Henri Herz: Piano works

Philip Martin (Hyperion CDA67606)

Release Date: 2 January, 2008 4 stars

'About Herz one can write (1) sadly, (2) gaily, (3) sarcastically or, as now, all three at once. One can hardly believe how cautiously and shyly I avoid any discussion of him, and how I try to stay at least ten paces away from him, lest I praise him too loudly to his face. For if anyone has ever been honest with his fellow-man and himself, then it is Henri Herz, our countryman!'

It is with this characteristic flurry of vibrant prose that Robert Schumann begins his review (1836) of Herz's Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, of which approximately five percent deals with the work in question, with the rest devoted largely to lambasting the composer and 'his unclassical [sic] music'.

Given that this was a sentiment maintained by many of his contemporaries, it would perhaps be inaccurate to state that Herz the composer (he was also an acclaimed pianist) has been treated unkindly by history, which has chosen to forget his works rather than keeping them alive through endless criticism. His output, summed up as 'empty, graceful salon pieces' by Harold C. Schonberg, is full of lightweight wit and charm, stock harmonic progressions with occasionally unexpected turns of phrase, and virtuoso finger-twisters that receive prescribed appearances and reappearances. Though a label of 'superficial' would possibly be a tad callous, these works indubitably lacked profundity in both an era and a repertoire stacked with lasting examples of pioneering genius.

Yet, throughout Philip Martin's admirable performances I often caught myself smiling. Admittedly, I was not always sure whether the direction of my amusement was at or with the music. But perhaps this doesn't matter. One can clearly see why compositions such as these were all the rage in the Parisian salons of the 1820s, 30s and 40s, with Herz outselling all his rivals (including Chopin and Liszt). Herz's music might be classified in modern terms as 'easy-listening', which made it accessible to the masses. Technically, it was pitched at a range of ability levels, with some pieces intended for the amateur pianist (such as the elegant Trois Nocturnes caractéristiques) and other works that exploit the growing virtuosic capabilities allowed by evolving piano technology (most notably rapid repeated notes brought on by Erard's 'double escapement' mechanism).

Martin, fresh from his laudable eight-disc survey of Gottschalk's piano music, tackles these well-programmed works with sensuousness and vitality, capturing the ornately flamboyant allure of the music with great affection. The opening Deuxième thème original avec introduction et variations, Op. 81 is lovingly played, with brilliant triplets in the third variation and a thrilling cadenza-like passage. One can almost hear Martin grinning during the subsequent 'Variations on 'Non più mesta' from Rossini's La Cenerentola', Op. 60, as the pianist liltingly toys with Herz's technical challenges (though his repeated notes are a trifle untidy when they first appear).

The most significant work presented here – the Fantaisie dramatique, Op. 89 – is less successful, too protracted (at a little over fourteen minutes) to sustain the composer's inspiration. There are, however, some fine discoveries, not least the Fantaisie et Variations sur des Airs nationaux américains variés, Op. 158, which includes some unexpectedly juicy harmonies in the variations on 'Yankee Doodle', as well as a resourceful juxtaposition of this melody with the little-known 'Jackson's March'. The two Ballades, Op. 117 are highly agreeable salon pieces, and Le mouvement perpetual, Op. 91 No. 3 is a delightfully contagious encore lollipop.

At his best, Herz was a poor man's Mendelssohn. At his worst, a stale piece of pianistic popcorn. So why invest time and money in this CD? If Herz's surprising historical significance is not enough to pique your curiosity, consider the age-old cliché that 'there is a time and a place for everything'. A restaurant patron may sometimes turn his back on an upmarket establishment in order to fulfil a penchant for fast-food cuisine. A reader of classic novels may intermittently feel the urge to indulge in a low tale of amore from the supermarket shelves. Though this disc is by no means going to force the Chopin, Schumann and Liszt from one's collection, it will more than satisfy the guilty pleasures of those music-lovers who crave the occasional frivolous musical trinket.

By William Norris