Ferdinand Hiller: Piano Concertos Nos. 1, 2 & 3

Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra/Howard Shelley (piano/conductor) (Hyperion CDA67655)

25 March 2008 4 stars

Hiller - HyperionOnce again, Hyperion uncovers the work of yet anther 'unknown' composer who possessed deep ties with the great and the good of nineteenth-century music. Indeed, a highly curtailed biography of Ferdinand Hiller (1811-1885) proves to be nothing more than a gross exercise in name-dropping: pupil of Hummel, protégé of Cherubini, acquaintance of Rossini and Berlioz, friend of Liszt and Chopin, deputy conductor of Mendelssohn's Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, and composition teacher of Max Bruch (amongst others). He was a vaunted pianist in an age of burgeoning virtuosity and a composer of great potential, though his creative legacy has now been largely forgotten.

Hiller's three piano concertos of are, in themselves, a particularly fascinating programme, as they provide snapshots of the composer at the early, middle and later stages of his development. The F-minor Concerto, Op. 5 (1829-31) was conceived as a vehicle for virtuosity whilst the composer was establishing himself in the boiling competition of the Parisian pianistic cauldron. His second example in the genre – in F sharp minor, Op. 69 – appeared in 1843, and received its premiere with the Gewandhaus Orchestra. The final Piano Concerto in A flat major, Op. 170 (1874) received the title 'Concerto espressivo', and represents Hiller's efforts to reconcile traditionalist compositional thinking with the escalating levels of expression as the romantic era approached its zenith.

Howard Shelley makes his eighth appearance for Hyperion in their Romantic Piano Concerto series, his seventh with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra. It is clear that soloist/conductor and ensemble share a close musical relationship, with often-thrilling interplay occurring in the inordinate amount of back-and-forth between piano and orchestra in these works. Plenty of this is on display in the Third Concerto, a particularly fine work that balances devilishly demanding pianistic pyrotechnics with the prevailing significance of expression as specified by the composer. (The melancholic central Andante quasi adagio, with its probing trills, is an especially moving example of the latter.) Shelley's virtuosity and musicianship glisten in the opening movement, with its haunting development section, and act as a saving grace when Hiller's melodic inspiration begins to sound less than inspired, as in the dolce utterances of the finale.

Shelley and his TSO ensure that the F-sharp minor Second Concerto is every bit as successful, from its attention-wresting opening gambit, to the marvellously angular piano melody at about 2:08 in the Andante espressivo, to the uplifting appearance of the second subject in the major at the end of the concerto.  Even the early, bravura F-minor concerto is full of deft wit and charm, its finale a magnificent and forward-looking crossbreed of waltzes by Chopin and Johann Strauss that allows Shelley to exploit his magnificent pianism to the full. It is a much more convincing and wholesome musical argument than another Op. 5, F-minor piano concerto written at approximately the same time by rival virtuoso Sigismund Thalberg. Some may find the recorded orchestral sound a tad expansive at times, and Shelley's simultaneous focus on piano and orchestra results in moments when the ensemble could be granted an extra soupcon of expressivity in order to avoid occasional feelings of hurriedness. These are fairly minor foibles, however, on an otherwise enchanting disc.

It is nigh on impossible to identify Hiller's three piano concertos as belonging to the style of another, more renowned composer. For whilst they are conservative in manner, possessing – in essence – very little of an innovatively original nature, they boast a distinctive flavour that eludes straightforward pigeonholing. Perhaps the exquisite verbosity of Robert Schumann captures it best:

'I doubt that Hiller will ever be imitated. Why? Because, while himself original, he borrows so much from other original composers that the product has the strange taste of hybrid fruit … He is lured by the finest and best of all the great composers, but would avoid being as complicated as Bach, as ethereal as Mozart (although this is the least of his worries) or as profound as Beethoven (this is the greatest).'

Needless to say, these recordings are an attractive proposition to anyone with even a remote interest in the history and development of nineteenth-century keyboard music.

By William Norris