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Sigismond THALBERG (1812-1871)
L’art du chant appliqué au piano, Op. 70 (1853-1863) [123:15]
Paul Wee (piano)
rec. March 2020, Concert Hall, Wyastone Estate, Monmouth, UK
Reviewed as a 24/192 download from eClassical
Pdf booklet included
BIS BIS-2515 SACD [2 discs: 67:56 + 71:15]

My reviewing year began with the BIS debut of pianist Paul Wee, who was new to me at the time. Born in Australia to Singaporean and Malaysian parents, he began his piano studies at the age of four, appearing in concert at the Royal Albert Hall eight years later. Although he went on to the Manhattan School of Music he then decided to read law at Oxford. Now a successful barrister, Wee’s life took another unexpected turn when his Alkan Society recital in July 2016 led to a ‘demo tape’ that was then sent to BIS chief Robert von Bahr. The resulting album, which coupled Alkan’s Concerto and Symphony, turned out to be a musical and sonic tour de force (review).

That recording has now been supplemented by this two-disc set of transcriptions by the Swiss-born composer-performer Sigismond Thalberg. He and fellow showman Franz Liszt were great rivals in Paris in the 1830s. As the latter’s Hexaméron wasn’t ready in time for its premiere at a benefit concert for the poor on 31 March 1837, the event was turned into a famous piano ‘duel’ between these two young and charismatic virtuosi. Afterwards, Princess Cristina Trivulzio Belgiojoso declared Thalberg ‘the best pianist in the world’. Maybe so, but it was Liszt who went on to become the most celebrated composer-pianist of his time. That said, Thalberg remains a fascinating figure, whose highly accomplished oeuvre is well worth your time and money. In particular, I can recommend Francesco Nibolosi’s cycle, recorded in the nineties and noughties (Marco Polo/Naxos). And don’t overlook Mark Viner (Piano Classics PCL-10178). But for a revealing mix of Liszt and Thalberg opera transcriptions and fantasias, Marc-André Hamelin’s 2019 album is hard to beat (Hyperion). Indeed, it was a MusicWeb Recording of the Month.

In his admirably detailed liner-note, Wee quotes the publisher’s introduction to the first edition of L’art du chant appliqué au piano: ‘At a time when many young pianists possess unimaginable finger dexterity, it is worthwhile to recall the true mission of simplicity and beauty, which is to charm, rather than to astound, an audience; to play less for the eyes, and more for the heart.’ One need only busk through Nicolosi and Viner, or luxuriate in Hamelin’s Fantaisie sur des thèmes de Moïse (Op. 33) to realise that’s a pretty good description of Thalberg’s art. (It may also be a clue to his appeal.) Coming back to Wee’s complete recording of Op. 70, it appears he has the field to himself. That said, anyone interested in just a few excerpts should seek out the Viner album I mentioned earlier.

Seconds into Series I of Wee’s L’art du chant appliqué au piano and it’s clear we’re in for something rather special. What sensitive, finely calibrated playing, every colour as lustrous as one could wish. And yes, the piano really sings, the music’s operatic ebb and flow maintained throughout. The playing has startling presence too, not to mention a lovely sense of intimacy, that puts the listener in one of the hall’s very best seats. (Kudos to producer Andrew Keener and sound engineer Dave Hinitt, who masterminded that bar-raising Alkan recording.) There’s so much to enjoy in this unpretentious repertoire, not least when it’s delivered with such charm and character. True, Thalberg was no Liszt when it came to harmonic complexity or fierce individuality, but even so there’s nothing anodyne about Thalberg’s output. Perhaps even more important, the music never outstays its welcome, and that’s a rare achievement in albums such as this.

As I listened to disc one, the windows slashed with winter rain, the house buffeted by the wind, I found myself cocooned by Wee’s easeful, heart-warming artistry. Every phrase or shift of dynamics seems so utterly right, every mood and nuance so perfectly judged. Then I shouldn’t expect anything less from a thoroughly musical artist, who’s just as adept at big, barnstorming pieces as he is at smaller, gentler ones. At this point I listened to Viner’s two excerpts, and while they are thoughtfully and most beautifully framed, Wee seems freer and more poetic in his response to this music. That’s not to say Viner is prosaic - far from it - just that Wee’s easeful, more intuitive style seems much closer to the spirit of Thalberg’s writing.

If anything, the second disc, which contains Series III and IV, is even more enchanting than the first, Wee’s playing more songful than ever. Really, we’re so fortunate to have such talent on tap, and, especially, the technical wizardry that finally manages to capture all the richness and subtlety of the piano at its best. (For the latter, we owe the likes of BIS, Hyperion, Sono Luminus and Myrios a debt of gratitude.) Back to Wee’s Op. 70, and I was struck once more by his natural phrasing and sense of shape, every piece perfectly formed. What’s even more remarkable is that I didn’t want the spell to be broken, and that, surely, is the highest praise I can give.

This follow-up to Wee’s Alkan is everything I’d hoped for; it’s a superb recording too, even by the stellar standards of the house.

Dan Morgan

Contents

Disc 1 [67:56]
L’art du chant appliqué au piano
Series I (1853) [39:34]
No. 1 ‘A te, o cara (quartet from Bellini’s I Puritani) [5:10]
No. 2 Tre Giorni (Pergolesi) [5:23]
No. 3 Adelaïde (Beethoven) [6:26]
No. 4 Pietà, signore (attr. Stradella) [9:07]
No. 5a Lacrimosa (from Mozart’s Requiem) [3:44]
No. 5b Sull’aria (from Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro) [3:16]
No. 6 Perchè mi guardi e piangi (from Rossini’s Zelmira) [5:50]
Series II (1853; Weber transcriptions: 1854) [27:43]
No. 7 Bella adorate incognita (from Mercadante’s Il Giuramento) [5:51]
No. 8 Nel silenzio fra l’orror (from Meyerbeer’s Il Crociato) [4:55]
No. 9 Einsam bin ich nicht alleine (from Weber’s Preciosa) [3:12]
No. 10 Der Müller und der Bach (from Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin) [4:29]
No. 11 Schelm, halt fest! (from Weber’s Der Freischütz) [3:55]
No. 12 Il mio tesoro (from Mozart’s Don Giovanni) [4:50]

Disc 2 [71:15]
Series III (1861) [30:41]
No. 13 Sérénade (from Rossini’s Barbiere di Siviglia) [3:45]
No. 14 La dove prende (from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte) [3:56]
No. 15 Barcarolle (from Donizetti’s Gianni di Calais) [6:50]
No. 16a Protegga il giusto cielo (from Mozart’s Don Giovanni) [3:38]
No. 16b Là ci darem la mano (from Mozart’s Don Giovanni) [3:31]
No. 17 Sérénade (from Grétry’s L’amant jaloux) [3:18]
No. 18 Assisa a’ piè d’un salice (from Rossini’s Otello) [5:08]
Series IV (1863) [25:01]
No. 19 Casta diva (from Bellini’s Norma) [6:18]
No. 20 Voi che sapete (from Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro) [2:48]
No. 21 Fröhliche Klänge, Tänze, Gesänge (from’ Weber’s Euryanthe) [4:18]
No. 22 Dafydd y garreg wen (ancient bardic aria) [3:15]
No. 23 Ein Mädchen, das auf Ehre hielt (from Haydn’s Die Jahreszeiten) [4:10]
No. 24 Fenesta vascia (Neapolitan song) [3:46]



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