Franz Hummel’s Hercher Variations

Review by: Jed Distler

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Artistic Quality: 7

Sound Quality: 9

Born in 1939, Franz Hummel enjoyed recognition and encouragement of his pianistic gifts by the likes of  Richard Strauss, Hans Knappertsbusch, and Elly Ney. The website hyperiummusic.com credits Hummel for making more than 60 LP recordings that “encompass almost the entire classical and romantic repertoire, as well as many modern works.” I’ve heard none of these, although I’ve seen several listed by second-hand vinyl dealers. Hummel basically stopped concertizing in 1973 in order to devote himself to composition. His prolific output includes symphonic and ballet scores, chamber music, many operas, and large-scale piano pieces.

Much of Hummel’s recorded music is not easy to source, and what is available makes it difficult to pinpoint his multi-faceted gifts and stylistic preferences. His violin concerto called Archaeopteryx, for example, is a half-hour’s worth of gnarly dissonance and grand gestures that somewhat holds your attention despite its utter lack of charm. His Second Piano Sonata features busy, skillfully crafted keyboard writing that might be described as the lovechild of Ferruccio Busoni and Roger Sessions. By contrast, an original set of 33 variations based upon the very same Diabelli waltz that Beethoven used for his Op. 120 set of 33 variations adds up to a remarkable and eclectic tour de force, alluding to a cornucopia of styles from Beethoven to boogie-woogie, and many in between.

More recently, Hummel has composed another set of 33 variations. These are based on a rather innocuous waltz that sounds like a Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Stephen Foster hybrid. The tonally oriented variations often convey a relentless, Reger-like chromaticism (Variation 23 is a good example of this), or else indulge in odd, unpredictable modulations, such as the quasi-two-part invention Variation 3. Variation 18’s light textures fall easily on the ear, yet its discursive melodies and wide interval skips keep the listener off guard. And the final variation is a quirky, fluttering tango that comes to a terse, somewhat unfulfilling end.

For all of Hummel’s pianistic ingenuity, the composition’s overall lack of rhythmic variety and cumulative design sometimes causes my attention to wander. Nevertheless, the 18-year-old pianist Christoph Preiss brings incisive virtuosity and an appreciable range of dynamics and characterization to this work. Listeners coming to Franz Hummel’s music for the first time, however, may find more immediate appeal in the audacity and wider creative scope distinguishing his Diabelli Variations. Both Angela Cholakian and Carmen Piazzini have recorded Hummel’s Diabellis, and both interpretations are equally excellent.



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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: This one

  • Christoph Preiss (piano)

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