HUMMEL: Piano Trios / Piano Quartet in G major / Cello Sonata
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Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837)
Largely neglected by posterity, Johann NepomukHummel in his own time enjoyed the highest reputationboth as a composer and as a virtuoso performer. Theincreasing availability of his music, whether in print orin recordings, is evidence of the unjustified nature of theposthumous neglect of his work, although neither thebicentenary of his birth nor the 150th anniversary of hisdeath in 1987 aroused the interest that his compositionsclearly deserve.
Hummel was born in 1778 in Pressburg, the modernSlovak capital Bratislava, the son of a musician. At theage of four he could read music, at five play the violinand at six the piano. Two years later he became a pupilof Mozart in Vienna, lodging, as was the custom, in hismaster's house. On Mozart's suggestion the boy and hisfather embarked in 1788 on an extended concert tour.
For four years they travelled through Germany andDenmark and by the spring of 1790 they were inEdinburgh, where they spent three months. Therefollowed visits to Durham and to Cambridge before theyarrived, in the autumn, in London. Plans in 1792 to tourFrance and Spain seemed inopportune at a time ofrevolution, so that father and son made their way backthrough Holland to Vienna.
The next ten years of Hummel's career found himoccupied in study, in composition and in teaching inVienna. When Beethoven had settled in Vienna in 1792,the year after Mozart's death, he had sought lessonsfrom Haydn, from Albrechtsberger and from the CourtComposer Antonio Salieri. Hummel was to study withthe same teachers, the most distinguished Vienna had tooffer. Albrechtsberger provided a sound technical basisfor his composition, while Salieri gave instruction inwriting for the voice and in the philosophy of aesthetics.
Haydn, after his second visit to London, gave him someorgan lessons, but warned him of the possible effect onhis touch as a pianist. It was through Haydn thatHummel in 1804 became Konzertmeister to the secondPrince Nikolaus Esterhazy, effectively doing the workof Kapellmeister, a title that Haydn held nominally untilhis death in 1809. He had Haydn to thank, too, for hisretention of his position with the Esterhazy family whenin 1808 neglect of his duties had brought dismissal. Hisconnection with the family came to an end in 1811 buthis period of service had given him experience as acomposer of church and theatre music, while his father,as director of music at the Theater auf der Wieden andlater of the famous Apollo Saal, provided otheropportunities.
Hummel had impressed audiences as a child by hisvirtuosity as a pianist. He returned to the concertplatform in 1814, at the time of the Congress of Vienna,a year after his marriage, but it was the Grand Duchy ofWeimar, home of Goethe, that was able to provide him,in 1818, with a basis for his career. By the terms of hisemployment he was allowed leave of absence for threemonths each spring, a period spent in concert tours. InProtestant Weimar he was relieved of responsibilitiesfor church music but presided at the opera and was, withGoethe, one of the tourist attractions of the place,although in speech his homely Viennese accent sortedill with the speech of the resident literati.
In 1828 Hummel published his study of pianoforteperformance technique, a work that enjoyed immediatesuccess and has proved a valuable source for ourknowledge of contemporary performance practice.
Towards the end of his life his brilliance as a playerdiminished. This was the age of Liszt and a new schoolof virtuosity, while Hummel represented a continuationof the classical style of playing of his teacher, Mozart,now carried into the age of Chopin, Liszt, Kalkbrennerand Thalberg.
The two-movement Piano Quartet in G major waspublished posthumously in 1839. The first movementcasts principal light on the piano, which proposes theprincipal theme, before the excitement of the G minorcentral section, with its rapid piano octaves. Thefollowing D major Allegro con spirito again offersvirtuoso material to the piano, with a repeatedexposition, an exciting development, and a conclusionwith all the power of a concerto.
Hummel's Piano Trio in G major, Op. 35, datesfrom 1811. The piano proposes the first subject, with thesecond subject entrusted to the violin, in a repeatedexposition. The characteristic snap rhythm of the firstsubject is heard at the start of the development, whichsoon moves into B flat major, with the piano recallingthe first subject and the cello the closing theme of theexposition. The triplet figuration of each player in turnis followed by the violin leading into the recapitulation.
The second movement is a C major Tempo di Menuetto,with an F major trio section that gives some prominenceto the strings. The last movement is a Rondo, markedVivace e scherzando. Its main theme offers amomentary surprise in a sudden pause, framing anepisode in D major before returning with a furthersurprise to the listener. A fugal C major episode isfollowed by varied forms of the second theme, beforethe return of the main subject and a reminder of thesecond superimposed, before the emphatic conclusion.
The Grande Sonate in A major for cello and piano,Op. 104, was composed in 1826. A lyrical firstmovement is introduced by the cello, before the pianooffers the first subject. There is an energetic transitionbefore secondary material is proposed, leading to agentle theme in C major, with a return to the dominantof the original key before the repetition of theexposition. Other tonalities are explored in the centraldevelopment, before the return of the principal theme tostart the recapitulation. The slow movement is a C majorRomanza, with the principal melody entrusted first tothe piano, followed by the cello. A hint of agitation issuggested by dotted rhythms, before a dramatic changeto C minor, mollified by a further lyrical shift to E flatmajor. The original key is restored, with the main themegiven to the cello, echoed by the piano. The latterinstrument starts the final A minor Rondo, a movementthat continues the virtuoso treatment of the piano. Themovement includes a C major episode, markedinnocente, and an episode in A major, framed by themain theme in a work of the soundest craftsmanship.
Hummel's Piano Trio in F major, Op. 22, datesfrom 1807. In contrast with the preceding work, this isvery much of its period, suggesting a musical languagefamiliar from Haydn. With a less demanding piano part,the first movement starts with a sonata-form exposition,duly repeated. After a brief development, it is thesecondary theme that forms the substance of therecapitulation, bringing a fugal treatment of the melodybefore the final section. The B flat major Andante convariazioni has the piano introduce the theme, capped bythe cello and then the violin. The piano has the firstvariation, followed by a version for the cello, withplucked chords from the violin. There follows avariation in which the violin assumes prominence, whilethe cello leads the final version of the material. Thefashionable Rondo alla Turca preserves the featuresborrowed from the janissary band, with the piano doingmuch to provide the essential percussive element ofwhat was then known as Turkish music, with itsstandard harmonies and figuration.Keith Anderson