Pupil and champion of Beethoven, the vastly influential teacher of Liszt, Thalberg and Leschetizky, Carl Czerny (1791-1857) has never enjoyed much of a press. In the spirit of Mozart's “mere mechanicus” dismissal of Clementi, John Field wrote Czerny off as an “inkpot”, the slur sticking down the generations. For sure he was the drillmaster-supreme of Romantic pianism, packaging notes of all shapes and sizes to discipline and test. But machining semiquavers for breakfast wasn't his only forte. As Jeremy Nicholas reminds us in his readable booklet essay, he composed in every genre apart from opera, with “almost always original touches or surprising elements involved somewhere.”
Czerny wrote elegantly for the piano, and not just in the higher registers (a common generalisation). A cultured musician, he knew how to craft effective, energising orchestral textures, at the very least, in his Symphonies (think of the resplendent D-major Second published in 1847), equalling Beethoven and Schubert or, in his Concertos, Weber and Hummel. A Bohemian/Moravian born in Vienna, he was, like the German Ferdinand Ries, the civilised voice of the post-Napoleonic age, a citizen of the city to which Chopin came in 1830, a Biedermeier man whose music was about grace, etiquette and good breeding before off-the-shoulder lasciviousness; polite foursquare phrases before irregularity; of minor-keys grounded in Mozart and Haydn; and galante majors aspiring to Beethovenian heroism (he gave the Viennese premiere of the ‘Emperor’ Concerto in 1812). The hormone-fuelled world of the Pamers, Strausses and Lanners touched him but he never joined in.
Howard Shelley, whose Hummel outings for Chandos have been such a source of pleasure, enlightenment and discovery, brings crisply informed insight to this Czerny release for Hyperion, tapping as much into the drama and decoration of the music as its swings between drawing-room and occasionally earthier pastures. A penchant for cadenza and fioritura suggests Field. But formally the music resists the Irishman's structural excesses (and occasional laziness), coming closer to Weber. The F-major Piano Concerto (circa 1820, premiere recording) reflects some of the fashionable styles of its day – from the military (the first movement loosely taking a cue from the repeated rhythms and timpani strokes opening Beethoven's Violin Concerto) through variation (the central alla siciliano) to polonaise (the Finale, coquettish poise to the fore). Leaving behind the schoolroom, the piano-writing addresses the listener in a panorama of robust, glittering, Viennese-action virtuosity offset by lyrical asides. The end of the slow movement is inspired, a single chord breathtakingly distributed between flute and pairs of horns and bassoons.
Cyclically unified, the half-hour A-minor Piano Concerto (1829) is a muscular affair, Classical in descent but Romantic in impulse. The first movement dispenses with the traditional cadenza; the striking second (like that of Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto) functions as a gran espressione transition into the finger-twisting Finale, fully involving the orchestra. It would never come about today, but what effect, I find myself wondering, would such an exacting, finely turned work have on a competition jury or audience? It calls for physical strength, grace of execution and interpretative concentration as exposing as anything in the repertory – qualities in Czerny Horowitz had been only too happy to acknowledge when he recorded the ‘La Ricordanza’ Variations in 1944.
Prefaced by a lengthy introduction, again very much of the period (witness Chopin, Hummel, early Liszt), the Rondo brillant (circa 1831, also a first recording) combines courtly charm with note-spinning roulades that manage cleverly to steer clear of tedium (contrasting, say, some of Hummel's efforts).
Shelley excels in all departments. He plays with informed authority and class, taking time to shape and place events, his fingerwork and trills glistening at every turn. Responding to the spirit of the page, he conducts with vitality and a rhythmically coiled tension, coaxing the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra to give beyond their best (they are an outstanding ensemble). Ben Connellan ensures a clean production and Veronika Vincze engineers a full-bodied and spacious sound to complete an invigorating release.