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Sigismond THALBERG (1812-1871)
Fantaisie sur des thèmes de l’opéra Moise de G. Rossini, Op. 33 (1837) [15:26]
Fantaisie sur des motifs de La Donna del Lago, Op. 40 (1840) [15:30]
Douze Etudes, Op. 26 (1837/8) [36:42]
Stefan Irmer (piano).
rec. Ackerhaus der Abtei Marienmünster, 23-25 June 2008.
MUSIKPRODUKTION DABRINGHAUS UND GRIMM MDG61815512 [67:38]
Experience Classicsonline

Geneva-born Sigismond Thalberg is possibly best known for his rivalry with Liszt, and his ‘three-handed’ effect. The latter involves the melody being heard in the middle register with supporting bass and upper-line decoration both in simultaneous evidence. My own personal first encounter with him came in the form of Harold C. Schonberg’s book on The Great Pianists. Actual recordings of Thalberg’s music are few and far between, however. One can only hope that MDG’s efforts will bear further fruit.
 
The Fantasy on Themes from Rossini’s Moses, Op. 33 uses the chorus and quartet “La dolce aurora” from Act I and the prayer “Dal tu stellato soglio” from Act IV in combination with Thalberg’s original material. The piece is divided into two parts, the first markedly freer than the second. Stefan Irmer’s strength is, perhaps surprisingly in this music, with the lyric. Thus his expositions of the themes evince real strength, as if he is trying to make us aware of the generative potentials of the motifs. Irmer’s technique is exemplary, too, both in managing the sheer volume of notes on the page and in delivering filigree that seems to originate straight from the Bellini/Chopin axis. The three-handed effect is present, alongside many virtuoso moments, but the prevailing impression is of a gentle lyricism imbued with utter respect for the music the composer is paraphrasing. You can see an excerpt of the score of the Moise Fantasy on the Wikipedia article on Thalberg. It gives an idea as to the ‘blackness’ of the score. There are other versions of this piece – Nicolosi on Naxos and Robert Cappello on Danacord and Mykola Suk on TNC, but it is difficult not to feel fully satisfied by Irmer’s approach.
 
The other Fantasy here is on motifs from another Rossini opera, La Donna del Lago. It is fascinating to go back to the original - I used the Muti recording on Philips Duo 473 307-2, by the way - and then to sit back and enjoy Thalberg’s pyrotechnics. Although the first five minutes of the fantasy is basically Thalberg, it is “informed” by Elena’s cavatina “O mattutini albori”, a theme which is them explicitly explored in the later parts of the fantasy. The Act I quintet “Crudele sospetto” leads to the famous “Coro del Bardi” (“Già un raggio forier”). Here Irmer’s statements of the themes can be rather direct - try just after the six-minute mark, where the left-hand accompaniment could have been subtler, more in the background. However, there remain huge amounts to enjoy. If the Moses Fantasy is clearly the greater piece, the Donna del Lago Fantasy is certainly worth hearing. Intriguingly, there is a recording of this work played in piano duo form on an all-Thalberg disc on Hungaroton (HCD32154) which I have yet to hear.
 
It is a good idea to split the twelve Etudes into two sets of six - they were originally published like this, anyway - and separate them with a Fantasy. The Etudes are fine and interesting pieces, but they are not Chopin or Liszt. Each of the first six tackles a particular technical problem, while the second half of the set is more experimental. Irmer does not seem to balk at any of the challenges Thalberg sets. None of the first six are slower than Allegro moderato. The finger-twisting of No. 5 (B minor) is supremely negotiated by Irmer, who also projects the mood of the storm-tossed No. 6 (B flat minor) excellently. Irmer sees “the emancipation of sound from manual strictures” as a precursor of similar techniques found in Fauré and Debussy; tremolo forms the shimmering basis of No. 8 in C - Irmer laudably decides not to over-pedal. The Lento tenth Etude is a dream that owes much to Liszt’s Liebesträume - although I doubt Thalberg would thank me much for saying so. The warmth of A flat major suffuses the penultimate Etude before the final, F major, Etude opens out the sound-world to encompass grandeur.
 
A complete list of Thalberg’s works with dates is available here, although the dates do not always accord with the MDG documentation. For instance, the Moise Fantasy is listed as from 1839.
 
This is a major release in many ways, and an entirely laudable one in every way.
 
Colin Clarke
 

 


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