Hans HUBER (1852-1921)
Piano Concerto No.1 in C minor, Op.36 (1878) [33:14]
Piano Concerto No.3 in D major, Op.113 (1899) [29:07]
Dan Franklin Smith (piano)
Stuttgart Philharmonic Orchestra/Michail Jurowski
rec. Gustav-Siegle-Haus, Stuttgart, Germany, 21-25 July 2003
STERLING CDS1056-2 [62:21]

Hans Huber was born in Switzerland into a fairly musical family. He became a chorister and showed an early talent for the piano - gaining entry to the Leipzig Conservatory in 1870 to study piano and composition. As an aspiring composer, he apparently observed that his compositions stood a better chance of achieving notice if he pursued a dual career as pianist and composer – although it appears that he eschewed the life of a travelling virtuoso. Having turned down some prestigious offers of employment, he returned to Basel to teach in 1877, obtaining a post in the Conservatory there in 1889 and eventually becoming its director in 1896. As a composer he was quite active there and produced five operas, nine symphonies, eight concertos (two each for violin and ’cello and four for piano) and a substantial quantity of chamber and piano music. It would appear that the first performances of many of Huber’s major works would have been at Basel subscription concerts. His comparatively parochial existence probably restricted opportunities for his music to travel – most, if not all, of it having disappeared from the repertoire since his lifetime - although I rather doubt this is the main reason for its neglect. At any rate, it is now beginning to surface again.

The full scores of two of the piano concertos (2 and 4) appear to have been lost and the works are currently only available as 2-piano reductions. The full scores of concertos 1 and 3 remain available and were recorded as part of a major project, also including the symphonies, by the Swedish Sterling label in 2003 - and the present disc is a reissue of part of the results of that project. At the time of the original issue Rob Barnett reviewed the two piano concertos and they obviously made a very favourable impression on him. Rob refers to Litolff (amongst others) as a possible influence on Huber but I would go much further and suggest that Litolff’s Concertos Symphonique, probably all composed in the thirty years up to 1867, were almost certainly the model for Huber’s concertos. Without any of them being designated as “Concerto Symphonique”, all Huber’s concertos are in four movements (an unusual characteristic of Litolff’s concertos at the time) – although the Sterling booklet takes pains to point out that the construction of both the concertos recorded here is in no way symphonic.

The first concerto of 1878 starts with two lyrical movements marked “Langsam”. The first movement opens with a lyrical tune in the strings, leading to a piano cadenza. Much of what follows is episodic and the piano is largely involved only in accompanying. The second movement is more like walking pace than slow (at least in this performance) and uses a lot of parallel octaves. The booklet comments that the piano figurations “only rarely attain a motivic contour” which, translated, suggests (as I believe is the case) that the music is obstinately unmemorable. The third movement (marked “So rasch wie mӧglich” – as quick as possible) is a spirited moto perpetuo – the two parts of which frame a lyrical trio. This seems to be Huber’s (somewhat inferior) version of Litolff’s famous Scherzo and, like that piece, it is the high spot of the corresponding concerto. The composer must have been well aware of this because he rounded off the fourth movement (otherwise based on an undistinguished march-like theme) in similar style, probably in a bid for audience approbation – which, it seems, he achieved.

The third concerto appeared some twenty years later and the booklet claims that it shows “… how far Huber had progressed as regards the piano (and orchestral) writing”. Huber’s friend and biographer, Edgar Refardt, claimed that “…the most effective [piano concerto] of the entire series remains the Third”. Rob Barnett felt that this concerto stood “head and shoulders above the first”. I beg to differ. My impression is that Huber’s writing had evolved very little – although there are odd suggestions that he was aware of what was happening around him in the musical firmament.

The first movement opens with a quiet pizzicato theme vaguely reminiscent of the opening of Saint Sans’ wonderful 5th concerto of 1896. Unfortunately, that is as far as the comparison can be taken. The movement is marked “Passacaglia ber den Bass des I. Themas im Finale” and consists of a set of variations – one of which is fast and seems slightly out of place. Here, it is the scurrying second movement that follows the Litolff Scherzo model, although this is probably less successful than the third movement of the first concerto. The third movement (“Intermezzo: Adagio ma non troppo”) is described as starting with “a weighty fugue” although it hardly sounds weighty to me. Strangely, there is a piano run that could have been lifted from the third movement of Beethoven’s fourth concerto and the movement ends quietly on the piano with what sounds like a quote from Strauss’s “Death and Transfiguration” (of 1889). The fourth movement (“Final: Allegro con fuoco”) sets off as a tarantella of sorts, after an opening fanfare, but – unfortunately - does not vary much from a determined triple time throughout. After a cadenza there is a big coda.

Performances of soloist and orchestra are excellent and sensitive throughout – no complaints in that respect. The recording is slightly more than ideally reverberant with occasional suggestions of string congestion but is otherwise clear and very acceptable.

I recall a comment (in relation to the watchmaking industry) about the Swiss as “being a nation of clockmakers but failing to move with the times”. To me the evidence here suggests that Hans Huber, a Swiss composer in the generation after Brahms, started somewhat behind the times and failed to move with them. Opinions obviously differ markedly but, grateful though I am to Sterling for providing the opportunity to hear these concertos, I fear that (as with Litolff) there is not really enough composing talent here to justify more than very occasional outings.

Bob Stevenson

Previous review: Rob Barnett
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