January 12, 2006


Hummel: Fantasie in G Minor, Op. 123; Fantasie in E-flat Major, Op. 18; Rondo quasi una fantasia in E Major, Op. 19; “La Contemplazione” in A-flat Major from “Six Bagatelles,” Op. 107; Fantasie “Recollections of Paganini”; Fantasina in C Major on “Non più andrai,” Op. 124. Madoka Inui, piano. Naxos. $7.99.

     Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837) had the misfortune to be both ahead of and behind his time.  Madoka Inui’s excellent performances of his piano fantasies show how and why.  There is no single “Hummel style” in these works – instead, there is a multiplicity of styles, each of which was to be extended, improved upon and incorporated into the works of Hummel’s contemporaries and successors.

     The most obvious “extenders” were Beethoven and Liszt.  Hummel’s Op. 18 Fantasie, written in 1805 and by far the longest work on this CD, is really a grand piano sonata, with an especially intense Lento introduction to the first movement and a series of difficulties for the player throughout.  Beethoven knew the work, which may well have influenced his own Fantasie, Op. 77, a curious, improvisational-sounding piece of ever-shifting moods.  Hummel’s Op. 18 even has elements that seem to have been absorbed and expanded by Beethoven in the Hammerklavier of 1818.  Now, so many years after all these works were written, Hummel’s – for all its intensity – sounds somewhat like a pale imitation of better music, when in fact it was more likely an inspiration.

     As for Liszt – who so admired Hummel that he arranged for a Hummel monument to be erected in what is now Bratislava – he surely took pieces like “Recollections of Paganini” and the Fantasia on “Non più andrai” to heart in his own very extended reminiscences, expansions, contemplations and virtuoso variations on the works of many composers.  These two Hummel works are quite charming, and Inui plays them with both delicacy and panache.  But they are also superficial, being closer to reproductions and expansions of the original Paganini and Mozart tunes than analyses or extensions of them.  They are fun to hear, but the listener must keep Liszt’s ghost at bay.

     It is Donizetti, Bellini and Rossini who are suggested by Hummel’s Rondo, Op. 19, which has an operatic quality to it.  So does “La Contemplazione,” a slow and extended meditation (nearly as long as the four-movement Paganini fantasy) whose quiet beauty would fit well into many operas of the time.  The Fantasie Op. 123, though, has an entirely different quality.  This work – here given its world-première recording – is based on folk-song themes by two minor composers, with an introduction and march on themes by Hummel itself.  The work is in five disconnected movements and does not aspire to the profundity of some of the other fantasies.  Yet it too makes one think of Liszt – specifically the Liszt of Hexameron, a grand work with contributions by Chopin, Czerny, Thalberg and others.  Inui makes a strong case for Hummel’s piano music, which was a key to his successful career as a much-admired virtuoso.  The music itself does seem a little pale today; but, taken on its own terms and without (if possible) comparing it too minutely to the works of other composers, it stands well on its own and is decidedly worth hearing.

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