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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Sigismond THALBERG (1812-1871)
Opera transcriptions & fantasias
Marc-André Hamelin (piano)
rec. 2019, Teldex Studio Berlin, Germany
Reviewed as a 24/192 Studio Master download from
Pdf booklet included
HYPERION CDA68320 [75:02]

Québec-born pianist Marc-André Hamelin’s work list is nothing if not eclectic, ranging from Haydn to John Adams. Of course that wouldn’t amount to a hill of beans if he weren’t so good at just about everything he does. Indeed, several of his recordings have featured in my top picks over the years: his Alkan Symphony and Concerto (2007); his very own 12 Études in all the minor keys (2010); and, his Stravinsky transcriptions, in scintillating partnership with Leif Ove Andsnes (2018). There’s much else besides, including his splendid Ives and Barber sonatas, and desert-island accounts of Rzewski’s The People United Shall Never Be Defeated! and North American Ballads. All were recorded for Hyperion, who have an enviable reputation when it comes to solo-piano recordings.

Given Hamelin’s status as a virtuoso of the highest order, it may come as a surprise that the music of Liszt, the most celebrated pianist of his time, isn’t more prominent in his discography. (Christopher Howell thought him ‘well-suited’ to the Paganini studies.) But where opera transcriptions and fantasias are concerned, it makes sense to mix the magnificent Magyar’s output with that of the Swiss composer and pianist extraordinaire, Sigismond Thalberg (1812-1871). The latter’s contributions to this sub-genre are very accomplished indeed, as the Italian pianist Francesco Nicolosi’s survey for Marco Polo/Naxos will confirm. Recorded in the nineties and noughties, it’s well worth exploring. Ditto the much more recent Thalberg album from the British pianist Mark Viner (Piano Classics PCL0106). That and his debut Liszt recital (PCL0092) are my comparatives here, as is the Nicolosi cycle.

Hamelin launches his new album with Hexaméron, as suggested to Liszt by the Italian Princess Cristina Trivulzio Belgiojoso. It would be premiered at a benefit concert for the poor, to be held at her Paris salon on 31 March 1837. It’s a bit of an oddity, consisting of an introduction, theme, six variations on the march from Bellini’s opera I Puritani, and a finale. What makes the work so unusual is that five of the variations are penned by famous composer-pianists of the day: Thalberg, Johann Peter Pixis, Henri Herz, Carl Czerny and Frédéric Chopin. Liszt composed the introductory music, the remaining variation and the finale. He also had the task of turning this strange hybrid into a coherent - and remarkably successful - whole. As it happens, the piece wasn’t finished on time. Instead, patrons were treated to a piano ‘duel’ between Thalberg and Liszt, after which the princess (in)famously declared the former the ‘best pianist in the world’, while describing the latter as ‘unique’.

Listening to Viner’s Hexaméron - unhelpfully presented as a single track - there’s no doubt he has an impressive technique. Also, he wears his virtuosity lightly, but that can be counter-productive in varied and volatile repertoire such as this. (More on that later.) Switching to Hamelin it’s clear this veteran artist, now on the cusp of 60, brings a level of intelligence and insight to this music that propels his performance into another league entirely. His phrasing is always so supple, his inflections so natural. Above all, he brings a thrilling surge and sweep to the piece, that many rivals - not just Viner - can’t match. As if that weren’t enough, engineer Arne Akselberg’s weighty, wide-ranging and tonally sophisticated recording brings out every last detail of this peacock score.

That said, Viner is well recorded here, as he is in Liszt’s musical and sonic barnstormer, Réminiscences de Norma de Bellini – Grande fantaisie, written four years later. This comes across quite well, but, again, I find Viner’s highly focused - even cerebral - approach to Liszt plays down the composer’s often fiery temperament. By contrast, Hamelin gives it full rein, adding much-needed thrust and drama to the proceedings, as he does with the concert paraphrase on Verdi’s Ernani. But what makes Hamelin’s Norma so very special is the phenomenal sound, the piano’s percussive edge and power captured as never before. Indeed, this is the perfect demo track, one that will give your system - and your ears - quite a drubbing.

Those familiar with Nicolosi’s Thalberg will attest to its many strengths and (very) occasional weaknesses. His performance of the fantasia based on motifs from Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, recorded in 1991, belongs in the first category (Marco Polo 8.223365). He has a lightness of touch and a telling turn of phrase. Most important, his music-making displays a warmth, a generosity of spirit, that suits the music very well. That’s even more welcome in Thalberg’s fantasia on themes from Rossini’s Moïse (Naxos 8.555501). The sound of both recordings is very decent, although there are a few unexpected perspective changes on the Marco Polo release, and an edge to the big moments on the Naxos one. (Hardly deal-breakers, though.)

Happily, Viner’s Don Pasquale and Moïse are eloquently played and recorded, with timbres and textures well caught. As with his Liszt, one might wish for a little more spontaneity, in particular a greater sense of theatre. That said, his playing is immaculate throughout, Rossini’s runs and roulades as lucid as they should be. In fact, I’d say Viner’s Thalberg is more consistently rewarding than his Liszt. Quelle surprise, Hamelin has the last word on both composers, his Don Pasquale combining the very best elements of his rivals’ readings (and slipping in a few revelations of his own.) His superfine touch and easeful articulation in the Rossini are simply breathtaking. Factor in a compelling sense of drama, culminating in apotheoses and you have the full measure of both the music and this prodigiously talented pianist. (Francis Pott’s detailed notes complete this moreish treat.)
Remarkable repertoire, peerless pianism and exemplary engineering; this is sure to be high on my list of the year’s very best releases.
Dan Morgan
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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