More than fifty years ago I first encountered Hummel when I was learning the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor, K. 466; the edition I was using had the Hummel cadenzas for that magnificent concerto, and in comparison to the Mozart they were pretty lame. (Fortunately, my teacher steered me towards the Beethoven cadenzas which are vastly superior and the ones almost universally used.) So my early poor opinion of Hummel was influenced by that experience. Since then, of course, I've learned better. He may not be Mozart or Beethoven, but he's an estimable composer nonetheless and this CD of piano Fantasies supports that assessment. When they were written touring piano virtuosi were expected to supply music for their own programs, and fantasias often based on familiar melodies were all the rage. One of them here (and one of the most impressive, in my opinion) is the Fantasie in G Minor, Op. 123, which is reportedly having its first recording here. The pianist is Vienna-based Madoka Inui whose playing I had previous admired on a disc featuring the principal clarinetist of the Vienna Philharmonic, Peter Schmidl. She covers herself with glory in this disc.
There are six works featured here and they come from both early and late Hummel. The Opp. 18 and 19, respectively the Fantasie in E Flat Major, and the Rondo quasi una fantasia in E Major, are clearly less sophisticated that the others. Written in 1805 and 1806 their melodies presage the mellifluous cantilena made familiar later by Bellini and John Field, and in the former there is the influence of the Sturm und Drang piano writing of CPE Bach. Inui presents them with clarity, lyricism and more than a little drama.
The work getting its recorded première, the Op. 123, leads off the CD and is quite an impressive work. It is in five sections titled Introduzione, The Hunter's Song, Marcia, The Bloodhound, and The Roaming Mariners. It is based on three songs by the now-forgotten Sigismond Ritter von Neukomm, with an original introduction and march by Hummel. Clearly Hummel did not simply compose a potpourri, but wove the melodies into complex and satisfying pieces.
There is a nine-minute 'Contemplazione' in A Flat, from Hummel's 'Six Bagatelles, Op. 107. It is a lyrical, somewhat melancholy piece with a gorgeous set of melodies, some of them reminiscent of Chopin. This is followed by 'Fantasie "Recollections of Paganini"' from 1832. In four sections, Caprice, Quartetto, Rondo and Campanella, it uses melodies from Paganini's 9th and 11th Caprices for solo violin, the minuet from his Guitar Quartet, and the Rondo from the Violin Concerto in B Minor (the so-called 'La Campanella'). Again, Hummel does not merely dress up the original melodies but composes fantasias on them that take them somewhat far afield. There are echoes of Mozartean counterpoint and the melisma of both Paganini and Chopin.
Finally, there is the now-familiar 'Fantasina in C Major on "Non piu andrai"' based, of course, on Figaro's aria from 'Marriage of Figaro' by Mozart. Only five minutes long, it is still sometimes played as an encore.
Inui is a very fine pianist and she is given lifelike sound by her engineers. Amazingly this music was recorded only five months ago, some indication that Naxos must have thought this was a superb recording that needed to be released as soon as possible. I agree with that assessment.
If you aren't familiar with Hummel's piano music (or any of his music, for that matter) I'd advise you to take the plunge and get this budget issue. You won't be disappointed.