musica Dei donum

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Johann Nepumuk HUMMEL (1778 - 1837): "Music for the Esterházy family"

Andrea Cajová, sopranoa, Zuzana Dunajcanová, contraltob, Ondrej Saling, tenorc, Rastislav Uhlár, bassd
Chorus Alea; Solamente Naturali, Bratislava
Dir: Didier Talpain

rec: Sept 2007, Bratislava, Slovak Radio Studios
Brilliant Classics - 94115 (© 2010) (67'40")
[Texts included; no translations]

Alma virgo, offertorio in F, op. 89aa; Missa Solemnis in Cabcd; Te Deum in D

Johann Nepomuk Hummel began his career as a child prodigy at the keyboard and soon developed into one of the most celebrated travelling virtuosos of his time. But, being firmly rooted in the classical idiom, he couldn't keep up with the aesthetic changes which took place in the later stages of his life. He fell from grace with the public at large, who preferred modern virtuosos like Chopin and Liszt.

Hummel was born in Pressburg - now Bratislava in Slovakia - where his father Josef was director of the Imperial School of Military Music. It is said that the young Hummel could read music at the age of four and could play the violin and the piano before he was seven years old. In 1786 the family moved to Vienna, where Josef became director of the Theater auf der Wieden. Mozart heard the boy play and decided to take him under his wing. From 1786 to 1788 he lived in the Mozart household, played Mozart's keyboard works and transcribed some of his orchestral music for chamber ensemble. He then started to travel as a keyboard virtuoso, just like Mozart when he was still a child. When he again settled in Vienna he became a pupil of Albrechtsberger, Salieri and Haydn. The latter had a strong influence on Hummel.

It was also thanks to Haydn's intervention that Hummel was appointed Konzertmeister to the Esterházy family. He held this post from 1804 to 1811, when he was sacked, probably because he was in Vienna too often. He continued as a freelance musician. In 1816 he became Kapellmeister to the Duke of Württemberg in Stuttgart, and from 1819 until his death he worked in the same capacity at the service of the Grand Duke of Saxe in Weimar. Part of his contract was that he had the opportunity to travel through the continent for three months a year, and this allowed him to make appearances in St Petersburg, Warsaw, London and Paris.

It wasn't just at the end of his life that his reputation began to wane. Even before that his style of playing wasn't universally appreciated. His relationship with Beethoven, for instance, was not unproblematic, not only because of a difference in character, but also because of a difference in style. Schubert, on the other hand, decided to dedicate his last three piano sonatas to Hummel after he had met him and heard him play.

For a long time Hummel's music was virtually forgotten. Lately his oeuvre is receiving more attention, and in particular his chamber music has been rediscovered and enjoys some popularity among chamber ensembles. The British label Chandos deserves praise for having released various discs with orchestral and vocal music, as well as chamber and piano music. Its catalogue includes three discs with masses and some other religious music, conducted by the late Richard Hickox. Hummel's religious oeuvre was written in his capacity as Konzertmeister of the Esterházy's. The masses are typical specimens of the symphonic mass of the classical era, and stylistically close to in particular Haydn's masses. Hickox recorded three of them, but not the Missa Solemnis in C which is the main piece on the present disc. Therefore this recording fills a gap in the catalogue. It is a large-scale work which is scored for four solo voices, four-part choir and an orchestra with a battery of wind instruments, including four horns, two trumpets and one trombone, plus timpani. The brass play an important role in the mass, in particular in creating strong dynamic contrasts. There are some quite effective crescendi, for instance in the Credo. But this section also contains some rather introspective passages, like 'Et incarnatus'. The soloists play no part in the three first sections. The Sanctus, on the other hand, begins with a solo for the soprano, who is then joined successively by alto, tenor and bass. The 'Pleni sunt coeli' is set for the full choir, and in the Hosanna the soloists return. The Benedictus is shared by soloists and choir.

The Te Deum in D bears the inscription "to celebrate the peace", and is dated 1 January 1806. It may be concluded that it was written at the occasion of the Treaty of Pressburg between France and Austria, which was the outcome of the battle of Austerlitz in which Napoleon had beaten Austria. Hummel's setting has the exuberant character of any setting of this text. It starts with trumpets and timpani, and the instrumental introduction ends with a crescendo after which the choir enters. 'Te ergo quaesumus' is one of the few restrained passages. The second one is 'Miserere nostri' which begins with a phrase for choir a cappella.

The disc ends with an offertorio to be sung between the Credo and the Sanctus of the Mass. It consists of two sections: the first is a solo for soprano, the second a duet of soprano and choir. Although the booklet includes the texts of the Mass and the Te Deum, the lyrics of this offertorio - the least-known text - are omitted. So for the convenience of those who would like to purchase this disc I include them here:

Alma virgo, mater Dei, tu spes alta cordis mei, cum coelesti tuo ardore cor meum accende inflamma. In aeternum jubilantes decantemus Alleluia.
(Sublime Virgin, Mother of God, you most exalted hope of my heart, with your celestial fire inspire and inflame my heart. Rejoicing in all eternity let us sing for evermore: Alleluia.)

The recordings of Richard Hickox have already shown Hummel's sacred music being of fine quality. If you like the masses of Haydn you certainly will appreciate those by Hummel. The choral and orchestral writing is splendid, and that comes off very well in the performances by the Chorus Alea and the orchestra Solamente Naturali. The only complaint is that the delivery of the choir leaves something to be desired: the text is often hard to understand. But it is probably not easy anyway because of the strong presence of the orchestra. The latter's playing is impressive, in particular that of the brass. There are two instrumental solo parts: the violin in the Sanctus of the Mass, and the oboe in the Offertorio. They are beautyfully played by Miloš Valent and Eduard Wesly respectively. The vocal soloists are alright, but not more than that. It is true that the solo parts are quite operatic in character but that doesn't justify the vibrato of, in particular, the soprano and the contralto. The balance between the soprano and the choir in the second section of the offertorio is surprisingly good.

I have greatly enjoyed this recording. Didier Talpain - who also wrote the liner-notes - has a fine sense of Hummel's idiom, and his ensembles are fully capable to bring out the many qualities of his oeuvre. I would like them recording more of his religious music.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

Relevant links:

Solamente Naturali

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