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Aria – Opera without Words
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Fantasy on Two Themes from Samson et Dalila (arr. Jean-Yves Thibaudet and Randy Kerber) [6:55]
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Ramble on the Last Love Duet from Der Rosenkavalier (arr. Percy Grainger) [7:27}
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
‘O mio babbino caro’ from Gianni Schicchi (arr. Yvar Mikhashoff) [2:53]
Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD (1897-1957)
‘Gluck, das mir verblieb’ from Die Tode Stadt (arr. Giovanni Sgambati) [6:06]
Johann STRAUSS II (1825-1899)
Soirée de Vienne – concert paraphrase on waltz themes by Johann Strauss (arr. Alfred Grunfeld) [5:40]
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
‘Vissi d’arte’ from Tosca (arr. Yvar Mikhashoff) [3:25]
Vincenzo BELLINI (1801-1835)
‘Casta diva’ from Norma (arr. Yvar Mikhashoff) [6:58]
Christoph Willibald GLUCK (1714-1787)
Mélodie from Dance of the Blessed Spirits (Orphée et Eurydice) [3:25]
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Portrait of Madam Butterfly – An operatic sonata-fantasy on themes of Puccini (arr. Yvar Mikhashoff) [12:18]
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
The Ride of the Valkyries from Die Walkure (arr. Louis Brassin) [5:05]
Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano)
rec. 24-28 June 2006, Reitstadt, Neumarkt, Germany
DECCA 475 7668 [60:53]

My review copy of this disc comes with a sticker praising Thibaudet’s playing as ‘flat out dazzling’. Well, Thibaudet is no stranger to virtuosity, having recorded Liszt opera transcriptions for Decca in 1992 (inexplicably deleted) and much else besides. He also professes a lifelong interest in the human voice and has accompanied many fine singers in his time, Cecilia Bartoli and Renée Fleming among them. He was even cast in the non-singing role of the Russian pianist in a Met production of Giordano’s Fedora in 1996.

Perhaps the most interesting arrangements here are those by Ronald Mackay, better known as Yvar Emilian Mikhashoff (1942-1993). The American piano virtuoso introduced Thibaudet to his Puccini arrangements early on in his career and left the scores to him after his death in 1993.

Oddly enough for a disc that errs on the side of the populist, Mikhashoff’s flamboyant ‘Puccini favourites’ may not appeal to everyone. He takes the operatic originals more as springboards than templates, with the result that Lauretta’s melting aria ‘O mio babbino caro’ is recognisable enough, although without the long, flowing vocal line that one might expect. The Madam Butterfly arrangement is one of the most ambitious in terms of length and complexity – in four parts, it lasts more than 12 minutes. Butterfly is an intimate opera, a private tragedy, and only in the climax does the arrangement become a trifle overpowering. The Humming Chorus is a tiny, perfectly formed gem, though.

Mikhashoff is more circumspect in ‘Casta diva’, and Thibaudet obliges with playing of great delicacy and restraint. A more cantabile style is very much in evidence here, making for a lovely rendition of this aria.

One of the more unusual arrangements is that by the Australian composer, arranger and pianist Percy Grainger (1882-1961). His delectable Ramble on the Last Love Duet from Der Rosenkavalier may evoke the mists and veils of Debussy and Ravel rather than the overheated amours of Strauss’s opera, but it’s no less enjoyable for that.

Not content with just being the pianist Thibaudet commissioned American composer-arranger Randy Kelber (b. 1948) to arrange the Saint-Saëns and Korngold pieces. To my mind - and ear - they are both beautifully realised, and less quirky than Mikhashoff’s efforts. Sample the introduction to Marietta’s Song, the bell-like sonorities instantly suggesting that bitter-sweet orchestral prelude to this most glorious of arias. An altogether splendid piece and one of the most rewarding on this disc. The Saint-Saëns is perhaps less distinctive but its more reflective moments do show Thibaudet at his quiet best.

Nothing restrained about the work of Austrian salon pianist and composer Alfred Grunfeld (1852-1924), best. known for his waltz arrangements. He manages to pull off a glittering homage to Johann Strauss II, with Thibaudet taking the Lisztian arpeggios and ear-tingling runs in great style. A real showstopper, this.

By contrast the Gluck, arranged by Giovanni Sgambati (1841-1914), a protégé of Liszt, is much more austere and elegant, with a real sense of the terraced dynamics of the Baroque style. An altogether plainer piece it comes as something of a relief after the dazzling Strauss.

The disc ends with that old warhorse – and surely one ready for the knacker’s yard – The Ride of the Valkyries. It is played here in a curious arrangement by the Belgian pianist-composer Louis Brassin (1840-1884). It is curious because although it is technically demanding it is played at quite a gallop. Indeed, it is in danger of unseating the riders! To hear how Wagner transcriptions should really be done try Craig Sheppard’s masterful ’Liebestod’ from Tristan und Isolde on CfP (CDCFPSD4745 - nla). Now there’s a real sense of operatic sweep and drama.

Documentation for the present disc is up to the usual standards of the house – although my review copy has the tracks in the wrong order on the back of the box. At just under 61 minutes the disc is reasonably well filled. But in any case, collections like this are not ideally auditioned all in one go. Like kids in a sweet-shop one is tempted to taste everything at once but restraint is amply rewarded.

In recording terms the piano - a Steinway - is well caught by Decca engineer Philip Siney. It is warm and detailed although perhaps a little airless. A small caveat, I know, and it seems churlish to complain when presented with piano playing of this calibre.

For a more spacious natural sound - albeit of different repertoire - listen to what the Hyperion engineers achieve in Philip Martin’s rewarding cycle of piano music by Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869). Sample Volume 5 (Hyperion CDA67248) for a real aural treat.

Dan Morgan


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