December 20, 2018


Hummel: Piano Sonatas (complete); Fantasina in C. Costantino Mastroprimiano, fortepiano. Brilliant Classics. $19.99 (3 CDs).

Enescu: Complete Works for Solo Piano. Josu De Solaun, piano. Grand Piano. $24.99 (3 CDs).

     Long neglected, frequently derided as a neither-here-nor-there composer, Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837) has all too often been thought of as someone who never lived up to his great early promise: he studied with Mozart and Beethoven and actually lived with Mozart for a time. Hummel was, in his own time, considered a brilliant pianist, but as tastes changed during his lifetime to favor greater front-and-center virtuosity and more-dramatic display during performances, even his star as a performer faded. It is very difficult to rescue Hummel and other transitional musical figures from the neglect and disrepute into which they tend to fall. True, there were ways in which Hummel’s transitional nature was important: his Trumpet Concerto for the new keyed trumpet remains one of the most brilliant works for the instrument and amply displays the ways in which the new design has far more capabilities than the old. But by and large, Hummel was trained in the Classical period and, despite his association with Beethoven, never moved as far or fully into the Romantic era as Beethoven himself did. To be sure, Beethoven was a transitional figure, but on a scale so large that composers with lesser inspiration pale beside him. All of this makes the new Brilliant Classics release of Hummel’s six piano sonatas all the more interesting and valuable, because Costantino Mastroprimiano plays them on the transitional instrument for which these transitional works were written: the fortepiano. This instrument was not fully satisfactory to many composers – again, Beethoven is a notable example, and was known for destroying fortepianos by making demands that they simply could not fulfill. However, a composer who was comfortable writing for the fortepiano, as Hummel was, could produce some remarkably well-formed music on it, with all the elegance and balance of the Classical era and a smattering of the emotionalism that was soon to flower in a full-fledged way as Romanticism took hold under Liszt, Thalberg, Kalkbrenner and their competitors. Thus, for example, the minor-key episodes in the concluding Rondo of Hummel’s Sonata No. 1 in C, Op. 2, No. 3, come as unexpected and pleasant surprises and lend the movement a thoughtfulness beyond what might be expected of a finale in this form and this home key. No, the episodes are not profound, but they are inward-looking and thoughtful, even a trace melancholic, lending some depth to what is essentially an upbeat, Haydnesque work.

     There are joys and surprises aplenty to be found in these sonatas. For example, No. 4, Op. 38, another sonata in C, features a genuinely grand (although short) first-movement introduction that neatly sets up the scale of a work that lasts more than half an hour and includes a slow movement con molto Espressione (a marking that appears in slightly varied form in two additional sonatas). The only other one of these sonatas built on so large a scale is No. 6 in D, Op. 106 – which is the only one in four movements and which includes a very well-made and clever scherzo all’antica. Also in a major key is Sonata No. 2 in E-flat, Op. 13, a well-balanced work that is somewhat slighter than Nos. 4 and 6 – perhaps because No. 2 is dedicated to Haydn and shows a considerable amount of his influence. Then there are the two minor-key sonatas: No. 3 in F minor, Op. 20, and No. 5 in F-sharp minor, Op. 81. Certainly neither is as dark-hued or deeply probing as Beethoven’s minor-key works, but both fit exceptionally well on the fortepiano, with its lighter sound, lesser key travel than modern pianos possess, and altogether “cleaner” production of runs and arpeggios. Indeed, No. 5, a fascinating work that features a very unusual and forward-looking first movement, does reach for some profundity, even if it never quite attains it. Mastroprimiano plays Hummel’s sonatas on two instruments: a modern fortepiano based on an Anton Walter instrument from about 1790, and a genuine Erard from 1838. The fortepianos sound quite different, but both fit these sonatas exceptionally well. It is worth remembering that Hummel improvised at Beethoven’s memorial concert, as Beethoven had explicitly requested, and that Schubert dedicated his three magnificent final piano sonatas, D. 958, 959 and 960, to Hummel. True, listeners today may think of Hummel more as someone who could compose (or improvise) elegant drawing-room works such as the Fantasina in C, Op. 124, which is based on familiar themes from Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro and handles them wonderfully adeptly. But there is a great deal more to Hummel the composer than this little work, as pleasant as it is in Mastroprimiano’s performance. There was a great deal more to Hummel as pianist – or fortepianist – as well. This excellent release offers an ideal opportunity to rethink the quality of what Hummel wrote and how he played.

