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Mozart Hummel Beethoven RIC417
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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Piano Concerto No 24 in C minor, K491 (arr. Hummel) [30:57]
Johann Nepomuk HUMMEL, (1778-1837)
Piano Sonata No 3 in F minor, Op 20 [19:41]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No 1 in C major, Op 21 (arr. Hummel) [28:11]
Aurelia Visovan (pianoforte)
Anna Besson (flute), Cecilia Bernardini (violin), Marcus van den Munckhof (cello)
Pianoforte: a reproduction of an 1835 Graf piano
rec. February 2020, Provincial Museum Beginhofkerk Sint-Truiden, Belgium
RICERCAR RIC417 [78:19]

I’m rather fond of transcriptions and this one sounded as if it might be fun – especially as it is for an unusual combination of instruments.  It also gave me a chance to get to know some unfamiliar Hummel – the few works of whom I have heard I like, but I cannot claim to be enormously familiar with him.

First, is Hummel’s arrangement of one of Mozart’s late piano concertos for the unusual combination of piano, flute, violin and cello, set in the dark key of C minor.  Despite that, much of the material is light and cheerful and it all works very well in this arrangement.   The entrance of the soloist at 2:21 and consequent development of the opening theme are very nicely performed – none of the details are missing.  There is some wonderful ensemble playing between five to seven minutes in this movement where everyone joins in merrily.  Things take a darker turn after this, as the piano has some solo work to do before everyone slowly returns.  There is a lot of virtuosity here and the players all work together splendidly.  The pace gradually increases as the movement progresses and the writing becomes increasingly frantic.  As this movement is in sonata form, the final appearance of the sinister opening occurs before the rather lovely cadenza in which the soloist slowly moves into the key of C before being shoved back into C minor again by the other instruments.  Despite this, the work very surprisingly ends peacefully in this key and sort of floats off into the ether.

The following ‘Larghetto’ is excellent – the instrumental accompaniment to the piano is sensitive and charming.  The sense of feeling in the piano solo part is striking; Ms. Visovan plays absolutely marvellously.  The minor key transition about 1:50 is particularly well-handled – the hints of darkness in the music are quite clear and then they suddenly resolve into a pleasing repeat of the opening music which then goes on to develop in unexpected ways.  The other instruments provide some lovely accompaniment to the soloist, working together extremely well. The ending, with some beautiful pizzicato playing from the ‘cello and violin, is unexpectedly tender.  The ‘Allegretto’ finale follows – with a sort of “once upon a time” opening before the piano takes off with a happy little tune with limited accompaniment.  There is certainly a lot for the soloist to do here, many little trills and mordents are included in a movement which is essentially a set of variations on a theme.  This all changes at about 2:30’ where everyone suddenly has a lot to do: as the movement progresses, the atmosphere moves through a series of episodes, all differing in mood, until the cadenza where the soloist trips happily around and sets everyone up for the end of the work defiantly in C minor.  This makes a super ending to a delightful work and the period instrumentation used really sounds like something that Mozart or Hummel could happily have listened to and easily recognise.  Full marks to all of the performers here.

The notes make reference to the fact that the piano part is augmented with details which would be taken from the orchestral writing.  This therefore makes it more difficult to perform than the original version but none of that presents this soloist with any problems.  Overall, this is a marvellous arrangement of a well-known concerto that survives the transition from soloist and full orchestra to a quartet of instruments amazingly well and is here performed with panache and jollity by a talented group of musicians.  Tempi are about average for a performance of this work which for me is always a good indication.

