Hummel: Piano Sonata, Op. 13; La bella capricciosa; Capriccio in F, Op. 49; Variations on a Theme from Gluck’s Armide

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COMPOSERS: Hummel
LABELS: Chandos
WORKS: Piano Sonata, Op. 13; La bella capricciosa; Capriccio in F, Op. 49; Variations on a Theme from Gluck’s Armide
PERFORMER: Howard Shelley (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: CHAN 9807
Like his contemporary Louis Spohr, Hummel straddled two musical worlds. As a child prodigy in the 1780s he was Mozart’s favourite pupil, and in 1804 he succeeded Haydn as Kapellmeister to the Esterházy family. Although it would be unfair to say that his style never developed – there are echoes of Weber and even anticipations of Chopin in his later music – he remained essentially an urbane Classicist. And by the time of his death in 1837 his music was seen as hopelessly old-fashioned alongside the confessional Romanticism of Schumann and Liszt.

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Though none of the assorted keyboard works recorded here is top-flight Hummel, they make for highly agreeable late-night listening. After two rather stiff movements the Sonata comes to life in the finale, with its entertaining treatment of a conspiratorial, Haydnesque theme. Hummel has a graceful line in florid operatic cantilena, as in the Capriccio, Op. 49; and the variations on a theme from Gluck’s Armide make a flamboyant party piece. But the most fetching music here is found in two genre pieces: a Hungarian-style rondo, a more decorous counterpart to several Schubert pieces in this vein; and a late fantasy-polonaise entitled La bella capricciosa, with its rhapsodic, Chopinesque introduction, its dramatic use of silence and its plangent minor-keyed episodes that irresistibly suggest Schubert. As on his discs of Hummel piano concertos, Howard Shelley is an ideal advocate of this music, keeping the textures lucid, honing the bel canto melodies elegantly and tossing off the virtuoso pyrotechnics with verve and finesse. Richard Wigmore