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Carl CZERNY (1791-1857)
Piano Concerto in F major, Op. 28 [27:04]
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 214 [31:11]
Rondo Brillant, Op. 233 [14:54]
Howard Shelley (piano/conductor)/Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra
rec. Federation Concert Hall, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia 6-9 May, 2015.
HYPERION CDA68138 [73:09]

Howard Shelley has made a quite amazing contribution to the exploration of dark musical corners and, in particular, to unearthing obscure virtuoso concertante piano works. As regards late eighteenth and nineteenth century concertos alone his discography lists recordings of works by Hummel, Moscheles, Hiller, Kalkbrenner, Sterndale Bennett, Pixis, Dussek and various other more obscure composers. His brilliant technique and musicianship, bearing in mind that he is usually conducting from the keyboard, finally allows the listener the fullest appreciation of what it was that made such composer-pianists famous in their own time and allows the music to speak for itself. Relatively few pianists have pursued this kind of repertoire with the same tenacity and we are greatly in his debt although, so far, his huge efforts have turned up little to overturn the considered judgement of posterity or demonstrate manifestly unfair obscurity. He has now added yet another such composer to the above list so is the position any different here?

2017 marks the 160th anniversary of the death of Carl Czerny – whose name is familiar to many pianists (if not a wider public) on the basis of the quite extraordinary amount of pedagogical keyboard music he produced, as well as being a pupil of Beethoven and the teacher of Liszt. This familiarity does not, however, extend to knowing his music. I would be prepared to bet that relatively few of us have ever heard a Czerny composition performed in concert – principally because remarkably few of his works have found their way into the concert repertoire. In fact, whilst the CD age has resulted in plenty of recordings which provide access to one or more of his works, this has not led to any sort of revival. Why should this be? Well, it’s not that hard to guess.

Born into a musical family the young Carl was taught the piano by his father and soon became something of a pianistic child prodigy. When he was introduced to Beethoven in 1801, at the age of ten, his playing of the Pathetique sonata impressed Beethoven so much that he immediately offered to teach him. In fact the teacher-pupil relationship did not actually last more than about three years but Czerny remained close to Beethoven for the remainder of the older man’s life and was chosen by him to give the first performances of several of his works (such as the ‘Emperor’ piano concerto). Lessons with Hummel and Clementi completed Czerny’s studies and there is little doubt that he had all the necessary technical qualities to pursue a career as a travelling virtuoso – in which capacity he planned a European tour as soon as 1805 (with a flattering testimonial from Beethoven). In the event, however, the uncertain political state of the continent and his own doubts about his technique forced him to abandon his plans and he settled in Vienna – where he remained for most of the rest of his life. Strangely, he never performed in public again and, instead, devoted himself to teaching, composition and advocacy of the works of Beethoven. He became a remarkably successful pedagogue with several famous pupils to his credit (besides Liszt, these included Leschetizky, Thalberg, Kullack and Heller) but he was also surprisingly successful as a published composer – if the demands his publishers made on him are any guide.
Czerny put himself under the obligation to churn out compositions to the point where he would have four works being written on adjacent writing desks so that he could carry on writing whilst the ink was drying! By the time he died he had produced no fewer than 861 works with opus numbers – encompassing over a thousand compositions in all forms but opera. Success in having his works published did not, however, go hand in hand with a burgeoning reputation as a great composer – in fact rather the opposite. Inevitably, his compositional fecundity was perceived to be rarely matched by the quality of his music. Even Liszt who, later in life, made it his business to champion certain works by Czerny, admitted in an 1852 letter that “…..It is a pity that, by a too super-abundant productiveness, he has necessarily weakened himself….”. Of course, Liszt was a fine one to talk about super-abundant productiveness – his own output is vast, and much of it is easy to dismiss. The difference is that quite a lot of Liszt’s compositions display real originality and/or are hugely memorable – neither of which attributes would ever fairly be claimed for more than a small handful of the works of Czerny.

So what of Czerny’s piano concertos? From a quick skim of the long list of his compositions it is quite difficult to identify all the (potentially) concertante works. The Rondo Brillant for piano and orchestra, Op. 233 that appears on the present disc, for example, is merely listed as “Rondo brilliant” and there are plenty of similar compositions listed. If we set aside all the concertante works that do not actually include a word like “concerto” in their title, we end up with the following list of works – which all seem to come from the first quarter of the composer’s career (i.e. prior to the 1830s):
- Concerto in F, Op. 28
- First Grand Potpourri Concerto for two pianofortes (6 hands), Op. 38
- Concerto in C, Op. 78
- Concerto for piano (4 hands) in C, Op. 153
- Concertino for piano, Op. 210
- Concerto in A minor, Op. 214
(NB. Op. 84 is listed as a “Grand Potpourri No. 2 for 6 hands”. Is this the second “Grand Potpourri” concerto?)

Some see Czerny’s Op. 214 of 1829 as one of the earliest examples of a Romantic concerto – although that distinction should probably more fairly belong to one of Hummel’s considerably superior concertos, e.g. Op. 89 (c.1819?). I won’t bore you with an analysis of Op. 214 beyond saying that it is in the usual three movements and requires the pianist to be familiar with the composer’s many books of studies. It certainly serves as a display vehicle – if not a lot besides – and there are masses of single and triplet runs, one or two of which require even a pianist of Shelley’s accomplishment artfully to pull back the tempo. I’m afraid that, after a while, all the fearsome prestidigitation and wave after wave of scale passages began to wash over me. The concerto is one of the few Czerny works to have been recorded several times and a fine Naxos disc appeared recently. That said I can’t quite face indulging in a comparison of the present performance with that on the Naxos disc because, fine though that undoubtedly is (review), it is difficult to imagine a very much better performance or recording of this kind of music than is to be found on the present disc.

Apart from Op. 214, to the best of my knowledge, the only other Czerny concerto to have been recorded before the present CD appeared is that for piano duet, Op. 153. The present recording of the Op. 28 concerto would, therefore, seem to have the field to itself. Again, I will eschew analysis. The first movement is largely musical wallpaper and forgettable – the second a well-crafted but relatively undistinguished air and variations. The last movement, however, is a nice, bouncy polonaise in the style of Weber and I feel sure that listeners will consider this the highlight of the disc. Needless to say, Shelley and his forces do it proud. Much the same applies to the jaunty (Introduction and) Rondo Brillant that concludes the disc. Again the recording is up to Hyperion’s normal high standards, with a wide sound stage and lovely, clear piano sound. Booklet notes are by Jeremy Nicholas and are a model of their kind.

So the position is no different with Czerny - nothing here demonstrates that posterity has been unfair. No doubt Shelley will soon entertain us with the Op. 78 concerto and, perhaps, the Op. 210 concertino – amongst others – and, if so, I shall be pleased to add them to my collection, if not to listen to them that often.

Bob Stevenson



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