William Vincent WALLACE (1812-1865)
Opera Fantasies and Paraphrases
Fantaisie brillante sur des motifs de l’opéra La traviata de Verdi [11:33], Souvenir de Bellini – Fantaisie de salon sur l’opéra La sonnambula [6:15], Souvenir de l’opéra – Fantaisie de salon sur l’opéra Lucia di Lammermoor [4:52], Nabucco de Verdi: Va pensiero [4:37], Variations brillantes pour le piano à quatre mains sur la Barcarolle de l’opéra L’elisir d’amore de Donizetti* [8:02], Rigoletto de Verdi – Quatuor: Bella figlia dell’amore [4:30], The Night Winds – Nocturne for piano from Wallace’s Lurline [4:33], Fantaisie de salon sur des thèmes de l’opéra Don Pasquale [6:01], Grand Fantaisie sur des themes de l’opéra Maritana [13:10], Grand Duo pour deux pianos sur l’opéra d’Halévy L’éclair* [14:41]
Rosemary Tuck (piano), Richard Bonynge (piano)*
rec. 11 October 2009, 6 March, 6-7 September 2010, Forde Abbey, Chard, Somerset, UK
NAXOS 8.572774 [78:15]

Wallace’s name was for long synonymous with Maritana, an opera which held its place in the British repertoire till well into the 20th century. Maritana has been revived on disc more recently (Marco Polo 8.223406-07) and so has Lurline. In his own day Wallace was also a pianist of some repute and published a large number of pieces for concert and drawing-room use. These were largely operatic fantasies and variations on pretty well any tune that came his way, such as Robin Adair, Comin’ thro’ the Rye and an otherwise unidentified Peruvian melody. He also wrote a goodly number of polkas, marches, waltzes, nocturnes and the like on originally composed themes. Or at least, so I supposed. However, the one piece here of which I actually have a score, “Night Winds”, has no indication on the title page that it is not an original piano piece, but I now learn it is a transcription of an aria from Lurline. Wallace had some reason, it seems, since he published it at a time when Lurline was in oblivion – two acts composed and little prospect of it being completed and produced. So now I’m wondering if certain other pieces, such as the Chant des Pélérins and Au bord de la mer, both described as “Nocturnes”, may not be lifted from his operatic limbo.

Wallace certainly knew how to write effectively for the piano and his operatic fantasies all pass what one might call the “Liszt test”: namely, that a listener unaware of the origin of the music would not guess it not to have been originally written for piano. It might be difficult to prefer Wallace’s Rigoletto piece to Liszt’s celebrated transcription, one of the few that stayed in the repertoire even when Liszt’s works of this kind were sneered at. But Wallace’s version of Ange si pur from Donizetti’s La Favorite (not included here) could well be thought much more to the point than Liszt’s lugubrious and interminable essay on the same aria. Let us keep things in their proportions, though. If Wallace could hold up his head alongside Liszt in the world of the operatic paraphrase, Funerailles, La Vallée d’Obermann or the B minor Sonata were clearly beyond his scope.

Granted that the music is worth reviving, then, how is it to be played?

Let’s start with the way the original opera arias are built up. The orchestra often has little to do, but that little is fundamental. Just a harmonic base with an oom-pah-pah oom-pah-pah rhythm that, in the right hands, takes on an independent life of its own. Over this the singer floats his/her melody with expressive freedom and independence, but not so wildly free that the orchestra’s rhythmic backdrop falls to pieces and loses its lift, by trying to accommodate the singer’s vagaries. When a composer of that style really wanted the singer to exit from the basic rhythm, he stopped the orchestra.

Translated onto the piano, this means that the hand providing the rhythmic backdrop – usually the left – keeps going with the same independence and inner life that an orchestra would have, while the melody soars freely above, but in relation to the accompanying rhythm. In these piano transcriptions there is usually a third element, namely the filigree decoration wrapped around the melody. This will ideally be separated from the other elements by its colouring; it, too, will take on an independent life of its own. So, while the music obviously doesn’t aspire to melodic counterpoint in the Bachian sense, it has a counterpoint of colours and rhythms, all of which revolve freely around each other while respecting each other at the same time.

In practical terms, if someone like Jorge Bolet had set down “Night Winds” at his zenith in the 1950s, the melody would have sung out calmly yet strongly and the rushing winds would apparently have been going their own separate way. What Rosemary Tuck gives us is very nice up to a point, a more generalized texture in which the melody stands out by virtue of being played louder and the night winds are decorative appendages to it.

For there is another way of playing this music, and it’s certainly easier to manage. Basically, you concentrate on the melody, applying lashes of “Cho-pansy” rubato, and all the rest fits around it. This way the music has only one dimension instead of two or three, but within its limits the effect can be very pleasant. I say “Cho-pansy” rubato because this is no more the best way of playing Chopin than it is of playing Wallace, but it’s the way most people know.

And maybe the way most people like? After all, do we wish to reconstruct the putative performances that Godowsky, Barere or, last of the line, Bolet might have given but didn’t? Or do we wish to evoke Aunt Jemima playing the music in her drawing-room? For some people the appeal of the music may lie in its evocation of a past age. And, as Aunt Jemimas go, Rosemary Tuck is a highly superior example of the species, unfailingly fluent, musical and unfazed by the virtuoso bursts. I think the Nabucco piece needs the intensity Horowitz might have brought to it if there is to be any point in listening to it as an alternative to the original, but this was my one big reservation. I personally find some of the rubato overdone and still hanker after the golden age performances that never were, but I may be in a minority. If you wish above all to be taken back to a past age, if like D.H. Lawrence the heart of you “weeps to belong/To the old Sunday evenings at home, with winter outside/And hymns in the cosy parlour, the tinkling piano our guide”, you should be well content. A recording that would be over-mellow even for Brahms contributes to the effect. If you find it pleasant but underwhelming, before you blame Wallace, just bear in mind my thesis that the music has dimensions not explored here.

Oh, and the four-hand pieces? I nearly forgot. The playing is straighter here. Either Richard Bonynge doesn’t like “Cho-pansy” rubato either, or the sheer difficulty of keeping together kept them on the straight and narrow. Whoever has the semiquavers accompanying “Una furtiva lagrima” is a bit too assertive and anxious to get on with it, otherwise, very enjoyable playing.

Christopher Howell

A very nice evocation of Victorian musical evenings. Does the music have dimensions not explored here?

See also review by Raymond J. Walker