Next follows an original work by Hummel – his Third Sonata, published in 1807 as his Op 20.  It was only after listening to this a few times that I realised that I already had a recording of this work – albeit on a modern piano and played by Stephen Hough in his Hyperion recording.  Comparing the two, the timbre of the fortepiano here takes a little getting used to; however, it works rather well.  The opening movement is nicely judged and the slightly sinister opening proceeds into a more cheerful section which gradually lightens in mood and ultimately becomes quite jolly.  There is also no shortage of virtuosity here, as it is all dispatched with considerable aplomb by Ms. Visovan.  Her playing throughout is very sensitive to the needs of the instrument – nothing is thundered - although obviously even a modern replica of a fortepiano would not be able to compete with Mr. Hough’s Steinway. Tempi are well judged here and I like the way the music flows seamlessly from one interesting motif to the other. As the notes point out, this is more like a Fantasia than a standard sonata opening movement owing to the abrupt changes of tempo, key and mood.  Interestingly, and as noted in the excellent booklet, in order to fit all the music onto the CD, the first movement repeat is omitted – listening to the same work via a streaming service, this is reinstated which makes it a weightier work.  The following ‘Adagio’ starts darkly but soon evolves into something rather lovely with some intricate passagework for the soloist to negotiate.  It’s not really very slow, it has slow moments interspersed with faster music.  Of special note is a rather charming passage starting from 2:20 which has some lovely control of the instrument as it meanders through the movement.  The ending is a surprise as it segues straight into the short finale without a break.  Here, the soloist really has to grapple with virtuosic music, the difficulties are obvious here and sound, if anything more exposed on a fortepiano than a modern instrument.  None of this presents any problems for Ms. Visovan who provides a satisfying conclusion to a rather unusual and rarely heard sonata.  This is a lovely performance of this work, perfectly judged and well worth investigating, especially if you want to compare to a modern instrument performance such as Mr. Hough’s on Hyperion.

Lastly, we have Hummel arranging Beethoven’s first symphony for the same unusual combination of instruments as he had done before with the earlier Mozart concerto.  There is an energy and verve to Beethoven’s first two symphonies which I really like and this transcription certainly helps impart that feeling to the music.  The cover notes describe what Hummel did in order to reproduce the sound of the full orchestra for these four instrumentalists - broadly, the wind parts go to the flute, the strings parts to the ‘cello and violin and the remaining to the piano.  The first movement, after the slow introduction (‘Adagio molto – Allegro con brio’), whizzes off at a fair rate of knots – it’s so happy and joyful and the whole musical argument remains intact despite the lack of the full orchestra.  The myriad changes in key and mood are all captured marvellously here and the instrumentalists certainly seem to be enjoying themselves.  There is no shortage of power on this performance; the detail in the second movement ‘Andante’ is remarkable and the infectious enthusiasm of the players is clear.  The fortepiano, when playing on its own, is perfectly capable of conjuring up the orchestral effects and, when joined by the other instruments, produces a lovely sound.  Beethoven’s wind writing floats above the remainder of the instruments (via the flute) and adds clarity to everything.  Although this is an ‘Andante’, it is taken at a reasonably quick walking-pace, which helps with the energy of the music.  The fugal passages from about five minutes in are so easy to follow here that it all makes perfect musical sense.  Beethoven’s winding theme meanders gently through this movement, winding itself up nicely in the last couple of minutes of this movement and all the players respond accordingly - there are some especially witty moments here in the last half-minute of this movement.  Next follows Beethoven’s ‘Menuetto’ which could, I think, be described as a Scherzo as it has a kind of jokey mood to it.  As before, the playing here is exemplary and the work comes across fully intact – albeit with some apparent minor changes to the winds to make it more logical for the solo flute.  The middle part of the movement – a sort of rustic dance - fares especially well here, you can almost imagine a village party going on.  The jokey, scherzo-like music returns to round off the movement and it ends with a bump.  The finale starts slowly before launching into the jolly tune mostly for the piano before the remainder of the instruments join in the fun.  There is a clear joy of music making here, as all four instrumentalists give it their all.  Beethoven’s funny, off-beat accents here are observed very well and the reduced instrumentation makes the detail stand out very clearly.  There is some superb ensemble playing especially in the middle of the movement – just before the opening music returns and is then varied.  As the movement moves toward its conclusion, the instrumentalists all have plenty to do and they all play with enthusiasm and a keen ear for detail.  The ending is powerful and fun - marvellous stuff.  This is a super performance of a lovely work in an excellent arrangement and bears repeated listening.  It is quite a surprise to hear this music for these instruments and it is remarkable how the work comes across as so intact even with these reduced forces.  I would really like to hear how Hummel arranged the other symphonies that he treated in the same way; according to the notes, he arranged the first seven for this combination of instruments.

Overall, this is a joyous piece of music-making from start to finish. I am not as a rule a big fan of the fortepiano but in this context, it works extremely well and Ms. Visovan and the band play superbly, clearly enjoying working together.  The cover notes are interesting and full of detail, the disc is generously packed and the recorded sound is wonderful.  The exuberance of the playing throughout is clear from this recording and I hope to hear more from this group in the future.

Jonathan Welsh

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