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Fanfare, May 2006

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Scott Morrison, December 2005

"5 of 5 points

I first encountered Hummel when I was learning the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor, K. 466; the edition I was using had the Hummel cadenzas for that magnificent concerto, and in comparison to the Mozart they were pretty lame. (Fortunately, my teacher steered me towards the Beethoven cadenzas which are vastly superior and the ones almost universally used.) So my early poor opinion of Hummel was influenced by that experience. Since then, of course, I've learned better. He may not be Mozart or Beethoven, but he's an estimable composer nonetheless and this CD of piano Fantasies supports that ssessment. When they were written touring piano virtuosi were expected to supply music for their own programs, and fantasias often based on familiar melodies were all the rage. One of them here (and one of the most impressive, in my opinion) is the Fantasie in G Minor, Op. 123, which is reportedly having its first recording here. The pianist is Vienna-based Madoka Inui whose playing I had previous admired on a disc featuring the principal clarinetist of the Vienna Philharmonic, Peter Schmidl. She covers herself with glory in this disc.

There are six works featured here and they come from both early and late Hummel. The Opp. 18 and 19, respectively the Fantasie in E Flat Major, and the Rondo quasi una fantasia in E Major, are clearly less sophisticated that the others. Written in 1805 and 1806 their melodies presage the mellifluous cantilena made familiar later by Bellini and John Field, and in the former there is the influence of the Sturm und Drang piano writing of CPE Bach. Inui presents them with clarity, lyricism and more than a little drama.

The work getting its recorded première, the Op. 123, leads off the CD and is quite an impressive work. It is in five sections titled Introduzione, The Hunter's Song, Marcia, The Bloodhound, and The Roaming Mariners. It is based on three songs by the now-forgotten Sigismond Ritter von Neukomm, with an original introduction and march by Hummel. Clearly Hummel did not simply compose a potpourri, but weaved the melodies into complex and satisfying pieces.

There is a nine-minute 'Contemplazione' in A Flat, from Hummel's 'Six Bagatelles, Op. 107. It is a lyrical, somewhat melancholy piece with a gorgeous set of melodies, some of them reminiscent of Chopin. This is followed by 'Fantasie "Recollections of Paganini"' from 1832. In four sections, Caprice, Quartetto, Rondo and Campanella, it uses melodies from Paganini's 9th and 11th Caprices for solo violin, the minuet from his Guitar Quartet, and the Rondo from the Violin Concerto in B Minor (the so-called 'La Campanella'). Again, Hummel does not merely dress up the original melodies but composes fantasias on them that take them somewhat far afield. There are echoes of Mozartean counterpoint and the melisma of both Paganini and Chopin.

Finally, there is the now-familiar 'Fantasina in C Major on "Non piu andrai"' based, of course, on Figaro's aria from 'Marriage of Figaro' by Mozart. Only five minutes long, it is still sometimes played as an encore.

Inui is a very fine pianist and she is given lifelike sound by her engineers. Amazingly this music was recorded only five months ago, some indication that Naxos must have thought this was a superb recording that needed to be released as soon as possible. I agree with that assessment.

If you aren't familiar with Hummel's piano music (or any of his music, for that matter) I'd advise you to take the plunge and get this budget issue. You won't be disappointed."

Patrick C Waller
MusicWeb International

"Hummel was a virtuoso pianist who in 1813 at the time of his marriage to the singer, Elizabeth Röckel was intent on a career as a composer. She persuaded him to continue playing and effectively became his manager. Nevertheless he also composed extensively in all the usual formats, with works for the piano being only a relatively small part of his output.

The concertos and sonatas are becoming reasonably well-known but his fantasies are rarities on disc. The present recording of Op.123 is a world première. Although they were considered revolutionary at the time, a couple of centuries on it is a little hard to see why. The G minor Fantasie is in five short movements with an underlying hunting theme and is partly based on material from Cornish ballads. Frankly, I found this rather banal but the disc does get better as it goes on.

The E flat Fantasie is the earliest and most extended work. If the four movements are structured like a sonata, freedoms within them justify the classification. The second movement Larghetto e cantabile is notably touching. Here Hummel was competing with Beethoven in his prime and, although he wasn’t winning, this was more due to lack of real innovation than lack of ideas or compositional mastery. The Rondo quasi una fantasia is grander in gesture but more concise in form. The other works are also fairly short and immediately attractive. La contemplazione is particularly melodious and the Paganini recollections imaginative, drawing on the 9th and 11th caprices, his first two violin concertos and 7th guitar quartet. “Non piu andrai” is the most famous aria from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro and Hummel, a master improviser in his time, provided a tantalizing and refreshing take which concludes the disc on a high note.

If the music is of variable quality, the playing of the young Japanese pianist Madoka Inui is not. She proves a very reliable guide, relishing the freedom of expression inherent in the music without ever overdoing it. She plays a Bösendorfer and is most naturally recorded. There is good documentation although it would have been nice to know what relation the artist of The Granite Dish in the Pleasure Garden on the front cover was to the composer – i.e. Johann E. Hummel (1769-1852) – perhaps an older brother? For me, Hummel’s piano sonatas are of considerably more interest than the music played here. I hope Naxos will complete their sonata series before too long. Nevertheless there is enough here that is pleasurable to justify the modest cost and Madoka Inui is a name to watch out for."

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