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As the quartet begins (click here to listen), the composer avoids the temptation to give a long melody to each instrument in turn and, instead, achieves an equality among the parts in which he delays the clarinet's entry, thereby increasing its importance. While the construction of most of the work is conventional, with the slow movement placed third, an unusual scherzo, called "La seccatura" (the nuisance), turns out to be a musical joke because each instrument is given a different time-signature, which changes as the piece goes on (click to listen). Despite echoes of Mozart in the slow movement (its opening interval is the same as that in the equivalent movement of the Clarinet Concerto), Hummel appears unable to let the music find the repose that Mozart's greater genius brings. For his part, clarinettist Fabrizio Meloni retains constant control, which eludes two of the string players from time to time, leaving the ensemble technically unbalanced. The viola player (Luca Ranieri) is excellent, but it is a pity that he is the only performer whose biography is omitted in the sleeve notes. I am sure that such a generally delightful work, first published as recently as 1958, was approached with enthusiasm, but some details of its execution fail to reflect this.

A separate session in a different location with another engineer was used for the works for solo instrument and orchestra, whose recordings have an tendency to emphasise the front desks of violins and cellos. It is rather a front-row, "hole in the middle", balance which does no favour to Hummel's orchestration (learned at first hand from the masters) nor to Diego Dini-Ciacci, the well-humoured oboeist and secure conductor of the Orchestra Internazionale d'Italia. In the Introduction, Theme and Variations op. 104 for oboe and orchestra, Hummel is at first mock-serious, almost Italian (click to hear this), then full of spirit as he asks the soloist to perform an acrobat's tumbles and dives which, on this record, should solicit warm applause from the coldest audience.

Immediately preceding this work is the F major Bassoon concerto, which apparently laid unpublished until edited as a dissertation project at the University of Iowa in 1957. Here, the composer makes as convincing a case as any for the liberation of the bassoon, which is just as fitting for such agile music as the cello is for a great Romantic concerto. While conventional in form and approach, there is no shortage of appeal in the first movement's themes nor in Claudio Gonella's playing (listen to some of the recapitulation section here), and a pleasant lyricism pervades the second movement (Romanza). A few of the bassoon's tricks (long notes from alternate ends of the instrument's range) recur in the gentle Rondo that ends the concerto (click to listen), but who's counting? The music entertains any audience well, but no more.

It seems uncharitable to express reservations about this disc, given its relatively rare repertoire and low price, but neither the standard of some of the playing nor the sound balance of the larger pieces could be called state-of-the-art in Europe. However, a modern-day listener who might, two hundred years ago, have gone to hear Hummel play as a teenager will probably enjoy it today.

The comparison with Beethoven leads to a final point: what if Beethoven had shared Mozart as a teacher for longer than he perhaps did in 1787, as well as Salieri and Haydn?

Johann Nepomuk Hummel,
Bassoon Concerto in F,
Theme and Variations op.102 for Oboe and Orchestra,
Clarinet Quartet in E flat.

Claudio Gonella, bassoon; Diego Dini-Ciacci, oboe;
Fabrizio Meloni, clarinet; Andrea Pecolo, violin;
Luca Ranieri, viola; Mario Finotti, cello;
Orchestra Internazionale d'Italia, cond. Diego Dini-Ciacci

Naxos 8.554280
Producer: Gian Andrea Lodovici
Total time: 71:05                     DDD


 Copyright © John Hayward-Warburton, May 29th 1999

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