Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837)
Piano Concertino in G major, Op.73 (pub.1816)
Introduction and Rondeau for Piano, ‘La Galante’ (pub.1831)
Bassoon Concerto in F major, S63 WoO 23 (c.1805)
Grand Military Septet in C major, Op.114 (1829)
rec. 1965/1970, Vienna, Austria
Alto ALC1466 [77]

All four of these performances appeared on Turnabout LPs some fifty years ago – those of the Piano Concertino, the Introduction and Rondo and the Bassoon Concerto made up TVS3438, released in 1969, while that of the Grand Military Septet shared TVS34493 (released in 1972) with Alexander Fesca’s Septet No.1. Despite their relative antiquity the recordings come up very well in this remastering (by Gene Gaudette and Paul Arden-Taylor). The stereo separation is well-judged and the sound is realistic and clear with no distortion.

Hummel’s music rarely challenges or startles the listener and wouldn’t have done so in its own time. But it is rarely dull, because it is well-made, being grounded in profound musical knowledge and the melodies it contains are often very attractive.

Born in what was then the city of Pressburg in Hungary and is now Bratislava in Slovakia, when still a boy, Hummel studied with Mozart in Vienna from the age of 8-9, when his family moved to Vienna. His father was a musician who recognised very early the musical talents of his son. His father than took the ten-year-old Johann on tour as a piano-playing prodigy, visiting Germany, Copenhagen, Scotland and London. He seems to have been well-received and while in London the young pianist had lessons with Clementi. His first two sets of variations for piano and some sonatas for violin and piano were published in London. By the end of 1791, or early in 1792, he was back in Vienna; Beethoven’s arrival in Vienna at much the same time challenged Hummel’s growing prominence.

The two were polar opposites, both as men and musicians. Comparing them (Beethoven: Impressions By His Contemporaries, ed. O.G. Sonneck, 1926, quoted from the New York reprint of 1967) Carl Czerny wrote that “if Beethoven’s playing was notable for its tremendous power, character, unheard-of-bravura and facility, Hummel’s performance, on the other hand, was a model of all that is clean and distinct, of the most charming elegance and delicacy” (p.29). Edward (E.H.W.) Meyerstein, quotes part of the same passage in the essay on Hummel which he contributed to the first volume of A.L. Bacharach’s The Music Masters (my quotation comes from the 1957 Penguin edition) and glosses it very aptly: “Beethoven was as far beyond him [Hummel] in intellectual range as he was beneath him in tact and polish” (p.227).

Hummel’s greater approachability, both personal and musical, made him more attractive to the general music public.  To quote Czerny again: “Hummel’s pearly playing, with its brilliance calculated to a nicety, was far more comprehensible and attractive to the general public” (quoted thus in H.C. Robbins Landon, Beethoven, London, 1975, p.157). One consequence, was that relations between the two very different pianist-composers often became rather strained. It is, however, surely significant that Hummel and his wife visited Beethoven more than once during his final illness and that Hummel was one of the pallbearers at the great man’s funeral. To sum up, Beethoven rapidly established himself as an innovator, an original creating musical idioms that were distinctively his, while Hummel was a skilled musician working with part of Mozart’s musical legacy.

Some of the characteristic qualities noted by Czerny – such as clarity, charm and elegance – are very much present in Hummel’s Piano Concertino in G major, a relatively early work, probably prepared in 1815, the year before it was published in Vienna. In fact, the work has its roots some years earlier, since it is essentially a transcription, with necessary changes, of a concerto for mandolin which Hummel composed in 1799. The orchestral opening of the initial Allegro moderato leads into a statement of the main theme, an elegant melody in G major. This is developed in a passage for the soloist, which involves some relatively virtuosic writing, full of trills and arpeggios. Yet the music is never merely showy, retaining a kind of unforced dignity. The two succeeding movements (‘Andante grazioso’ and ‘Rondo’) are similarly pleasing. The whole is a kind of sophisticated Mozartian confection, which lacks the emotional depths of its model, but which is eminently listenable. There is a fine recording of the Concertino by Howard Shelley (Chandos 9558), with the pianist directing the London Mozart Players from the keyboard.  If Shelley’s version is the better, it is largely because of the quality of the orchestral playing, and the modern recorded sound (the recording was made in 1997). The work of pianist Martin Galling suffers little in the comparison with Shelley.

The Bassoon Concerto is another relatively early work, which seems to have been written about 1805. Like the Concertino it is essentially classical in form and manner. The Allegro Moderato (in F major) which opens the work is in sonata form, with a double exposition, first by the orchestra and then by the soloist. The theme is later developed by both orchestra and soloist, before a Recapitulation in three sections which gives the soloist plenty of scope for virtuosic display. The following Adagio is in B♭ major; it consists of a clear Exposition (bars 1-54) Development (bars 54-74) and Recapitulation (74-84). In the Exposition the first theme is presented by the orchestra, the second by the soloist. Much of the Development section is entrusted to the soloist, as is a good deal of the Recapitulation. The movement as a whole is characterised by an attractive urbanity rather than any real profundity. The closing Rondo, in the common pattern of ABACADA, returns us to F major. The bassoon is prominent throughout the movement and has some vivacious passages.

