Henri Herz (1803-1888)
Variations on ‘Non Più Mesta’ from Rossini’s ‘La Cenerentola’, Op. 60
Introduction & Variations on an original Theme, Op. 81
Fantasy & Variations on various American National Themes, Op. 158
Three Nocturnes Caracteristiques, op. 45
-No. 1 “La dolcezza”
-No. 2 “La melanconia”
-No. 3 “La semplicità”
Ballade, Op. 117/1
Ballade, Op. 117/2
Fantaisie dramatique, Op. 89
Trois morceaux de salon, Op. 91
-No. 3 “Le mouvement perpetuel”
Philip Martin, piano
(2008) – TT 79:40
In a nutshell:
• If you like flamboyant and rollicking piano music from the Parisian salon, Herz delivers
• Variations on “Non Più Mesta” from Rossini’s “La Cenerentola” is a substantial concert piece loaded with rapid fingerwork, florid ornaments, glissandi, and even lyricism and noble expression. Martin’s performance is as effective as Earl Wild’s.
• “Introduction & Variations on an Original Theme,” op. 81 has frenetic triplets, frothy leggiero passagework, cascades of pearly runs, a Polish march, and nocturnal reflections.
• “Le movement perpetuel” is a scintillating showpiece of high-register filigree and oompah-rhythms.
• “Fantasy & Variations on various American National Themes” is a potpourri on the airs “Jackson’s March,” “Hail Columbia,” and “Yankee Doodle.” It may be trite and gaudy, but this amusing romp could be a guilty pleasure for some.
• “Three Nocturnes Caractéristiques” have Chopinesque singing lines and bel canto aspects. “La melanconia” might be the finest of the three: a sighing minor-key melody supported by a rocking arpeggiated accompaniment.
• Philip Martin (piano)—renowned for his Gottschalk survey—is the perfect pianist for the job. He’s got the technique and flair to bring out the best qualities in these bonbons.
Herz is typically low on the totem pole of early 19th century virtuosi. His legacy has not held up as well as even Thalberg, although Earl Wild did revive interest in Herz’s Variations on Rossini’s “Non Piu Mesta.” Otherwise it has been Hyperion leading the charge of recording his music. In fact, this is the first program of Herz’s piano pieces to be released. I’m bewildered by the poor reviews it’s been getting in the press. Herz never aimed to be a Chopin, Liszt, or even a Henselt, but he was gifted at writing brilliant showpieces. If you like bel canto singing lines, glittering showers of notes, and salon pianism typical of the 1830s, the selection on this disc should strike your fancy.
Herz’s major contribution was his Variations on “Non Più Mesta” from Rossini’s “La Cenerentola.” It has all the trappings of a virtuoso concert piece: rapid fingerwork, florid ornaments, glissandi, and even lyricism and noble expression. Philip Martin plays with as much infectious élan and alacrity as Earl Wild. A similar idiom is employed in the “Introduction & Variations on an Original Theme,” op. 81, which offers a smattering of moods and textural variety, from frenetic triplets and cascades of pearly runs to marches and nocturnes. More attractive note-spinning can be heard in “Le movement perpetuel,” a fast scintillating showpiece of high-register filigree and oompah-rhythms. Martin’s gossamer touch is phenomenal. Some critics accuse Herz of vapidity in the “Fantasy & Variations on various American National Themes.” It’s a potpourri on the airs “Jackson’s March,” “Hail Columbia,” and “Yankee Doodle.” I can’t deny much of it is gaudy and insipid, but this amusing romp has the potential to be a guilty pleasure.
Herz was capable of writing refined and poetic salon pieces lacking ostentatious display. A fine example of this are the Three Nocturnes Caractéristiques, in which singing lines and Chopinesque wistfulness are integral elements. “La dolcezza” is a vehicle for gentle lyricism sounding like a transcription of a Bellini aria. The yearning “La semplicità” is much like a Henselt etude with a single melody wreathed in busy figurations. “La melanconia” might be the finest of the three: a sighing minor-key melody supported by a rocking arpeggiated accompaniment. Herz’s two ballades of op. 117 are trite, but the first exudes the atmosphere of a nocturne. There’s a dreamy mood generated by the vocal expressive lines and placid swaying rhythms. Impassioned outbursts and turbulence occasionally spice things up. The second ballade is not particularly memorable and Jeremy Nicholas compares it to Gottschalk.
What must be the skunk of this program is the “Fantaisie dramatique” – a truly banal, incoherent, and rambling piece made off the assembly line for a quick buck. As Nicholas explains in the liner notes, its full title is misleading: “Fantaisie dramatique sur le célèbre choral protestant intercalé dans ‘Les Huguenots.’” This is not a fantasy on Lutheran chorales or Meyerbeer, although references are made to this material in the score. It’s mostly original material by Herz and it wears out its welcome all too soon, owing to rhapsodic noodling and lack of excitement or melodic interest. Apart from this dud, the program should satisfy pianophiles. Philip Martin is a terrific champion of this kind of literature, and anyone familiar with his Gottschalk survey can expect the same level of technique, brio, and musicianship here.
Herz – Works & Recordings