Hummel Ballet Music

0 of 5 stars

Sappho von Mitilene, Op.68 – Suite
Das Zauberschloss – Suite
Twelve Waltzes and Coda

London Mozart Players
Howard Shelley

Recorded on 3 & 4 July 2006 in St Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town, London

Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson

Reviewed: May 2007
Duration: 76 minutes

This is delightful music. We tend to think of Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837) as a composer of chamber music and concertos, but ballet music does not immediately come to mind. Hummel had a great gift of melody so perhaps it is not too surprising how easily he takes to this medium. Nothing here (apart from the plots of the ballets) is difficult to understand and Hummel provides melody after melody in 19th-century stage-music style yet he is never derivative.

Sappho is from 1812, the Waltzes from 1817 and Das Zauberschloss could be from any time in the composer’s composing life so mysterious is its provenance. All this is explained in thorough detail in the booklet note by Derek Carew whose approach is ideally informative as he takes the listener through the works scene by scene with great insight. His are exemplary examples of how to write helpful introductions; no high-flown wordy appreciation, just a clear-cut description of what is on the disc with as much historical background as is relevant.

Hummel’s fine Overture to Sappho is fully up to the standard of similar popular works of this nature – when searching for a worthy contemporary with whom to compare the style, Cherubini comes to mind. Although some of this music appeared in other guises later in the composer’s life (in piano arrangement and in a later ballet score), Hummel self-borrows no more than any other composer of his period and there are gorgeous tunes in this 47-minute sequence.

The Magic Castle is very much a mystery piece, here the erudite commentator can find no reference to a contemporary performance and the form is unusual – a single, long (20-minute) piece in which all the sections are linked together. Some episodes are brief and there are many changes of mood, but there is little clue as to what is being depicted.

The set of dances makes an ideal companion. The pieces are cast in the form of waltzes and in some there are reminiscences of Beethoven who sometimes wrote in exactly the same style. At what point does a Ländler become a Waltz? Perhaps it doesn’t matter because there are dances in this collection that could be described equally accurately as either.

The recording sounds beautiful and I approve the choice of a very resonant acoustic, but unfortunately the sound lacks impact. All the instruments are audible and the balance is natural but there is little separation. The woodwind is represented as an instrumental choir; individual players never stand out except when Hummel writes interesting wind solos. There is, however, a splendid horn solo in the seventh number of Sappho that follows the overture. Horns, timpani and double basses are in proper perspective but it is difficult to discern their individual timbres and frequently I wished for greater dynamic contrast. If comfortable, warm glow rather than incisive detail appeals then this issue will not disappoint and it would certainly provide a great challenge in a ‘spot the composer’ competition.

This release is another a welcome addition to the adventurous and fascinating 18th/19th-century repertoire that the London Mozart Players is recording for Chandos.

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