Howard Shelley

The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 45: Hiller: Piano Concertos 1-3

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Unless you've read the book Beethoven's Hair, Ferdinand Hiller is probably as obscure to you as any Joe Composer could be, but in his day (his dates are 1811-1885) he held his own place among the who's-who of European musical society, known and respected by many, from Cherubini to Bruch, for his pianism, conducting, teaching, and composing. Despite having written chamber music, operas, and choral works, his best writing was done for his own instrument: the piano. Hyperion's 45th entry in its Romantic Piano Concerto series presents all three of Hiller's concertos, the second of which the Grove Dictionary called "his best work." The Piano Concerto No. 1 is a youthful work, contemporary with and in many ways similar to Chopin's first concerto. It allows the pianist to show off in florid or energetic riffs on the melodies, while the orchestra does minimal work. It does have some of the feel of an Austro-Germanic Classical or early Romantic concerto structurally, however, the overall impression is closer to French piano music of the time, which is explained by the fact that it was written in the middle of Hiller's seven years in Paris. In the second concerto, written 13 years later, Hiller's maturity as a performer and composer clearly comes through. There is better balance between the piano and orchestra, and the piano solo is less ornate, although no less virtuosic. The sense of drama is also much greater and interesting. Contrasts between moods, between minor and major keys, are much more developed in this concerto. Hiller's final entry in the genre was written in 1874, 30 years after the second, and was thought lost until a set of parts was discovered in a library in Frankfurt. He called it "Concerto Espressivo," drawing attention to the way both the piano and orchestra are to sound more liberated from their traditional roles, and themes from their traditional development, even though he very carefully designed the construction of each movement. Of the three concertos, this one uses the orchestra the best, allowing it to be more of a partner and state melodies, motifs, and countermelodies along with the piano rather than in opposition to it or being used as just accompaniment. The energy level is still high, but the concerto is more cheerful and thoughtful than dramatic, suggesting emotional maturity as well as compositional maturity, and arguing for this as Hiller's best work, rather than the Piano Concerto No. 2. For all three concertos, the extremely adept pianist Howard Shelley also conducts the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, his partner for most of his other recordings in the series. Both he and the orchestra have to have incredible confidence in each other, especially in the third concerto, in order to make this work so well. There are no missed entrances by either or other sloppy ensemble work. There's just a well done, lively, and fascinating presentation of the best of Ferdinand Hiller's neglected worklist.

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