Hummel: Piano Concertos, Volume 1 (CD review)

Piano Concertos in A minor and in G; Introduction & Rondo in F minor. Alessandro Commellato, fortepiano; Didier Talpain, Solamente Naturali. Brilliant Classics 94338.

Some guys can’t catch a break. Take Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837). He’s like the Alex Smith (deposed starting quarterback of the S.F. 49ers) of classical music. Hummel was extremely popular in his day, but it wasn’t long after his death that his music faded into obscurity. While the Trumpet Concerto and a few of the piano concertos continue to get some love, it isn’t much. The fellow wrote at the very end of the Classical Period at a time when listeners were looking toward composers of the new Romantic Age. Hummel apparently never adapted well enough to survive, and audiences passed him by. Now, Brilliant Classics are doing their part in reminding us who Hummel was with this first volume of his music, all of which they say are premiere recordings on period instruments. Let’s hope it works out for them.

Let me begin by telling you about the little Piano Concerto in G, Op. 73, even though the disc places it second on the program. It’s a delight, sounding a lot like Mozart. In fact, if you didn’t know every Mozart piano concerto by heart, you’d probably swear it was early Mozart. Played on period instruments by Solamente Naturali (“only natural”) heightens the illusion. Hummel published the Piano Concerto in G in 1816 but adapted it from a mandolin concerto he wrote in 1799. Under Maestro Didier Talpain and pianist Alessandro Commellato (who plays on vintage fortepianos, an 1825 model for the Concerto in G and an 1837 model for the Concerto in A minor and the Introduction & Rondo), the performance is light, bouncy, airy, simple, and direct. It should have a wide appeal.

The Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 85, which opens the program, is one of Hummel’s best-known concertos; it dates from around 1816, and the composer published it around 1821. Here, we find a full orchestra and many more Romantic leanings. It’s much closer to Chopin and Liszt than to Mozart. The first movement starts with so lengthy an introduction that one might ask, Now eventually you do plan to have a piano in your piano concerto, right? Finally, about four minutes in, the piano enters. This time, Commellato’s playing, adapting to the tenor of the piece, is more mature, the Allegro Moderato appearing remarkably like Chopin’s First Piano Concerto. That’s not surprising, considering that toward the end of Hummel’s life he became a kind of mentor to the younger pianist and composer. Commellato also provides a more virtuosic performance here than in Op. 73, the more-complex music of Op. 85 giving him more opportunity for dexterous finger work. The fortepiano from 1837 has a slightly richer, mellower tone than the earlier one, too, reinforcing the lush Romantic connotations.

The album concludes with the Introduction & Rondo brillant in F minor, Op. 127. Written in 1833, it would be the last of Hummel’s works published in his lifetime. The mood changes altogether in the opening movement, this one somewhat dark and heavy. It’s still well within the Romantic genre, yet in a rather somber, melancholic vein. Then, in the second movement things brighten up considerably, with Commellato handling both temperaments handily. All three items on the disc offer dazzling performances, possessing grace and energy and polish aplenty.

Brilliant Classics recorded the music at the Studio of the Slovak National Radio, Bratislava, Slovakia in 2010. The music they obtained is a tad close for my liking, but it is wonderfully open and detailed, and the clarity is often exemplary. Although depth is only middling, the stereo spread is impressive, the dynamic range is ample, and the impact good. A little more distance, though, would have provided a more-resonant response, so the sound goes more in the direction of ultra-transparency than it does for concert-hall realism. The sound of the fortepianos displays excellent transient lucidity and sharpness of attack, even if it’s a bit too wide to be entirely lifelike.

To hear a brief excerpt from the Piano Concerto in G, click here:


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

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