Ferdinand Hiller, who was born in Frankfurt am Main in 1811,
was admired in extravagant terms successively by Chopin, Mendelssohn
and Schumann. Talent, imagination and passion were the qualities
they lauded. As a travelling virtuoso pianist, and composer,
Hiller met the great and the good: Hummel, with whom he had
studied as a boy, Beethoven, Schubert, Liszt, and Berlioz amongst
the most prominent. Later he became music director of various
city societies and conducted prestigious orchestras in Germany
All the works in this disc were recorded in the 1850s and 1860s
whilst he was living and working in Cologne, where he was the
director of the Rhine Music School. The two piano sonatas are
brief works. The Second lasts ten minutes in this performance
and fuses long lyrical lines with more agitated left hand accents
ending with a Mendelssohnian finale section full of spirit and
bravura. The Third Sonata again has plenty of surging dynamism,
albeit of the rather formulaic kind, and one can’t help
but feel that it says less than the earlier work it’s
half as long again.
On the evidence of the sonatas Hiller was more gifted as a composer
of character pieces: indeed he is probably best known, pianistically,
for his Ghasèles. The ghaza is a long-established
Arabic poetic form that had undergone a nineteenth-century renaissance
in the West and was popularised by such German writers as August
von Platen and Friedrich Rückert. Hiller sought to convey
this poetic form in music and it unleashed his instinct for
narrative and passion not necessarily audible in his more conventional
works. Thus Op.54 No. 1 sounds indebted to John Field and its
opus companion No.2 has an even higher degree of poetry, and
is more dapper, more dancing and more alive.
Alexandra Oehler plays four of the six Klavierstücke
Op.130, of which No.5 is another Ghasèle. Hiller
has gone for maximum contrast. The Ballade is fresh,
the Idyll rather sturdy, and the Romance similarly
big-boned. Oehler programmes three of the miscellaneous piano
pieces, though there was room for more, as indeed there was
easily room for all of the Op.130 set. No.3 is a most attractive,
rather hymnal piece, whilst No.2 is yet another Ghasèle,
but this is possibly Hiller’s best, and a perfect example
of his art at its most poetic and convincingly characterised.
He’s often at his best when he seems to be improvising.
We end the disc with the first of the Op.81 set, a march that
sounds like a tamer version, a less exotic version, of a Chopin
Oehler provides sturdy pianism in this well recorded programme.
I wondered if at some points she wasn’t selling Hiller
a little short in his more overtly romantic moments. Still,
this is certainly a very fair survey of his piano works from
that two-decade period.