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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]

Ever since I first heard about this disc, I looked forward to hearing it so much so that I was disappointed when the release date was pushed back by the pandemic. Luckily, in the end, I didn’t have too long to wait.

The recording begins with the musical collaboration between six composers entitled Hexaméron. Although the other five - Thalberg, Pixis, Herz, Czerny and Chopin - all contributed their own variations on a March theme taken from Bellini’s I puritani, Liszt composed all of the intermediate sections which enable the work to be played as a coherent whole. It is a testament to what a good job he did, as it works on one level as an excellent joint effort while also being a superb piece of music. Overall, Mr. Hamelin takes around the average length of time to play the work; however, it is clearly not all about timings. The superbly played opening, marked ‘Extrèmement lent’ is craggy, powerful and full of hints as to what is to come later on and there is a feeling of a coiled spring waiting to explode into the main theme. Once that begins, he shows his virtuoso technique and has no problems whatsoever in dealing with the difficulties with which Liszt presents the pianist. Thalberg’s variation follows in a very fast reading, with all the horribly challenging passages in thirds in the left hand played at superhuman speed. It’s brilliantly played throughout and the transition to the ‘Moderato’ (by Liszt, written as the interconnecting part) feels totally natural. It’s interesting to follow the score here as, for a work written and curated by virtuoso pianists, there is a lot of quiet and reflective music which Mr. Hamelin plays beautifully. The third variation is by Pixis, not often remembered these days but in his time one of the most foremost pianists in Paris. His variation is full of awkward technical hurdles, none of which presents any problems here. Another interconnecting passage by Liszt, full of dark brooding music, leads effortlessly into Henri Herz’s wonderfully smooth legato treatment of the theme, here played very fast indeed. I really like the way the main notes from the tune are pointed up - it’s nice to hear them so clearly. Czerny, pupil of Beethoven and teacher of Liszt provides the ‘Vivo e brilliante’ variation no.5. This has plenty of octaves and some fantastically well-played cadenza-like sections. Liszt again provides a transitional passage which prepares the ground by altering the key signature and calming things down before the penultimate variation by Chopin. His quiet, reflective Nocturne variation is beautifully played here and full of depth of feeling; Liszt’s little ‘Lento’ continuations of the theme feel very natural and à la Chopin. The finale is a clever, witty piece of writing harking back to techniques and tricks used by all of the other composers. The whole work is rounded off with a suitably cheerful blast of virtuosity. This is an excellent performance: the detail in the recording is magnificent and the musicality is stunning. I am certain Liszt would have approved of the octave doubling at the very end of the work.

Next follows Thalberg’s wonderful fantasy on themes from Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, once famously recorded by Earl Wild. I’ve always liked this piece; the sheer exuberance of the piano writing is delightful and the cheerful character of much of the work is obvious. Mr. Hamelin plays magnificently – no details are missing and the virtuosity is phenomenal. I especially like the clarity with which the theme is played in the bass clef while the right hand goes about providing some really splendid, smooth accompaniment. Around two and a half minutes in comes a serene ‘Cantabile’ section which is played with complete simplicity and some very clear, precise playing. Then the transition back to the theme heard at the beginning is perfectly judged. Slowly, a rather splendid theme slowly emerges in the structure before appearing in A major as a central section to the fantasy. This slowly grows in stature and power and gains lots of interesting trills and some nice octave passages. and some very clever little asides are added to the theme. The work slowly becomes more complex with the addition of plenty of arpeggios – one of Thalberg’s favourite pianistic devices. Then, to add to this, he throws in passages of double thirds in an increasingly frenetic build up to the progressively more awkward and complex few pages of the piece where the theme is thrown from one hand to the other. This is an excellent performance and the whole work holds together superbly; the playing is stupendous and jaw-droppingly virtuosic.

