Louis-Ferdinand HÉROLD (1791-1833)
Piano Concertos
No. 1 in E major (1811) [21:42]
No. 2 in E flat major (1811) [28:08]
No. 3 in A major (1813) [23:36]
No. 4 in E minor (1813) [15:27]
Angéline Pondepeyre (piano)
WRD Rundfunkorchester Köln/Conrad van Alphen
rec. August-September 2010, Klaus-von-Bismarck-Saal, WDR, Köln
ET’CETERA KTC1547 [49:50 + 39:03]

Louis-Ferdinand Hérold is remembered today for one ballet, La Fille mal gardée, and one opera overture, Zampa. However, his early musical life was dominated by instrumental endeavours, particularly the piano. Born in Paris into a musical family, he studied at the Conservatoire, and was taught composition by Méhul, violin by Kreutzer (of Beethoven sonata fame) and piano by the father of Adolphe Adam. He won the Prix de Rome in 1812, and it was during his stay in Italy that his thoughts moved towards the stage. He wrote two symphonies and the last two of these concertos whilst in Italy, but from then on his output was dominated by opera and ballet. He wrote at least one opera most years from then on until his early death from tuberculosis. Le Pré aux Clercs, from 1832, received one thousand performances in the next four decades.

This is a reissue of a 2011 Talent release (a now defunct label), which makes what I’m about to say worse in some ways. I will start with some grumbles, which are nothing to do with the music or the performances. Simply put, the level of care afforded to the printed material is terrible, among the worst I’ve seen.

Let’s start with the cover: a painting by Pieter van der Burgh of a street scene in The Hague. Why? Yes, Et’cetera is a Dutch label, but there is nothing to suggest that Hérold had any association with the Netherlands at all. I note that one of our reviewers commented adversely on the cover picture - a totally different one - of the Talent release.

A triviality certainly, and I wouldn't have even bothered mentioning or even considering it, were it not for the other issues. Let’s turn the case over and look at the back cover. It would seem there are two performances of the second concerto, and that they have totally different movements. In reality, the second instance is actually the fourth concerto, but the person responsible for creating the printed material has simply copy/pasted the title from the second concerto and then forgotten to change the details.

It gets even worse with the booklet, in English, German and French, though I can only comment on the first. Less than a page is allocated to the composer and the music, whereas the soloist and conductor get two and a half. The latter pages are in good English, whereas the text on the composer and music seems to have been translated by Google, so poor is it. The tense changes from past to present to future, occasionally mid-sentence, and you can throw in a few spelling errors as well. Finally, there are the factual errors: minor - he won the Prix de Rome in 1812, not 1813 - and major - only the first concerto is a world premiere, not all four as claimed, as the French label Mirare made their recording (of Nos. 2-4) a few months earlier (review). Since this is a reissue, it seems unforgiveable that no one in the Et’cetera production office thought it appropriate to revisit the notes.

Hérold’s concertos are among the earliest French works of this type, and have a deal in common with the works of Hummel, Dussek and Pleyel. However, those composers more often than not wrote works to demonstrate their virtuosic skills at the keyboard. Despite his apparent abilities as a pianist, Hérold’s concertos are less showy, with a greater emphasis on melody and feeling. There is a depth in the third and fourth concertos particularly that is not often found in piano works of this period. The first concerto, whilst apparently written at the same time as the second, was omitted on the Mirare recording because the manuscript was nearly indecipherable. It was rescued for this recording by Bernard Boetto, described in the booklet as a “musical paleographer”. It is in two overly long movements, and is evidence of a composer feeling his way into a new genre. The cuts and erasures that made the manuscript so hard to read are further evidence of this.

Perhaps the most striking movement of all is the slow movement (Andante) from the third concerto, which is denoted con violino obbligato. It is tender and rapturous, with the best of the beautiful melodies given to the violin, but most interestingly, the orchestra is silent throughout. The cheerfully facile rondos of the first three concertos are very much of their era. The fourth concerto, the most dramatic as befits its minor key nature, is in two movements, omitting the traditional rondo ending.

The French soloist and South African conductor are new to me; the performances are quite satisfactory, with a clear preference for spacious tempos, emphasising the proto-Romantic nature of the works. In the three works common to the two recordings, there is only one movement where Pondepeyre and van Alphen are quicker than their Mirare equivalents. They are a full two minutes slower in the large first movement of the second concerto. While there is an undoubted gravity to these works, I’m not sure they justify the full Romantic treatment. Neuberger and Niquet for Mirare provide more verve and energy, and their seemingly smaller orchestra sounds more in step with the music. The piano is miked too closely, so that the mechanism is audible at times, while the orchestra is a little recessed at times. Again Mirare wins out here.

It is hard to give this a recommendation, even if one ignores the textual issues. Being offered at full price for a double CD is hard to justify given the duration of each disc. I had written that surely some of the opera and ballet overtures, or even the symphonies, could have been used to occupy the seventy minutes of unused space, but then discovered that it was a reissue. Hérold completists who missed the original release will obviously be keen on obtaining the first concerto, but that may not be enough to encourage those who already own the Mirare, or those wishing to have this music for the first time, who are looking at the cost and performance differences. One saving grace for Et’cetera may be that the Mirare recording is no longer available in physical form through the usual channels, though downloads with the excellent booklet can be found easily.

David Barker

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