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Sigismond THALBERG (1812-1871)
L'art du chant appliqué au piano Op 70 (1853-63) [122:49](see Series 1-4 contents below)
Three Schubert Lieder transcribed for solo piano Op 79a (1862) [7:53] (No 1-Täuschung [1:23]; No 2-Der Neugierige [4:10]; No 3-Die Post [2:15])
Mi manca la voce (from Rossini's Mose in Egitto) from 10 Piano pieces Op 36 No 3 (1839) [3:39]
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Auf Flügeln des Gesanges (1863, arr. Sigismond Thalberg) [2:58]
Paul Wee (piano)
Rec. March, 2020 at the Concert Hall, Wyastone Estate, Monmouth, UK
BIS BIS-2515 SACD [2 discs: 67:56 +71:15]

A quick glance at the some of the pianists and piano music of Paris in the first half of the 19th century might suggest it was the epicentre of an ongoing battle for pianistic technical supremacy. To a certain extent that is true; Franz Liszt and Sigismond Thalberg were big fish in a pond that also contained supreme technicians such as Friedrich Kalkbrenner (1785-1849), Amédée Méreaux (1802-1874) or Henri Herz (1803-1888) and some of their music is still considered transcendental in its technical challenges. A pianist once remarked to me after playing Herz's Variation on Donizetti's 'Vivi tu' that is was the first and last time he would play it as it wasn't worth the effort to keep it under his fingers. It was probably with this in mind that Thalberg created his transcriptions collected under the title L'art du chant appliqué au piano – the art of singing applied to the piano. The publisher's note to the first edition says 'at a time when young pianists possess unimaginable finger dexterity it is worthwhile to recall the true mission of simplicity and beauty' and on that note Paul Wee's excellent booklet essay suggest that while much of Thalberg's output is 'designed to sound and look much more difficult than it actually is' the writing in L'art du chant is 'almost always (far) more difficult to execute than it sounds'. Wee certainly makes it sound simple, negotiating with unruffled demeanour what are sometimes quite complex strands of notes allowing the melody to emerge seamlessly from the texture.

This whole collection is a distillation of much of what Thalberg does in his fantasies – take the first number, the Bellini quartet 'a te, I cara' in which Elvira's sustained high notes toward the end of the transcription are represented by a right hand trill while the left hand and the unoccupied fingers of the right play all the other parts underneath. There is a similar passage in his Don Pasquale fantasy in which he accompanies Ernesto's aria 'com è, gentil' with a long held trill and strumming arpeggios. Thalberg very successfully brings together the four soloists, chorus and orchestra here and indeed throughout these transcriptions Thalberg pays strong attention to the different timbres of the diverse elements of the originals.

The wide range of material here covers arias, songs, even the Welsh song David of the white rock that Thalberg describes as an ancient bardic aria though it seems to have been composed by David Owen (1712-1741) on his deathbed – so a not-quite-so ancient bard (in more ways than one - he was only 29 when he passed). The variation treatment of this melody took me back to the first Thalberg I ever heard, his variations on Home, Sweet home and The last rose of summer, both written during the same period. The variety of material is matched by the variety of treatments that Thalberg adopts. In Beethoven's Adelaïde his treatment is less flamboyant than Liszt's two versions, written some 12 to 14 years earlier whilst another work that both pianists transcribed, Weber's 'Einsam bin ich nicht alleine' is dressed in florid attire by both. In keeping with the ethos of the set Thalberg's is more straightforward, concentrating on bringing the melody out of the texture whereas Liszt explores decoration and harmony more.

