December 01, 2005


Ries: Piano Concertos opp. 123 (1806) and 151 (1826). Christopher Hinterhuber, piano; Uwe Grodd conducting the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. Naxos. $7.99.

Hummel: Cello Sonata, op. 104; Piano Trios, opp. 22 and 35; Piano Quartet in G Major. Susan Alexander-Max, fortepiano; Micaela Comberti, violin; Simon Standage, violin; Jane Rogers, viola; Pal Banda, cello. Naxos. $7.99.

     Ferdinand Ries and Johann Nepomuk Hummel were superstars in their own day: renowned pianists and noted composers.  Today they are footnotes in musical history, and Ries is barely even that: he is best known as a writer (horrors!) because of his memoir of three years of study with Beethoven.

     The problem for Ries and Hummel – not one of their own making – was the time in which they lived: after Beethoven’s transformative works but before the full flowering of Romanticism.  The result is that much of their music, no matter how well-crafted, sounds as if it is neither here nor there.

     Yet there are charms aplenty in the two Ries piano concertos played with great style by Christopher Hinterhuber on a new Naxos CD.  Remarkably, both of these recordings are world premieres – that is how far Ries’ reputation has fallen.  Ries deserves better.  Both these works are filled with charm and drama, with well-wrought tunes and some unexpected rhythmic and harmonic twists and turns.  There is plenty of sheer virtuosity, abetted by Hinterhuber’s very nice touch, and there is also a very strong command of orchestration.  The New Zealand Symphony has never sounded better than it does here under Uwe Grodd: lines are clear, all instrumental sections are adept, and the ensemble work is excellent.  Although separated by 20 years, these concertos both have an early-Beethoven sound about them, but they are far from being strictly imitative.  Both finales, for instance, begin with cadenzas – one interesting touch among many.  The very relaxed opening of op. 151 is another.  Of course, these are not works at Beethoven’s level – but they are at Hummel’s, which is a very high one.

     Actually, Hummel’s piano concertos do get some attention nowadays – certainly more than Ries’ do.  But Hummel’s chamber music remains unfairly neglected.  It shouldn’t be.  There is elegance and gentility in all the works on a new Naxos CD.  There are well-constructed surprises, too, such as the quiet ending of the posthumous two-movement Quartet in G and the silences in the finale of the Trio, op. 35.  The earlier Trio, op. 22, has a finale marked “Alla Turca” that is positively Haydnesque, while this work’s first movement has unusually lovely ebb and flow.  The most “advanced” music here – the longest and most serious work – is the Cello Sonata (which Hummel called “Grande Sonate”).  It has great beauty, though considering the year of its composition (1826, a year before Beethoven’s death), it seems lacking in depth.

     That was the problem for Ries and Hummel: they never adjusted, as composers or performers, to the grand sweeps of Romanticism increasingly expected during and after Beethoven’s life.  Yet there remains a place for poise and beauty in music – not every composer needs to storm Olympus – and these two composers’ works, when as well played as they are on these CDs, are well worth hearing and rehearing on their own terms.

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