Milton Moore: The Lou Gehrig of chamber music, Johann Nepomuk Hummel

I often listen to the music of that wonderful second-rater, Johann Nepomuk Hummel. As a composer living in Vienna in 1810, this talented musician was doomed to be viewed as B-List by the presence of a couple fellow residents: Ludwig von Beethoven and Franz Schubert. But if you listen to his music, Hummel’s status is a reflection more of the supreme gifts of Beethoven and Schubert than of Hummel’s own talents.

It’s a little like calling Lou Gerhig second-rate, because he played with Babe Ruth.

Clearly, Vienna two centuries ago was a magical artistic moment, like Paris in the 1920s or New York in the Fifties, and you will hear much of what you associate with Beethoven and Schubert in Hummel’s music: the clear narrative of sonata form, irresistible dance rhythms and memorable melody.

Hummel was sent to live with Mozart at the tender age of 8 and studied with him for two years before, like Mozart, he went on tours to dazzle Europe as a child piano virtuoso. Hummel’s music is firmly seated at the keyboard, and his compositions are given to flashy pianism, but if you listen this piano trio and quintet on the playlist, you will hear his gift for using the full ensemble.

The Opus 83 piano trio on the playlist is my favorite Hummel, with such an obvious kinship to Schubert’s two trios, so I include all three movements. The first movement has that Schubertian lilt and wealth of melody interacting playfully. The slow movement is much more Beethoven-flavored, a dry-eyed, yet questing, andante. And the final movement is an irresistible romp of a rondo, dancing you home.

I’ve included the final movement of Hummel’s F Minor piano sonata, with its kaleidoscopic rush of thematic material. Written at about the same time as Beethoven’s middle period sonatas, it has all the power of Beethoven, but Hummel relies more on flash than development.

I also include the first movement of Hummel’s Piano Quintet in E Flat as a sample of his larger chamber works.

There’s many hours of recordings of Hummel’s music to enjoy without repetitions. Do you have a favorite?

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