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The Operatic Pianist II
Alfred JAËLL (1832-1882)
Réminiscences de Norma after Bellini [11:17]
Andrew WRIGHT (b.1967)
Col sorriso d’innocenza, from Bellini’s Il Pirata [3:06]
Theodor LESCHETIZKY (1830-1915)
Andante Finale de Lucia di Lammermoor, op.13 after Donizetti [5:04]
Sigismond THALBERG (1812-1871)
Fantasie sur Mosè in Egitto after Rossini [15:21]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Lohengrin’s Admonition (‘Athmest du nicht’) after Wagner [4:37]
Paraphrase on Verdi’s Miserere from Il Trovatore [5:30]
Theodor KULLAK (1818-1882)
Cavatine de Robert le Diable after Meyerbeer, 12 Transcriptions, op.6 [5:07]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Concert Paraphrase on La Mort de Thaïs after Massenet [8:45]
Fantasy on Themes from Rienzi after Wagner [7:57]
Andrew Wright (piano)
rec. 2016, Caird Hall, Dundee
DIVINE ART DDA25153 [67:45]

One of the advantages of music streaming is hunting through listings of recordings and picking out those which sound interesting. It was via this route that I found Andrew Wright’s first disc of operatic paraphrases on Spotify (other streaming services are available) and thoroughly enjoyed it. So, when given the opportunity to review volume II, I thought it would be a good idea. Some of the works here are obviously well known (particularly the Liszt paraphrases) whereas others are receiving their first recordings (tracks 1, 2, 3 and 8). Andrew Wright is also a transcriber as witness tracks 2 and 6, thus explaining how they are first recordings.

The disc begins with Jaëll’s ‘Rèminiscences de Norma’ after Bellini, with the title stolen from Liszt’s work of the same name. I should also point out that the work is entirely different to Liszt’s masterpiece in that it utilises many of the themes which the older composer did not use – including the famous ‘Casta diva’. The piece is not as well constructed as Liszt’s work but it does go into some interesting and different corners of the opera via some interesting (and difficult) key changes and figurations. This is by no means an easy work and Mr. Wright copes admirably with its myriad difficulties. He possesses a fine ‘singing’ tone in his playing which suits this repertoire perfectly and shows up very well here, especially in the ‘Casta diva’ section of the work.

Next follows Mr. Wright’s own transcription of ‘Col sorriso d’innocenza’ from Bellini’s opera Il Pirata, a work I am completely unfamiliar with. This is another melodious and rather lovely aria transcribed very well and beautifully played with the same singing tone I mentioned earlier. Bellini obviously knew how to write appealing melodies of this sort as this work sounds almost like a second cousin to ‘Casta diva’, a fact which is noted in the booklet. Track 3 is the pianist and pedagogue Theodor Leschitizky’s take on the finale of Lucia di Lammermoor - also arranged by Liszt in his ‘Rèminiscences de Lucia di Lammermoor”. The basic shape of the work is similar to Liszt’s but has several major differences, chief among them that it is for left hand only. Again, despite the difficulties and that it is written for only for one hand, Mr. Wright plays wonderfully. As a little game, it would be good to play this track to someone and ask them how many hands are playing – they would probably say two!

Next follows the largest work on the disc, Thalberg’s ‘Fantasy on Rossini’s Mosè in Egitto’ which has been recorded several times by various pianists – if any work of Thalberg’s could be described as often recorded, this would be it. Here, various themes are woven together and turned into a showpiece of considerable difficulty. The playing throughout is exemplary, no difficulty is missed or fudged and the whole piece holds together very well. The sections in which Thalberg uses his favourite trick of arpeggios with the tune played with the thumb (the famous 3 handed effect) are especially well played and very clear. There are moments of calm here and these are handled extremely well too. I have the score of this work but have yet to try and play it and I have to say it looks really difficult on the page! The ending, with lots of octaves and big leaps is a ferociously difficult section but all is dispatched perfectly. Wonderful playing here! Next follows Liszt’s transcription of ‘Lohengrin’s Admonition’ from Lohengrin. This isn’t often recorded and when it is, it’s usually on CDs which include all of Liszt’s Wagner transcriptions. This is a quiet and meditative short work and only rarely becomes loud. It’s especially difficult to bring out the tune when playing this piece, but that is not a problem which occurs here.

