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Saturday, August 24, 2019


(William Charlton-Perkins)

Re-instating Hummel

Unfettered virtuosity is key to performing the once renowned Austrian composer-pianist’s music, as Stephen Hough, Howard Shelly and Dmitry Shishkin, three keyboard giants of our time, demonstrate.

Some thirty years ago, Stephen Hough, a swiftly rising young British pianist, astounded the musical world by launching his recording career with benchmark performances of two fiendishly taxing piano concertos by the then relatively obscure Austrian composer, Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778 – 1837).

Despite his being an outsider, essaying rarely performed repertoire, Hough’s dizzying virtuosity and seeming relish in surmounting the terrifying challenges of Hummel’s Opus 85 and 89 warhorses saw him confounding the predictions of industry sages, to sweep the boards at the 1988 Gramophone Awards, seizing the title as that year’s overall winner.

This prestigious victory accelerated Hough’s rapid ascent to international stardom. His now legendary Chandos disc also fast-tracked the revival of Hummel’s own once illustrious reputation, after it had languished for 150 years in posthumous eclipse. The Hummel renaissance was particularly prevalent in the recording studio, where Hough’s compatriot, Howard Shelley, issued a terrific series of Hummel works for piano and orchestra, all on the Chandos label, performing and conducting his Mozart Players with a dazzling display of élan.

Celebrated in his day as the world’s leading keyboard virtuoso, Hummel’s works were written for his own performances. And, as Mozart’s favourite pupil (and fellow domestic billiard-playing enthusiast) he was also a highly influential composer whose music bridged the divide between the Classical and Romantic eras. Hummel’s imprint on the music and pianism of his Polish-born near contemporary, Frédéric Chopin is palpable.

Without offering any spurious claims that Hummel’s stature is on a level with those of the three mighty B’s, let alone those of giants such as Handel, Mozart and Haydn, his creations in the hands of great virtuoso performers, take on a life of their own, proudly co-existing alongside those of composers such as Bellini and Donizetti, whose operas took a Callas or a Sutherland to reinstate their public standing. Not for nothing did the ambitious young Franz Liszt single out a Hummel piano sonata for his own debut vehicle as a virtuoso in the international arena.

Now up for viewing on YouTube, is a superbly crafted film of a live concert captured in 2017. This offers a thrilling encounter with the extreme demands of Hummel’s A minor Concerto, dispatched with infinite technical finesse, supreme musicality and a breathtaking tonal palette, by the multi-award winning Russian pianist, Dmitry Shishkin, then just 23 years of age. Clearly, the event was earmarked as a major musical happening, presented in the wake of Shishkin’s unprecedented string of triumphs on the major competition circuit.

Shishkin is clearly destined for Hall-of Fame residence alongside generations of his historic compatriots. His exquisitely nuanced performance is wonderfully offset by A-list partnering from the great Russian conductor-pianist, Mikhail Pletnev, deeply appreciative of his soloist, while leading his hand-picked Russian National Orchestra with a minimal deployment of gesture from the podium. The performance teams with stand-out moments: the delicate interplay of focus passing between winds and soloist, sensitively highlighted by alertly roving camera work; ringside close-ups switching from soloist to strings, enhancing Hummel’s lovely integration of obbligato players and tutti; overhead camera shots displaying the soloist’s massive, lightening-swift leaps, cruelly embedded in Hummel’s score, jaggedly flying across the keyboard from one end to the other; the tidal swell of full orchestral energy and headlong motion as the First Movement exposition climaxes with a glittering downward glissando from the pianist; the gravely beautiful opening to the hushed  Second Movement adagio, giving way to the pianist’s heart-stopping entry on a melody of such aching beauty that even Bellini himself would proudly have penned; and so on to the finale’s richly climactic resolution. The rewards abound in this performance of a lifetime, as every audience member present would doubtless attest. 

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 - William Charlton-Perkins