, keyboard player and musicologist, Christopher Hogwood, in the Six Pieces for Piano Duet, Op. 10. Together they produce an eminently taut ensemble, with impeccable stylistic empathy for the music; the Brodmann fortepiano, in fact, comes from Hogwood’s own collection. The opening piece of the set is couched in sonata form, with a characteristically dotted first theme and a contrasting second one in semiquavers. Piece 2 turns to the minor, with a plaintive Siciliano, later borrowed by Hindemith for his Symphonic Metamorphoses on Themes by Weber. The third piece returns to the major, and comprises a set of variations in G on an Andante theme possibly by Weber’s friend and colleague, the Kapellmeister Franz Danzi. The individual variations are related only loosely to the theme, preferring instead to develop its harmonic progressions in an effective series of different styles.

Piece 4, mentioned above, is a ‘Masurik’ (or Mazurka), a Polish dance in triple metre, with characteristic second-beat accents and Lombardic rhythms (or ‘Scotch snaps’). It’s a form immortalised some years later by Chopin, even if there is far more of an Austro-German Ländler feel in Weber’s writing. The penultimate piece is a melancholic Adagio, featuring a vocal-style cantabile over a dotted chordal accompaniment. There’s a light-hearted Rondo, in a brisk 3/8 measure as a finale, where both players have clearly returned to the party-spirit of the fourth piece of the set.

In terms of the final work on the CD – the Sonata No. 1 in C major, Op. 24 – there is a slightly greater choice of interpreters. Arrau, for example, has recorded it on Naxos Historical (8.111263). It is also included in Volume 1 of Alexander Paley’s comprehensive exploration of Weber’s piano music (8.550988) as well as on the same artist’s survey of the Weber sonatas (Brilliant Classics 92441). In every case it makes great technical demands especially where Weber’s hand-size is concerned. According to one of his pupils, Julius Benedict, Weber was able to play tenths with the same facility as octaves, and furthermore, he could produce the most startling effects of sonority, able to elicit an almost vocal tone where delicacy or deep expression was required. All in all, a mandatory requirement is the ability to play flashing scales and arpeggios, toccata-like double notes, daredevil leaps, and all with a great sense of dramatic passion thrown into the mix.

Cumming definitely has all these prerequisites in abundance and, together with the authentic sound of the Brodmann fortepiano, makes his historically-informed performance definitely one to go for. Furthermore, unlike some other pianists who have separately recorded the work’s notorious finale – dubbed ‘L’infatigable’ by the composer, but now better known by Alkan’s title, ‘Perpetuum mobile’, Cumming’s reading has every sense of Weber’s ‘Presto’ marking, but not played as if he were out to achieve an Olympic record.

With superbly-captured sound, and the other most enjoyable and somewhat rarer repertoire in tow, Cumming’s second recording on the Centaur label is highly attractive. It will appeal both to serious period-music collectors and those just looking for something different, yet still exceedingly well produced all-round.
 
Philip R Buttall