Liszt composed two Fantaisies on themes from Verdi’s Ernani; the first predates the one recorded here and is far longer and much more difficult. This second Fantaisie is initially based on the funeral march part of the opera but as it progresses, the atmosphere lightens to give a positive conclusion in F major using various other themes from the opera. I’ve long liked this work and much prefer it to the frequently played Rigoletto paraphrase and the “Miserere” from Il Trovatore. Mr. Hamelin’s tempo here is very fast indeed; the power with which he plays and the virtuoso effects, particularly in the right hand, are incredible. The very tricky cadenza sections are handled magnificently and link superbly to the repeat of the funeral theme with added ‘rapido’ right hand additions. After the grimness of some of the opening music, from about four minutes onwards the atmosphere becomes much more cheerful and there are many beautiful passages played immaculately and with great musical insight. The last two pages are filled with complex leaps and weird, upside-down passagework which is really hard to negotiate, but none of this presents any issues whatsoever. This is breath-taking playing; I have to say that I’ve played this work on and off for years and really wish I could play it half as well as this. Again, this is an absolutely stunning performance.

Thalberg’s Fantasy on Rossini’s Moïse seems to be his most popular work or, perhaps more accurately, that which is most often recorded. This is a good thing, as it is full of clever writing for the piano, some brilliant themes and plenty of difficulties for the performer to negotiate. Here, none of the tiny details that Thalberg askes for (and if you look at the score you will see are plenty of those) are omitted and the whole performance is utterly magnificent. I particularly like the way a tune emerges from the background in the left hand about five minutes in, before a full statement in the right hand follows. That, too, is then varied into something far more difficult and complex but not for long. This leads into a very strange passage which begins with an ‘Andante’ arpeggiated chord theme before another yearning theme appears which forms much of the material for the conclusion of the work. However, before the ending it is varied, arpeggiated, combined and generally transmogrified into a fantastically difficult few moments of music. This could be overblown but here is treated with taste and discretion even as the difficulties mount up. The ending sees this theme clothed in arpeggios and then altered into octaves before a suitably grand conclusion. Another utterly brilliant performance.

The final work on the disc is Liszt’s thrilling distillation of Bellini’s Norma. I’ve been familiar with this work for years and have several recordings of it, including the much earlier one by Mr. Hamelin. His opening tempo is a little slower than some but is perfectly judged and once things get started properly with another Bellini march theme, the speed picks up rapidly. There is a lot going on here and none of the tiny details are omitted as every note is played with astonishing clarity and precision. After the march section, the key changes to B minor and the whole atmosphere changes to something much darker which mumbles away mysteriously before transmuting peacefully into a very difficult section, now in B major with muffled drums in the base. For me, this is the hardest part of the work - not that you would know this here, as Mr. Hamelin plays it as if it were easy. This atmosphere doesn’t persist for long and soon we are into some more intricate passagework as the theme is varied before leading into a wonderful section which Busoni praised in his appraisal of the work. This comes to an abrupt halt and a new, more aggressive theme emerges - it’s marked ‘presto con furia’ in the score and here it certainly is. Following this, we come to the last section filled with scales, clever writing and plenty of difficulties – none of which presents any problems whatsoever. The final page, especially, contains a very clever passage where two themes are combined: the left hand plays one and the right hand the other before a noisy and highly virtuosic conclusion in octaves. Bravo!

Overall, this is an absolutely superb disc – I am very familiar with most of Mr. Hamelin’s excellent other recordings and here he really outdoes himself. The playing is absolutely magnificent and he is clearly on top form in repertoire that he loves. The sheer exuberance and panache of the playing and the musicality is spellbinding. Add to this the top-notch recording quality (as we expect from Hyperion) and the informative and interesting cover notes by Francis Pott, and the whole enterprise is fantastic. This is well on the way to being my favourite disc of the year. Absolutely splendid stuff and top marks to Mr. Hamelin and to Hyperion for another winner.

Jonathan Welsh

Previous review: Dan Morgan (Recording of the Month)

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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