Notes and Editorial Reviews
Piano Sonatas: No. 2 in E?; No. 3 in f. Bagatelle in A?,
Susan Alexander-Max (fp) (period instrument)
CHANDOS 765 (67:11)
Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778–1837) is an important transitional composer, especially from a pianistic viewpoint, between the late-18th and early-19th centuries; he is, unfortunately, also a composer who is underrepresented in the recording catalog. Among currently available recordings, Stephen Hough seems to be the only figure of
international standing performing today to have devoted any effort to him. Two recordings that I think have stood out in the last 20 years have been the aforementioned one by Stephen Hough of three sonatas for Hyperion (67390), recorded back in 2003, and Dana Protopopescu’s album for Koch Discover (920237) of three sonatas, recorded in 1995. They both bring a virtuoso technique and a good musical sensibility.
Though I am no fan of the fortepiano, Alexander-Max is a good advocate for both the instrument and the repertoire. Her playing has sensitivity and a good attention to articulation and detail. Sometimes though, it is her attention to these small elements that hampers the overall flow of the music. Her tempos in the fast movements tend to be on the slow side: this provides her ample opportunity to bring out many details, but also tends to make the rapid scale and arpeggio patterns sound a bit sluggish. In comparing just the timings of the final movement of the F-Minor Sonata’s finale, marked
, Alexander-Max clocks in at 5:22 to Hough’s 3:59! There is no repeat in this movement, so the temporal difference is not reflected in the omission of any material. Even Protopopescu, who does not play this movement nearly as fast as Hough, clocks in around 5: 01—still over 20 seconds faster than Alexander-Max.
Tempo is not the only factor that makes the fast movements seem sluggish though; it is also the lack of intensity brought to many of the figurational patterns that lead to important beats. The focus for example in the E? Sonata’s finale, this time marked
Allegro con spirito
, seems to be more on the clarity of notes than on the constant surging motion. In the passage from 00:20 to 00:24, Hummel marks a crescendo moving from
in the span of two measures. In this performance, though a small crescendo does exist, the kind that Hummel requires does not. The tension and release inherent in the sudden dynamic buildup and rest, held with a fermata that follows this passage, is lost. Though the passagework is clean and articulate, the musical excitement is absent. There is a lack of drama.
There are many good aspects to this album as well. My favorite piece that the pianist plays here is the Bagatelle in A?. Marked
, it is a fantasy in which much of the beginning material comes back with added figuration. Here, Alexander-Max chooses not only a good tempo, one that flows and allows the movement to progress naturally, but also brings all of her interpretative skills to the fore. She maintains an acute sense of articulation and voicing, and a quality of freedom, almost improvisatory at times—all essential for a fantasy. Her ending pianissimo is as delicate and beautiful as any I’ve heard.
This is a fine addition to the recorded discography of Hummel’s music. I would especially recommend it for period-instrument enthusiasts, though the two previously mentioned recordings, by Hough and Protopopescu—both on modern grand pianos—provide good, in some cases excellent, readings of this much-neglected repertoire.
FANFARE: Scott Noriega
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