This engaging concerto was only published posthumously (in 1957), which suggests that it was written for a specific performer, but there seems to be no evidence as to who that might have been. The excellent soloist on this recording is the late George Zukerman (1927-2023), not only a fine bassoonist, but also a discoverer of rare works for the instrument and, incidentally, the younger brother of the musicologist Joseph Kerman (1924-2014). In the notes to the original Turnabout release of this performance, William B. Ober described the concerto as “filled with life and vigor, a pleasure to play, a pleasure to hear”. I agree with these sentiments, save for the qualification that it could only truly be a pleasure to play for an accomplished bassoonist.

The two remaining works in this disc belong to the last decade of Hummel’ life, the Grand Military Septet was written in 1829 and the Introduction and Rondo for Piano was published in 1831 (though it was perhaps written earlier). By 1832 Hummel’s health was failing. He held the post of Kappelmeister in Weimar from 1819 until his death. While in Weimar he and Goethe became good friends. The Septet is, justifiably, one of the best known of Hummel’s chamber works. The piano, naturally enough, plays a central role but the writing for the strings and winds is also impressive – as is Hummel’s judgement of instrumental colours and dynamics.

The first movement (‘Allegro con brio’) is a lively piece in sonata form, in which the vivacity of the first theme is balanced by a more lyrical second theme.  In the development section there is some colourful music for the piano and a trumpet solo which, in this performance at least, seems more dignified than military. The Adagio which follows is, by Hummel’s standards, almost ‘romantic’ in its theme and six variations, the variations being shared between various instrumental combinations, including flute and violin, violin and cello, clarinet and cello, and to close, the ensemble. All of the variations are well-constructed, displaying Hummel’s characteristic clarity and subtle expressiveness. After the gentle lyricism of this slow movement, the third movement (‘Menuet: Allegro’) begins briskly with something of a bite. The movement contains two contrasting trios. In the first there is a dialogue between flute and clarinet, while the second features the trumpet in a martial fanfare. The return of the minuet which closes the movement contains some attractive ornamentations by the piano. The closing movement is rapid and positive in mood, with an attractive refrain and three distinct episodes which range across several emotional states – from the lyrical to the dramatic and the mildly humorous. The Collegium Con Basso (not an ensemble I am otherwise familiar with) are, I think, heard at their best in this fourth movement, their sound well-balanced and the playing both thoughtful and emotionally well-judged. Overall, however, their account of the Septet is not quite a match for, say, that by The Nash Ensemble on CRD (review)

I suspect that the Introduction and Rondo, Op.120 ‘La Galante’, which was published in 1831 may have been written a few years earlier. This was surely a work designed by Hummel for himself to play in recital and was conceivably prepared specially for his tours of 1828-30 which were, I believe his last as his health began to fail and as his work began to be viewed in some quarters, as old-fashioned. The work’s subtitle – ‘La Galante’ – fittingly evokes the formal elegance of the galant music of the mid Eighteenth Century, with its desire for clarity and accessibility, virtues always dear to Hummel. The composer seems to have been particularly fond of the rondo, since the term appears with surprising frequency in the titles of his works. Here the Rondo is the longer and more interesting of the two movements. The Introduction opens with a degree of emphatic grandeur, but elegantly phrased runs soon take over (Hummel’s scores display a great fondness for the marking grazioso). Martin Galling’s judgement of pace and dynamics seems to me just about perfect here. So, too, is the way he handles the mellifluous and gracious Rondo. In its constant flow of melody this movement is wholly agreeable, especially when articulated as well as it is by Martin Galling, who shows himself, as in the performance of the Piano Concertino in G major, to be a pianist of uncommon sensitivity and perception. Indeed, he captures the spirit of this music so well that one of the descriptors applied by Czerny to Hummel’s playing, “pearly”, strikes me as also very apt for Galling’s work here.

Hummel is unlikely to appeal to those who demand innovation or profundity from their music. But for listeners who, like me, are also happy to listen to music which is well-made and in which the composer is true to his/her own sensibility and temperament, there is much pleasure to be had from Hummel’s work, and this CD would serve very well as an introduction to his music. Both Martin Galling and George Zukerman are very fine soloists and the recorded sound is unexpectedly good.

Glyn Pursglove

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Martin Galling (piano)
George Zukerman (bassoon)
Berlin Symphony Orchestra/Carl-August Bünte
Würtemberg Chamber Orchestra/Jörg Faerber
Collegium Con Basso (Johannes Brüning (violin), Michael Achilles (flute), Werner Diestel (clarinet), Ingus Schmidt (trumpet), Helmut Barth (piano), Hannelore Michel (cello), George Nothdorf (double bass))