Notes and Editorial Reviews
I don’t know whether to feel sorry for Johann Nepomuk Hummel, whose career roughly coincided with and was eclipsed by, those of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, or to be envious of him. After all, he got to consort with the three geniuses of his time. In 1786, the eight-year-old was taken to play for Mozart. In his improvident and instinctively generous way, Mozart took Hummel into his house for the next two years and taught the boy for nothing. Later, Haydn patronized the youngster, recommending him as the Kapellmeister of the Esterházy court. He was fired from the job and went on tour as a virtuoso pianist. As an instrumentalist, he would be repeatedly compared to Beethoven. In his notes to this disc, Christoph Hammer quotes Czerny’s analysis: “If Beethoven’s playing is characterized by its immense power, unheard-of-bravura and fluidity, Hummel’s playing, in contrast, is the prototype of the highest purity and clarity, the most graceful elegance and delicacy, with all difficulties calculated to arouse the greatest amazement through the combination of the Mozartian manner with the Clementian school so suited to the piano.” Though 20th-century pianists, such as Ignaz Friedman, recorded single works by the composer, today Hummel is best known for his ever-popular Trumpet Concerto, a fact that might have surprised the virtuoso pianist.
His piano works have exactly the qualities Czerny found in his playing: clarity, elegance, and delicacy. They have none of the boundary-pushing tension of Beethoven or the heart-wrenching melodies of Mozart. They are closest, to me, to Haydn. The five works included here are played vigorously on reproductions of early 18th-century fortepianos. The vigor interests me, as it seems unlike what we hear of Hummel’s own playing. The composer might have been able to escape the influence of Beethoven that would have overwhelmed him, but the 21st-century pianist has, perhaps, not evaded the aggressive style of virtuoso-playing that Beethoven probably started. The best moments are the places where, as in the midsection of the Finale of the Sonata op. 20, Hammer lightens up. The statement of the theme by Gluck is as innocent and playful as a kitten. The variations are sweetly humorous. Therefore, even if Hammer hammers from time to time, this is an appealing disc, its flash and charm and fleet-fingered virtuosity a welcome addition to most collections.
Michael Ullman, FANFARE