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Hiller chamber 5553122
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Ferdinand Hiller (1811-1885)
Piano Quartet No 3 in A minor, Op 133 (1870)
Piano Quintet in G major, Op 156 (1872)
Oliver Triendl (piano)
Minguet Quartett
rec. 2010, Klaus-von-Bismarck-Saal, WDR Funkhaus, Köln
CPO 555312-2 [77]

The years 1809-1813 represent a remarkable time for music, with Mendelssohn, Chopin, Schumann, Liszt and Wagner all born in that period. While today we would not consider including Ferdinand Hiller in that list, he was a significant figure in his lifetime; his biography on Wikipedia is a remarkable collection of links to the Who’s Who of classical music in the nineteenth century. He was a prolific composer, as can be seen by the opus numbers of these two works, which are by no means near the end of his output.

This would appear to be the first recording of the Quartet, while there is another of the Quintet (Avi-Music, coupled with the Schumann from 2015), which I haven’t heard. I was surprised to find that these were the first pieces of his in my collection, as I was certainly familiar with his name.

I don’t intend to discuss the two pieces individually, as they are very much peas in a pod. Both works are close to forty minutes, and are classic examples of a competent composer overstretching himself. Five of the eight movements are in excess of ten minutes, and there is nowhere near the level of inspiration to sustain those durations. Compare this with Schumann’s Quintet, a work of undisputed genius, where none of the movements reaches ten minutes. Indeed Schumann, a close friend, said that Hiller’s music “lacked that triumphant power which we are unable to resist”. The word “masterpiece” is applied a number of times in the booklet notes to the works presented here, which they very definitely are not. That’s not to say that they aren’t an enjoyable listen, but they don’t hold the attention; there is simply too much meandering. I do like his rhythmic inventions, but will probably offend Hiller fans (if I haven’t already) by saying that melody wasn’t his strong suit. He is at his best writing for his own instrument, the piano.

If these works fail to impress, it is certainly not the fault of the performers. The commitment of the indefatigable Oliver Triendl to the cause of the unsung composer is remarkable, and he always plays as though he is in the presence of a masterpiece (when so often he is not). Similarly, the Minguet Quartett have proven sterling advocates of such repertoire.

The recording year is not a typo: this is a new release. Such delays are common with CPO, and I’ve never heard a good explanation as to why money would be spent on the recording facilities, engineers and, of course, performers, for the results to then “sit on a shelf” for twelve years. The sound quality is very good, and the booklet notes are a substantial essay (ten pages) on his life and these two works with an interesting analysis of the evolution of the piano quintet. They are certainly far better written and translated than a recent CPO offering that I reviewed. However, when the first sentence requires me to consult a dictionary (“One of the ineradicable données of the romantic view of art …”), I do worry that the author is trying just a little too hard.

The collector of the unsung repertoire will find much to enjoy in this release; for the rest of us, it is an interesting, but non-essential, one.

David Barker

Published: October 11, 2022

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