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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Sigismond THALBERG (1812-1871)
Opera Transcriptions and Fantasies
Marc-André Hamelin (piano)
rec. 2019, Teldex Studio, Berlin
HYPERION CDA68320 [75:04]

In June 1994 I attended three extraordiary recitals given by the young Marc-André Hamelin at the Wigmore Hall. In a recital world very much based around the standard fare – Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann, Schubert – this series, entitled “Virtuoso Romantics”, stood out. At the time there were very few opportunities to hear Alkan, Medtner, Godowsky, Busoni and a host of transcriptions in such a concentrated burst, even less so to hear them played with such character, elan and transcendent virtuosity. Hyperion records released a single CD of some of the performances (CDA66765 too early to be reviewed on these pages but it is one of my colleague David Barker's all time great recordings – as it is one of mine). Recital 2: Grand opera and song, June 16th, 1994, was my first live experience of two of the works that appear on this disc – Liszt's Hexaméron and Thalberg's Don Pasquale fantaisie and what a stunning impression that made upon me. It is wonderful to sit here over a quarter of a century later and listen to these same works played by that same pianist, a musician still gifted with an impeccable technique but now tempered with experience and a lifetime of bringing this music to the public's attention.

To the music. Paris in the early 1800s was witness to a huge advancement in the development of piano technique. Fierce competition among the myriad of pianists living, performing and occasionally passing through the city acted like a musical arms race, a sort of “anything you can do I can do better”. Liszt was generally ahead of the field but there were others who jostled for position in his wake. Thalberg was the most consistent and almost certainly one of the most talented of these but Henri Herz, Friedrich Kalkbrenner, Alexander Dreyschock and others made their mark. Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813-1888) would also be on the list if, like the gifted Adolf von Henselt in Germany, he hadn't withdrawn from public performance. In one sense Hexaméron – Morceau de concert is the very essence of the age; the elite showing off their talents while Liszt pulls it all together saying “that's all very well but look what I can do”. His is the largest contribution to the piece, providing the introduction, interludes and grande finale while the other contibutors enter the stage to play their variation then depart. Princess Christina Belgiojoso-Trivulzio had hoped to have the six pianists play together at a benefit concert – what an occasion that would have been – but it was not ready in time so it was left to Liszt to premiere the work as a solo in late 1837. The theme is the March of the Puritans Suoni la tromba from Bellini's opera I puritani and it is heard after Liszt's extended dramatic introduction; he also wrote an original theme as a counterpoint to Bellini's. Sigismond Thalberg is the next of the pianists and he packs a lot into his variation; rapid thirds, fast jumps, rapid left hand passagework and his famous three hand effect. John Peter Pixis shows off his quick-fire octaves and Henri Herz woos us with a charming but fearsome spinning song. Carl Czerny follows Thalberg's lead and packs in the challenges before Liszt winds the pressure down and leads us gently to Chopin's take on Bellini. Chopin chooses not to engage in high jinks, guessing perhaps that if anyone was going to bring a moment of calm it would have to be him; his eye of the storm is a gentle nocturne though predictably there is drama within its measures. The calm passes quickly and Liszt takes over for the finale, a grand mélange of all that has come before and then some. I particularly love how Liszt shifts through the keys as he explores Pixis' octave variation. Liszt called the piece “a monster” and it is but what monster. It is a white knuckle ride that never fails to thrill me particularly in the hands of a master like Hamelin.

In a nod to the competition between Liszt and Thalberg the rest of the disc contains two opera fantasies by each composer. Liszt and Thalberg did actually perform together in a sort of piano duel though their supposed rivalry was probably more publicity and public than anything felt by the pianists themselves. The works played on that occasion were the Moses fantasie by Thalberg and the fantasie on Pacini's Niobe by Liszt, both operas that were popular fare at the time. In a nod to the superior quality of the original material Hamelin substitutes Liszt's Réminscences de Norma and adds two other well-crafted transcriptions. Thalberg's Don Pasquale fantaisie is as fine an example of his works as any. He may have earned the nickname “Old arpeggio” for his lavish use of arpeggios to achieve his 3 handed effect – thumbs playing a melody in the middle of the piano whilst arpeggios or octaves weave a tapestry around it. He may even have been criticised for using the 3 hand effect in everything he did...but it works and when he adds trills to melody and accompaniment of Ernesto's serenade Com' è gentil the effect is magical. I find his kaleidoscopic range of keyboard figurations intoxicating and the more I listen to them the more I marvel at the craftmanship that is exhibited. Thalberg knew his public as well as Liszt did and he knew his strengths. Ending his Moses fantasie with one of the most popular opera tunes of the day – the prayer Dal tuo stellato soglio was as famous as the chorus of the Hebrew slaves is now – must have brought the house down. Liszt may have gone further in his fantasies and transcriptions than Thalberg ever did or indeed needed to but he was only too happy to adopt Thalberg's techniques; Deh! Non volerli vittine in his Réminscences de Norma is swathed in arpeggios and his treatment of Qual cor tradisti is rightly acknowledged for its cunning in making two hands sound like three ( or perhaps four). With Norma Liszt explored the opera as a whole using at least seven themes. In his Paraphrase de concert on Verdi's Ernani he concentrates on the finale of Act 3; the King's O sommo Carlo and the chorus at the tomb. It is an altogether more sombre affair than its more familiar stablemate (the Rigoletto paraphrase published in the same volume) but its technical demands are no less challenging.

Hamelin is utterly commanding in this repertoire. Technically there are no hurdles and the clear recording allows you to catch every pin-point note in any part of this dizzying pianism, so we are left to appreciate this music in all its splendour. Hamelin's phrasing is marvellous and his control of the quieter passages is miraculous, even to the many tremolandi that Liszt injects into the proceedings. He also has perfect control of the theatre so essential in this music; the dramatic, declamatory opening of the Réminscences de Norma is astonishing and when the grand chorus Dell aura tua profetica finally rings out it is shining nobility incarnate. Bringing Liszt, Thalberg and Hamelin together is a splendid gift from Hyperion records and I will end by paraphrasing a quote about the Liszt/Thalberg dual from a newspaper article from 1837 - “an admirable joust...(with) three victors and no vanquished”.

Rob Challinor

Previous reviews: Dan Morgan (Recording of the Month) ~ Jonathan Welsh

Franz LISZT (and others)
Hexaméron – Morceau de concert 'Grandes Variations de Bravoure sur la Marche des Puritains de Bellini' S392 (1837) [20:49] Franz Liszt (1811-1886) & Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835)
Introduction: Extrèmement lent [3:56]
Tema: Allegro marziale [1:25]
Variation I: Ben marcato (Thalberg) [0:56]
Variation II: Moderato (Liszt) [2:49]
Variation III di bravura (Pixis) – Ritornello (Liszt) [1:19]
Variation IV: Legato e grazioso (Herz) [1:23]
Variation V: Vivo e brillante (Czerny) – Fuocoso molto energico; Lento quasi recitativo (Liszt) [3:26]
Variation VI: Largo, KKIIb/2 (Chopin) – [coda] (Liszt) [2:31]
Finale: Molto vivace quasi prestissimo [3:04]
Sigismond THALBERG
Grande fantaisie sur des motifs de Don Pasquale, Op. 67 (1850) [14:15]
Ernani de Verdi – [Deuxième] Paraphrase de Concert,
S432 (1849/59) [7:36]
Sigismond THALBERG
Fantaisie sur des thèmes de Moïse, Op. 33 (1839) [14:57]
Réminiscences de Norma de Bellini – Grande fantaisie, S394 (1841) [17:25]

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