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Johann Nepomuk HUMMEL (1778-1837)
Piano Trios - Volume 1
Trio No. 2 in F major, op. 22 (1807) [13:06]
Trio No. 3 in G major, op. 35 (1811) [14:32]
Trio No. 6 in E flat major, op. 93 (1822) [19:17]
Trio No. 7 in E flat major, op. 96 (1822) [18:28]
Gould Piano Trio (Lucy Gould (violin); Alice Neary (cello); Benjamin Frith (piano))
rec. Champs Hill, West Sussex, UK, 28-30 January 2013.
NAXOS 8.573098 [65:24]

Johann Nepomuk HUMMEL
Piano trio No. 5 in E major, op. 83 (1819) [22:13]
Piano trio No. 6 in E flat major, op. 93 (1822) [19:21]
Trio Parnassus
No recording details provided
SWR MUSIC SWR10148 [41:34]

Hummel was my first obscure composer, by which I mean that he was the first composer whose name was unknown to me when I heard and was so impressed by his music. That was twenty years ago or so, and he has remained a “pet” composer, though I do acknowledge his weaknesses. The recording industry, particularly Chandos and Naxos, has been reasonably kind to his memory, with a steady trickle of releases. I’m not sure how much of his oeuvre remains unrecorded, if any, but new recordings are always welcome.

He was a virtuoso pianist, and hence works involving that instrument both dominate and are the best of his compositions. While his music is often considered to be proto-Romantic, these trios are closer in spirit to Haydn and Mozart than Beethoven or Schubert. They are genial and undemanding on the ear, rarely venturing beyond superficial pleasantries. That isn’t intended to be a criticism of them; after all, much music of this era was like this. I’m thinking of contemporaries such as Clementi, Dussek, Pleyel and Moscheles. Only with the great ones do we delve deeper.

Trios 2 and 3 are very much in this mould, not even requiring great virtuosity from the pianist. Moving on ten years or so, trios 5, 6 and 7 do show a degree of advancement, but even here, the writing for the strings is relatively straightforward. It wouldn’t be overstating it to describe these trios as better named as piano sonatas with violin and cello obbligato.

Recordings of the Hummel trios are fairly scarce. There are only two complete sets currently available, one of which is from Trio Parnassus on MDG, which I don’t possess. Given the complete lack of documentation “provided” with the SWR set, I can only assume that it is the same ensemble in both recordings. My only recording of the trios previous to these two was the Borodin Trio on Chandos (CHAN9529, Nos 1, 5 and 7). Comparing the two performance of Trio 6, the Parnassus is quicker in the outer movements, and slower in the middle, and overall more characterful than the Gould. This is even more pronounced when comparing Trio 5 of the Parnassus and the Borodin, where the latter seems almost moribund in the supposedly outer movements. I suspect it was this lack of energy in the Borodin recording – which I have had for more than a decade – that deterred me from purchasing the complete Parnassus set.

I listened to these two recordings as 320k mp3 downloads from Classicsonline – the sound quality was perfectly fine in both cases. I’m guessing that the Parnassus is a concert recording, but if so, the audience is very quiet. Given that the music is not of the highest order, the economics of these two recordings does come into play. The Parnassus is only available as a download, and despite the very short playing time, is more expensive than the Gould ($US9.99 and 6.99).

If the content was the same, I would go for the Parnassus, but if you are starting your collection of Hummel trios, the Gould versions are perfectly satisfactory.

David Barker

Hummel review index