There then follows Mr. Wright’s own paraphrase on Verdi’s ‘Miserere’ – this is obviously based on the same material as Liszt’s famous example but this makes the Liszt version sound easy! There is far more complexity here but it all works very well and it is is a real showpiece, with added bass rumblings and filigree ornamentation all over the keyboard. Next follows a real rarity – a transcription by Kullak of Meyerbeer’s ‘Cavatine’ from Robert le Diable. This is another work also known in an arrangement by Liszt. I’d say that, if anything, this transcription is more difficult than Liszt’s due to the number of notes. Liszt has simpler solutions he used to transcribe the work so that it could be used as an introduction to the infamous ‘Rèminiscences De Robert le Diable’ (famously recorded by Earl Wild). But I digress. While the atmosphere in Liszt’s version is peaceful and rather beautiful, the work here is spikier and more of a stand-alone piece which presumably explains why it is more difficult. There are some lovely moments especially around 1:00, but they are more harmonically filled out and seem odd if you are familiar with the Liszt version. Nonetheless, it is marvellously played and perceptively phrased and pedalled. Unsurprisingly, the ending is different to Liszt’s as obviously this does not lead into another work.

The following track is a complete surprise – an operatic paraphrase by Saint-Saëns! This is the first recording of the ‘Concert Paraphrase on La mort de Thais’, since unfortunately the excellent Geoffrey Burleson on the Grand Piano label has yet to get around to this. The short section following the opening of the work requires a lot of leaping about and much detail for a lesser pianist to struggle with. The bouncy section at 0:41 is very clearly projected and comes across very well. The piece is a medley type of paraphrase in which Saint-Saëns stitches various themes together to make a potted version of the opera. The opening of the work and what follows it is mostly loud and virtuosic up until it transmogrifies into a statement of the very famous ‘Meditation’. Here the piece suddenly changes tack - this is fantastically well done and a thoroughly wonderful performance of a beautiful theme sensitively transcribed by Saint-Saëns and played by Mr. Wright. After the ‘Meditation’ the more virtuosic tone returns before returning to more peaceful territory to provide a meditative and quiet ending to the piece.

The final track on the disc is Liszt’s only real concert fantasy on Wagner’s works – all of the other transcriptions are selections of one part of the parent work, be it an aria or an overture. This work seems to be gaining in popularity as it has been recorded more often recently. I really like this work and have played it many times; however; I’m unable to play it like this as it is taken blisteringly fast! Interestingly, the chords on the first page are stuck very hard and very short which is certainly different to anyone else’s playing of the work that I’ve heard, a technique which works well and is in keeping. Despite the speed, this performance is perfectly judged and the really hard bit at 5:44 (marked ‘un poco piu mosso’, which includes the right hand jumping about and the left hand playing chords interlaced with the right hand) is phenomenal. There is a little extra flourish following the cadenza but this does not affect the work in any way and actually works rather well. The work ends suitably virtuosically with some very clearly projected playing by the left hand and detail in the chords which is easily lost in the sheer exuberance at the end of the piece.

Overall, this is a marvellous disc, perhaps best heard in bits rather than in one sitting. The cover notes are interesting and informative and the recording quality is superb – well up to the usual standards of the Divine Art label. I should also say that Andrew Wright is clearly an extremely talented and versatile performer with a lovely tone and bagsful of virtuosity. I look forward to volume 3. Can we have some Tausig or Stradal transcriptions please?

Jonathan Welsh



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