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EXPLORING MUSIC : A Remarkable Resurrection

The MHS Review 392 Vol. 11 No. 14 1987

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Frank Cooper


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Nineteen years ago, mine was the privilege to create the first-ever Festival of Neglected Romantic Music (at Butler University, Indianapolis). What an exciting project it was! During my decade as its director, the Festival explored and re­pre'miered dozens and dozens of big works by such then-unplayed composers as Alkan, B,)Urgault-Ducoudray, David, Dreyschock, Ernst, Guiraud, Henselt, Herz, Joachim, Moszkowski, Napravnik, Paderewski, Pierne, Raff, Rheinberger, Rombert, Rubinstein, Servais, Sgambati, Spohr, Thalberg, Wieniawski, and many others. The one that almost got away was Hummel.

Pupil of Haydn, Mozart, Clementi, and Beethoven and teacher of Mendelssohn, Hiller, Henselt, and Thalberg, Hummel was a key figure in the development of roman­ticism. He created the most profuse and elaborate keyboard idiom before Liszt, set the stage for Chopin's jewel-like ornamen­tation and be! canto melodic lines, wrote the era's "bible" on piano technique, and composed reams of elegant, sometimes astonishingly brilliant music. I most wanted to revive one of Hummel's concer­ti, which were so prophetic of Chopin's, but the problem was that virtually no pianists then (or now, for that matter) had the right combination of head and heart, of technique and style to put the music across. Then a great artist, Jorge Bolet, came to my rescue with the iridescent magic of Hummel's Concerto in A-flat ma­jor and swept us all away with a never-to­-be-forgotten performance. Now, after all those years, other properly equipped pianists are giving the remarkable Mr. Hummel new life through recordings.

Last year, the American Jan Hobson documented the six piano sonatas for Caedmon/Arabesque. In those marvelous­ly interesting works the restrained world of classicism can be heard giving way to the new emotionalism of romanticism. Now this year the British pianist Stephen Hough offers us Hummel's two most fam­ed concerti in performances which do justice to their every challenge. These are the works that the two Chopin concerti were modeled upon. They teem with dif­ficulties: rapid scales, trills, roulades, oc­taves, chords, arpeggios.

"Elaboration," annotator Bryce Mor­rison tells us, "rather than classical economy was Hummel's aim, and his ex­ecution of a novel profusion of ornaments was viewed with envy and disbelief." So dizzying is the writing in these pieces that Hummel had no need for the usual caden­zas in his recapitulations. The soloist is rather like "a sequined trapeze artist tumbl­ing and somersaulting high above the crowd .. .in the absence of a safety net."

Liszt played the A minor Concerto, as did Maria Szymanowska, Clara Wieck (later Schumann's wife), and every other super­virtuoso of the 1830s and '40s. It was one of the principal test pieces of the age. If you could handle its demands without strain and with poetry as well as fire, you were worthy of the public and its adulation.

By the 1860s, piano makers were mov­ing towards what, a few decades later, would become the modern concert grand. By adding metal frames, heavier hammers, thicker strings, and other developments to their instruments (so that they could com­pete more successfully with the increase in the number of instruments in symphony orchestras and be better heard in the large concert halls then being built), makers brought about an odd phenomenon. The very repertoire which had prompted pianists to place greater demands than ever before upon their instruments was now all the more difficult to perform! Gradually, the music disappeared from earshot. Style was changing to the more blatant, hyper­charged sort favored by Tchaikovsky and his contemporaries. Then came Mahler with his cataclysmic visions.

Along the way, a great deal of marvelous music was forgotten. It has taken the bet­ter part of a century (ours!) to rediscover it and to find out how to make it work once again. Pianists--the brave few who have made the effort--had to sweat blood to accomplish the seemingly impossible, an apparently effortless, natural expression of some of history's most scintillating scores using our thick-toned, heavy-action modern instruments. Hough is one of the truly elect.

From the Review on page 5

Stephen Hough was a winner in the BBC Young Musician of the Year competi­tion, as was Emma Johnson (see page 3 ). Since garnering the prize in 1978, he has performed with America's most important orchestras, as well as the major British ones, in the process becoming more and more well known. He admits that learning the two works on this featured selection was like "a baptism of fire.''

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