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The last classicist


CD Review
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Each new arrival of music by Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778 - 1837) offers a chance to re-evaluate this composer whose presence in a modern domestic library rarely extends beyond his famous D minor Septet. Twentieth-century scholarship is resulting in the liberation, from manuscript collections, of much of his prolific output, which is being added to least 126 works with opus numbers (many more printed without). However, the disc under consideration offers explanations of why the extreme popularity of his most productive years is unlikely to lift his reputation today.

Despite his outliving Beethoven by ten years, Hummel's work does not form any part of a bridge between Classicism (as it was already called in his lifetime) and the Romantic Era. Perhaps it was the demands of a hungry publisher, his employers at Eisenstadt (the Esterhazys) and Weimar, or his business as one of Europe's finest pianists that kept the spark of great compositional genius hidden? Perhaps it was an intermittent yet life-long rivalry with Beethoven that caused his output to be silent in some aspects, notably the symphony?

Hummel on Naxos - 8.554280As a prodigy, his talents as a performer were internationally recognised, and long tours were arranged to exploit his abilities while still young enough to amaze his audiences. At the age of twelve, he arrived in the British Isles, giving concerts in Edinburgh, Durham and London. However, in his compositions, he laboured under the shadows of Salieri, Haydn and Mozart, all of whom were his teachers, and seemed afraid to move beyond these influences. Yet his maturity and craftsmanship brought the respect of many makers of the new musical era; Schubert, Mendelssohn and Schumann admired him, and Beethoven, on his deathbed, was reconciled to Hummel, requesting that he should perform improvisations on Beethoven's work at his funeral.

This new record (though made from tapes nearly three years old) presents works for woodwind instruments; his bassoon concerto, a set of variations (op.102) for oboe and orchestra, and a quartet for clarinet and strings, in which Hummel appears at his most profound while still retaining trappings of virtuosity.

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 Copyright © John Hayward-Warburton, May 29th 1999