     The pleasures are somewhat different in Grand Piano’s three-CD set of the piano works of George Enescu (1881-1955). Enescu was not a transitional figure but one with an unusual combination of influences: he absorbed both French and German approaches of the late Romantic era, and was also strongly influenced, especially early in his life, by Romanian folk music. It took him some time to sort out, absorb and merge these influences, which he eventually turned into a strongly personal style. But little of that style is apparent in his early piano works – and most of the music played by Josu De Solaun is early. Every piece on the third CD in this set was written before Enescu turned 20, and of the seven works on the first two CDs, only four were written after the composer’s 30th birthday: Pièces impromptus (1916), Pièce sur le nom de Fauré (1922), and the sonatas of 1924 and 1935. Furthermore, those sonatas are an odd pair, being numbered 1 and 3, with No. 2 apparently never having progressed beyond a few sketches. There is a certain confusion about all this music, exacerbated by the arrangement of the discs, which are neither chronological nor arranged in any other discernible order: the whole project has a slapdash feel about it. Yet there is so much interesting music here – and De Solaun, winner of the 2014 George Enescu International Piano Competition, plays it so well – that the recording is intriguing and highly worthwhile almost in spite of itself.

     Enescu was a prodigy, so the fact that he wrote many of these piano pieces when very young is not in itself detrimental to their value. Nor is the fact that he was primarily a violinist: no less an authority than Alfred Cortot said Enescu had better piano technique than his own. But these piano works are not really the best compositions through which to enjoy Enescu, much less evaluate him: they are his solo piano pieces (and, despite the title of the release, not quite all of them), but he also wrote works for two pianos, for piano four hands, and for piano with other instruments. And many of these 17 solo-piano works are less creative and unusual than other Enescu compositions: he wrote a work for chromatic harp, one for four trumpets, one for violin and piano four hands, one for two pianos with violin and cello, etc. Interestingly, though, one piece that is especially noteworthy is in the same key as the most intriguing of Hummel’s piano sonatas: F-sharp minor. This is Enescu’s dense and complex Sonata No. 1, whose unusual structure consists of two faster movements followed by a slower one, and whose contents are so multifaceted that the work seems very extended even though it is, in reality, shorter than Hummel’s in the same key. From a tinge of Shostakovich to a finale that persists in delivering a pedal-point B despite uncertain tonality, this is a work that shows how creative Enescu could be in his compositions, and often was. In fact, the sonata’s finale has many surprises, from its use of the melancholic Romanian doina to a dynamic range that never strays far from pianissimo. In contrast, Sonata No. 3 initially sounds somewhat more like a Hummel (or Beethoven) work, and has a more conventional fast-slow-fast structure. There are slight hints here of Scriabin and Stravinsky, but they are fleeting and occur within a series of melodic and harmonic elements that testify to Enescu’s considerable ingenuity. The other later piano works have considerable attractions of their own. The seven Pièces impromptus are character sketches that range from the nostalgic to the forward-looking and that conclude with the fascinating bell imitations of Carillon nocturne. And Pièce sur le nom de Fauré is a character sketch of a different sort, a two-minute exploration of the musical notes in the name of Enescu’s onetime teacher: F, A and E.

     There are many pleasantries and points of interest in the other works that De Solaun plays, but their attractions are generally momentary and passing ones. The extended Suite pour Piano “Des Cloches Sonores” (1901-03) deserves special mention for the ways it both resembles similar works by Debussy and Ravel and goes well beyond them – Ravel actually used one theme from this suite in his own Tombeau de Couperin. The even earlier Suite dans le Style Ancien (1898), Enescu’s first major piano work intended for public performance, shows the young composer adopting and adapting Baroque models skillfully, if a touch pedantically.  The Prélude et Fugue of 1903 is also skillfully done but rather academic, while the earlier Prélude et Scherzo (1896) offers insight into Enescu’s somewhat awkward attempts to reconcile the German and French elements of his training. Of much greater interest is the Nocturne in D-flat, “Hommage à la Princesse Marie Cantacuzène” (1907), an extended (nearly 20-minute) work written in tribute to Enescu’s wife, whose mental illness haunted his personal life. Perhaps reflecting this, the work has an overall unsettled, somewhat yearning quality. The other pieces on this release are less compelling. They include Barcarolle (1897), La Fileuse (1897), Regrets (1898), impromptus in A-flat (1898) and C (1900), and three pieces that have never been recorded before: Scherzo (1894), Ballade für Klavier (1894), and Modérément (1896-1900). De Solaun brings poise and sensitivity to all this material, even the slightest works, and plays the deeper and more-extended pieces with conviction as well as skill. Listeners who know Enescu from his works for orchestra, violin and other instruments will scarcely get the full flavor of his creativity from these piano pieces, but the set’s in-depth exploration of one element of Enescu’s compositional life is most welcome, and the skill with which De Solaun presents the material makes the recording a worthwhile exploration of the abilities of this young pianist (born 1981) as well as the quality of what he performs.

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