HÉROLD: Four Piano Concertos – Angéline Poindepeyre, p./ WDR Radio Orch. Cologne/ Conrad van Alphen – Talent (2 CDs)

by | Mar 28, 2012 | Classical CD Reviews

LOUIS-FERDINAND HÉROLD: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 1 in E Major; Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 2 in E-flat Major; Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 3 in E Major; Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 4 in E Minor – Angéline Poindepeyre, piano/ WDR Radio Orch. Cologne/ Conrad van Alphen – Talent DOM 3810 20+21 (2 CDs), 49:50, 39:03 [Distr. by Qualiton]  ****:
Think you haven’t previously made the acquaintance of Louis-Ferdinand Hérold (1791–1833)? If you’re a Baby Boomer or older, you’ve probably heard at least one piece of music by him, the lively potpourri-style overture to his opera Zampa, which furnished the background music to what seems like countless cartoons from Hollywood’s Golden Age.
Like other French composers of the nineteenth century, Hérold dedicated himself almost entirely to the stage, his most frequently heard piece being the ballet La fille mal gardée and his supposed masterpiece the opera La pré au clercs, which you will probably never hear live or on disc. Hérold was a student of opera composer Étienne Méhul, who had the greatest influence on his style. He also studied piano with Louis Adam, father of Adophe, and violin with Rodolphe Kreutzer, dedicatee of the Kreuzer Sonata. Like too many artists before the twentieth century, Hérold died of tuberculosis, just shy of his forty-second birthday.
Given his resume, it was a surprise for me to learn that between 1811 and 1813 Hérold turned his attention to the piano concerto, writing the four works contained on the present album. While Talent claims that this is the world-premiere recording of the concerti, there is a rival version of the last three on a Mirare disc which I haven’t sampled, featuring pianist Jean-Frédéric Neuberger. However, since the price point for Talent’s two-disc set of all four seems to be roughly the same as that for the single Mirare disc, the Talent set is a better bargain. Fortunately, the performances and sound recording are very good too.
What’s the music like? Well, for starters, the concerti are all scored for the modest orchestral forces Beethoven employed in his Second Concerto of 1789, lacking trumpets and drums. But instead of the Mozartian Classicism of Beethoven’s work, we have clear traces of early Romanticism à la John Field, whose concertos came to mind as I listened to Hérold’s, especially the keyboard writing. For the most part, the first movements are in an elegant, leisurely sonata-allegro form, while the last movements are jaunty, rather lightweight rondo affairs, the last movement of the Fourth Concerto being a bit dreamier in character.
Only the Second and Third Concerti have slow movements, the two-movement Fourth Concerto thus lasting an economical fifteen minutes, though its minor-key first movement is the most dramatic of all. Of those two slow movements, the Second Concerto’s is light and balletic, hinting again at Hérold’s affinity for the stage. So, too, does the slow movement of the Third Concerto, though here we have a lovely, operatic duet for piano and violin. Though this kind of movement would figure in the concerti of later Romantics including Brahms, Dvorak, and Tchaikovsky, who outdoes Hérold by including a solo cello as well as violin in the slow movement of his Second Piano Concerto, I can’t think of another concerto from Hérold’s day that includes this patently Romantic gesture, making the composer’s Third Concerto the most special of all. Hérold’s concerti may not be lost masterpieces, but they’re certainly fluent, enjoyable works that admirers of his contemporaries John Field, J. N. Hummel, and Ferdinand Ries will want to hear. Note that I don’t include the names of any Frenchmen; apparently Hérold was the first, and for a long time thereafter the only, French composer of piano concertos.
Pianist Angéline Pondepeyre and the WDR Rundfunksorchester play with style and fine Romantic feeling. I can’t imagine that these performances will be bettered, or that the pieces will even be recorded again, anytime soon. (I’m not sure what to make of Talent’s pretty but inappropriate pseudo-Impressionist cover art or of the album notes, which offer little more than a timeline of Hérold’s life.) The sound recording from WDR’s Grösse Sendesaal is well-balanced and suave, with just the right touch of resonance, making for a fully satisfying package.
—Lee Passarella

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