A large part of Liszt’s very large output consisted of
transcriptions of or works based on the music of others. The
present disc contains only four pieces, each around a quarter
of an hour long and each based on music from one of Bellini’s
operas rather than a transcription of that music. Bellini was
only ten years older than Liszt and his operas, especially the
three represented here, were very popular in Paris in the 1830s.
The first three works on this disc each makes use of several
extracts from the opera in question, all commented on and embellished
in a fantastical way with every kind of keyboard device imaginable
by a composer with a seemingly unlimited stock of such devices.
To be able to play any of them at all requires formidable virtuosity;
to play them well requires, in addition, musicianship of the
William Wolfram is an American pianist whose playing I have
not encountered before. He certainly has the measure of the
music’s technical difficulties but I am not always convinced
that he has gone far enough beyond that to be able to project
Liszt’s tremendous rhetoric. Interestingly one of the
works fares markedly better than the others - the Réminiscences
de “Norma” - where he shows a vein of poetry and
theatre otherwise in short supply, and also where he is able
to control his apparent dislike of silence between phrases.
In addition he displays much greater variety of tone colour
and gives himself time to phrase the melodies with more singing
legato. I do not know why this should be - perhaps it
is simply because he has been playing it for a longer period
- but it is certainly the highlight of the disc for me, and
I have played it repeatedly whilst not feeling any great urge
to do so with the other performances.
The final work is that great display piece, the Hexaméron,
based on the baritone/bass duet “Suoni le tromba”
from “I Puritani”. This originates from a charity
event in Paris in 1837 when the Princess Belgiojoso invited
the six most outstanding pianists in that city each to write
a variation on this melody. In the event it was not completed
in time, but Liszt took the variations by the other composers
- Sigismund Thalberg, Johann Pixis, Henri Herz, Carl Czerny
and Frédéric Chopin - and turned them into a concert
work by adding his own introduction, a piano version of the
theme, a variation, various transitions and a finale. The result
is an exhilarating piece although, unsurprisingly given that
he was able to dictate their context, Liszt is easily able to
trump the results of four of the other composers, making their
work seem charming but trite by comparison. The exception is
Chopin whose very beautiful slow variation after the manner
of a Nocturne almost steals the show.
The difficulties of the work are enormous and it is greatly
to his credit that William Wolfram is able to play it so convincingly
and with such control. This too I enjoyed, although I have to
admit that a rehearing of Raymond Lewenthal’s recording,
nearly fifty years old now, showed that it is possible to make
even more of it.
In sum, one of the performances here is outstanding, one is
good, and two are adequate. Whether that is sufficient to persuade
you to buy the disc depends perhaps on what particularly draws
you to it. The disc is well filled, well arranged and has good
notes, and if you are collecting the whole of the Naxos Liszt
series there is every reason to add this too.