Hummel: Fantasies / Madoka Inui

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Not all new music is new, or, to put it differently, music is only as old as when you last heard it (or even knew...

Not all new music is new, or, to put it differently, music is only as old as when you last heard it (or even knew about it). When I attend concerts these days, I am just as likely to decry the repetitive programming of worn chestnuts as I am to condemn the absence of newly commissioned contemporary pieces. It is always satisfying to discover a ?new? old composer, and I am certainly not the first explorer to place a flag into the distant territory of Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778?1837). But imagine my surprise when I was unable to find an easily accessible comparable recording of his fantasias for piano. Fortunately, comparison may not be necessary, as this CD is incomparable. How many times have you heard a world premiere recording of a piece written in 1833? This is Hummel?s Fantasie in G Minor, op. 123. Living composers take note: it may take 173 years for your piece to be digitized, giving new meaning to the words ?patience,? ?posthumous,? and ?new.?

The last time I thought much about Hummel was as a young piano student struggling with his pieces. So let?s briefly review for those of you who, like me, are not completely fresh on your Hummelology: Mozart taught the young prodigy for two years for free. Considering that Mozart was at the same time hitting up friends for ducats, this is a testament to Mozart?s generosity, to Hummel?s genius, or both. On the advice of Mozart, Hummel?s father took him on a four-year tour of Europe, similar to Mozart?s own traveling university. Hummel studied piano and composition with Salieri, Clementi, and Haydn. Nice home schooling, huh? He became a major force in music of his day, materially more successful than Mozart, inspiring the likes of Beethoven, Schubert, and Liszt. Chopin placed Hummel next to Mozart on his pantheon of greats.

The Fantasie in G Minor begins with a stately introduction, followed quickly by an exquisite theme, ?The Hunter?s Song.? It?s a dance in which Classical style partners with the emergence of Romanticism. Madoka Inui?s playing is crisp and articulate and always delicate. The following Marcia has a tongue-in-cheek quality, with arch variations. Though history has relegated Hummel to a less-than-Mozart purgatory, his music here has an elegant restraint and simplicity that perhaps deserves more credit and less comparison with others. Taken on its own terms, Hummel?s music is both gorgeous and intricate, without being opaque.

The Fantasie in E ? , op. 18 begins with a mysterious Lento burgeoning into a coy Allegro con fuoco , played by Inui with deft dramatic choices and swift clear dynamic change-ups, spare use of pedal, and great understanding of the consistent line that runs through all the musical revelations. The following Larghetto , by the way, is one of the most beautiful nostalgic themes you?ll ever hear, resembling, as it does, a sumptuous Mozart aria. In fact, it borders on Chopinesque to such an extent that we can understand Chopin?s adulation (and emulation).

The Rondo quasi una fantasia is also operatic in style, though in a cocoon of Classicism. ?La contemplazione? from Six Bagatelles, op. 107, has a sad quality, perhaps owing to the key of A ? , which has been known to make grown men cry into their beers. The last two selections are fantasias on other composers? themes, the first Paganini, and the second based on Mozart?s ?Non più andrai.? These fantasias are spare and graceful, charming without being sycophantish. Hummel prided himself on knowing the difference between a fantasia and an improvisation, though his fantasias benefit from an improvisational, that is, imaginative style.

This CD is indisputably a keeper, and Madoka Unui will be recognized as one of the greats, hopefully sooner than Hummel got his due for op. 123. Recording piano is not always easy, but this CD provides an excellent example of how to record the piano without making it sound electronic. I cringe to think my collection would be lacking this digital gem. I also wonder (hope) if there may be other Hummels or Inuis waiting in the wings, but I doubt I could be so lucky a second time.

FANFARE: David Wolman

Product Description:

  • Release Date: December 13, 2005

  • UPC: 747313283620

  • Catalog Number: 8557836

  • Label: Naxos

  • Number of Discs: 1

  • Composer: Johann Nepomuk Hummel

  • Performer: Madoka Inui