HENRI HERZ: Piano Concerto No. 2 in c minor and other works – Howard Shelley (piano) / Tasmanian Sym. Orch. / Howard Shelley – Hyperion hi-res

HENRI HERZ:  Piano Concerto No. 2 in c minor, Op. 74 and other works – Howard Shelley (piano) / Tasmanian Sym. Orch. / Howard Shelley – Hyperion CD CDA 68100 and 96K/24-bit download [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] 65:04 **** :

Recorded during May 2014 in the Federation Concert Hall, Hobart, Tasmania, this is the third volume from Hyperion devoted to the piano concertos of Henri Herz (1803-1888).  It’s also Volume 66 in Hyperion’s ongoing series The Romantic Piano Concerto, which has unearthed a good deal of excellent material which would otherwise have lain dormant, undiscovered and neglected.

Born in Vienna in 1803 (though some say 1806) Heinrich Herz arrived in Paris in 1816 to study at the Paris Conservatoire.  He became utterly Parisian, adopting Henri as his first name, and spent his long life largely touring around the world as a highly successful virtuoso pianist, building pianos in France, and teaching as a Professor of Piano at the Conservatoire.

His sort of music, sometimes light-hearted and light of tone, coupled with the need for dazzling dexterity, was thought of by some by the mid-1850s to be too superficial, and was viewed as no more than cheap Parisian musique du salon.  Robert Schumann possibly had no greater bêtenoire than Herz, referring to him as a stenographer rather than composer, and writing his Phantasie satyrique (nach Henri Herz) to poke fun at what he perceived as worthless playing to easily-impressed crowds.  Indeed, one of Schumann’s insults was to refer to music he despised as “Herzian”.  Jeremy Nicholas has written extensively about Herz’s life and times and his contribution to 19th century music, and his essays in the booklets of all four of Hyperion’s releases are well worth investigating to throw further light on this fascinating, near-forgotten and certainly neglected composer.

Herz wrote eight concertos for piano and orchestra, though one is lost, and with this release all seven survivors are now available on record. The second, presented here, was written around 1830, and opens profoundly with a long introduction for the orchestra in c-minor.  The mood does change during the concerto, the first movement ending in a bold and confident C major, and the last, a Rondo, is also in the major key.  The slow movement, in E-flat, is marked Andantino cantabile con molt’ espressione and is a delight, Howard Shelley bringing out the singing melodies, which reminded me of Irish folk-songs, quite beautifully.

The Grand Polonaise Brillante, Op 30 is the earliest work here, written before 1830, and could be mistaken for Chopin. The two Fantaisies from around 1832 and 1850 make up the remainder of the programme and are based on works very popular at the time, by Donizetti and Rossini.  The Grande fantaisie militaire sur La Fille du Régiment positively sparkles with wit, and the military orchestration towards the end, replete with percussion and piccolo certainly brought a smile to my face.  Perhaps Schumann would not have been amused.

A lot of Herz’s writing for piano is fiendishly difficult and highly delicate, more filigree than barn-storming keyboard-bashing display, requiring sensitive handling.  Howard Shelley shows all this off very successfully indeed, the light and bright-toned piano making the rapid, lithe passage-work crystal-clear, especially heard through the 24-bit download.  Directed from the keyboard by Howard Shelley the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra contributes a lean clear sound in a credible concert-hall balance, all captured in fine sound by Hyperion’s engineers.  Bravo!

Tracklist:

1-3 Piano Concerto No 2 in C minor Op 74
4 Grande fantaisie militaire sur La fille du régiment Op 163
5 Fantaisie et variations sur la marche d’Otello de Rossini Op 67
6 Grande polonaise brillante Op 30

—Peter Joelson

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