December 13, 2007


Hummel: Le retour de Londres—Grand Rondeau brilliant; Variations and Finale in B flat major; Oberons Zauberhorn; Variations in F Major. Christopher Hinterhuber, piano; Gävle Symphony Orchestra conducted by Uwe Grodd. Naxos. $8.99.

Spohr: Symphonies Nos. 3 and 10; Overture in F Major. NDR Radiophilharmonie conducted by Howard Griffiths. CPO. $16.99 (SACD).

      Two of the major post-Beethoven musical figures were both born while Mozart was still alive; yet both were touted for a time as towering composers and worthy Beethoven successors. Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837) and Louis (or Ludwig) Spohr (1784-1859) knew each other’s music; Spohr certainly thought well of Hummel’s. Hummel was a friend of Beethoven and was Haydn’s successor as Kapellmeister to Prince Esterházy in Eisenstadt. He was also a piano virtuoso of very considerable skill, with much of his writing for piano designed to demonstrate his own abilities as a performer. Christopher Hinterhuber plays four “showcase” works on this new Naxos CD – and the pieces confirm that Hummel, although scarcely the great composer he was once thought to be, never deserved the obscurity into which he later fell, and is worthy of the somewhat tentative revival of his music that has taken place in recent years.

      Le retour de Londres—Grand Rondeau brilliant is the latest work here, dating to 1833, and is quite impressive. A sweeping, emotional introduction gives way to a rather trivial rondo theme that is varied in a wide variety of ways, from grand and moving to decidedly perky. The Variations and Finale in B flat major of 1830 also begins with a slow introduction, followed by a symmetrical and rather gentle theme in ¾ time that Hummel pulls apart and elaborates in more ways than the basic theme would seem to support. Oberons Zauberhorn (1831) is a fascinating work and a strange one. Purely on its own, it is an impressive dramatic fantasia built around a horn call and including, among other episodes, an unusually dark and dramatic section about two-thirds of the way through. But this work was never intended to be heard without context: it is an interpretative tribute to Carl Maria von Weber’s opera Oberon, which is built around a horn theme (but not Hummel’s horn theme) and which features similar episodes (but not using Hummel’s music). It is, in effect, Hummel’s interpretation of the mood of the opera, making references to Weber’s work without actually quoting much of its music. For those who know Oberon, Hummel’s piece will be all the more fascinating. Not so the final work in the CD, though: the Variations in F Major (1820) are workmanlike but not particularly distinguished. However, they do clearly show Hummel’s place in musical history, since the theme itself is distinctly Mozartean, featuring interesting ornamentation and considerable poise and balance. Hinterhuber plays all this music with a great deal of panache, and Uwe Grodd and the Gävle Symphony Orchestra provide absolutely wonderful backup: detailed, enthusiastic and very well played.

      Howard Griffiths and the NDR Radiophilharmonie bring enthusiasm and intensity to Spohr’s music on their new CPO recording, and the SACD sound is outstanding: warm and bright by turns, with excellent detail. But the music of Spohr, who was for years touted as a successor and/or alternative to Beethoven, does not hold up particularly well. Spohr’s Symphony No. 3 of 1829 was the first symphony he composed after Beethoven’s death and was widely viewed at the time as showing a new and different direction for the symphony. In retrospect, there is less to it. It is in C minor, the same key as Beethoven’s Fifth, and uses that key to create a sense of seriousness and intense purpose from the beginning. The opening of the first movement is quite dark, and the movement is pervaded by melancholy throughout. The second movement is gentler and well orchestrated, but there is nothing profound about it. There is no lightening of the mood in the third movement, which has rhythmic vigor and strength and some good wind writing. The finale features artful themes that are not particularly attractive or distinguished, although the second theme has nice lilt, and a fugal passage in the development is well constructed. The symphony as a whole leaves the impression of careful, even cautious workmanship.

      The Symphony No. 10, Spohr’s last, is in some ways more interesting. Spohr disavowed the work but did not destroy it, and it turns out – surprisingly – to have charms that hark back to Mozart and Haydn. The first movement has fairly light themes and a more classical structure than would be expected in 1857. The second movement is gentle, with transparent scoring and an untroubled feeling. The third movement is Haydnesque in its use of a start-and-stop theme (although the scoring is clearly post-Haydn), while the contrasting middle section flows pleasantly. The finale also features some thematic hesitation, but is basically broad in structure – and the work as a whole comes across as an attractive throwback, as if Spohr, near the end of his life (and already past the point of being considered some sort of successor to Beethoven) no longer had anything to prove.

      The final work recorded here was written earliest, in 1819, although it was not published in Spohr’s lifetime. The Overture in F Major makes a good encore or curtain-raiser, with a portentous and darkly ominous opening giving way to a driving, well-shaped faster section that builds to a potent stretto at the end. Spohr was once so admired that there is a line in The Mikado about “Bach, interwoven with Spohr and Beethoven.” It turns out that that level of admiration was overdone – but there are elements of Spohr’s music that continue to communicate effectively today.

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