There were some items new to me, any perhaps to others. The delightful 'Perchè mi guardi e piangi',
Zelmira and Emma's duet from Rossini's Zelmira and the passionate tenor aria 'Bella adorate incognita' by Mercadante for example; the latter displaying Wee's sensitivity in delivering the refrain amid keyboard encompassing, pianissimo chords in both hands. He follows this with an heroic chorus by Meyerbeer and though this transcription, 'Nel silenzio fra l'orror' is one of the more flamboyant numbers its most impressive moments are to be found in the quieter sections; a stand out for me is the return of the refrain, a tenor and bass chorus in which the piccolo's trills ring above chorus and orchestra, all played with cool-headed grace. A startling number is the final item of the third set; Rossini's 'Assisa a' piè d'un salice', from his 1816 opera Otello. In the original the soprano would be expected to decorate the verses as they reappear; Thalberg opts to keep the melody the same through the three verses and instead varies the harmony and texture around the aria. The second verse is a quite intricate, chromatically harmonised version and the third sets the melody and accompaniment in the left hand against a relentlessly synchronised counter melody high in the right hand. Listeners familiar with Liszt's Venezia e Napoli will recognise the final piece of the collection; he used the Neapolitan tune Fenesta vascia in the middle section of the famous tarantelle from that set. Thalberg for the most part keeps things simple; a simple lilting barcarolle that has a little more passion and some choice harmonies in its second verse.

There are many familiar items here ranging from Mozart's 'Sull'aria, Voi che sapete' and an impassioned Lacrimosa to a starkly beautiful setting of Der Müller und der Bach. Amongst these is the one arrangement that has found a semi-life outside of the set, Bellini's 'Casta diva', recorded by Francesco Nicolosi, Cyprien Katsaris, Victoria Power (in a worthy complete set), Satu Paavola and others. Most recently Vanessa Benelli Mosell included it on her recording of opera transcriptions entitled Casta Diva (Decca 4855291), a CD very much on my wish list.

Wee includes 5 more transcriptions to complete this recording. Any of them could be included in L'art du chant and indeed the Schubert and Mendelssohn songs were transcribed at the same time that Thalberg was working on series 3 and 4. The Schubert are clear uncluttered settings whilst the Mendelssohn is an attractive alternative to Liszt's famous transcription, featuring varied accompaniments in the latter verses. The three-handed effect may have been Thalberg's grand closing device in many of his transcriptions, arpeggios and octaves flying hither and yon but seeing and hearing it here, and in many of the pieces on this disc, creating such seamless and simple textures still has the ability to mesmerise. One steps back and thinks how is that melody appearing while the hands are seemingly at the other ends of the keyboard?

Paul Wee certainly mesmerises here, like a master juggler who always seems to effortlessly find room for one more ball in the spinning tapestry before our eyes. A practising barrister, it is astonishing and wonderful that he maintains such a devastatingly prodigious technique and the ability to bring off such breathtaking... well I want say feats..., but that almost detracts from such beautifully artful playing. It is breathtaking and I can see how he made such a strong impression with his debut SACD of Alkan's towering Etudes (BIS-2465 review). The sound is warm, rich and frankly perfect, as far as I am concerned, and the whole presentation is glorious. I am eager to hear what wonders are to come from this impeccable artist.

Rob Challinor

Previous review: Dan Morgan
Disc 1
Series 1 (1853)
No.1 A te, o cara (quartet from Bellini's I Puritani)
No.2 Tre Giorni (Pergolesi)
No.3 Adelaïde (Beethoven)
No.4 Pietà, signore (attr. Stradella)
No.5a Lacrimosa (from Mozart's Requiem)
No.5b Sull'aria (from Mozart's Marriage of Figaro)
No.6 Perchè mi guardi e piangi (from Rossini's Zelmira)

Series 2 (1853 and Weber transcriptions 1854)
No.7 Bella adorate incognita (from Mercadante's Il Giuramento)
No.8 Nel silenzio fra l'orror (from Meyerbeer's Il Crociato)
No.9 Einsam bin ich nicht alleine (from Weber's Preciosa)
No.10 Der Müller und der Bach (from Schubert's Die schöne Müllerin)
No.11 Schelm, halt fest! (from Weber's Der Freischütz)
No.12 Il mio tesoro (from Mozart's Don Giovanni)

Disc 2
Series 3 (1861)
No.13 Sérénade (from Rossini's Barber of Seville)
No.14 La dove prende (from Mozart's Magic Flute)
No.15 Barcarolle (from Donizetti's Gianni di Calais)
No.16a Protegga il giusto cielo (from Mozart's Don Giovanni)
No.16b Là ci darem la mano (from Mozart's Don Giovanni)
No.17 Sérénade (from Grétry's L'amant jaloux)
No.18 Assisa a' piè d'un salice (from Rossini's Otello)

Series 4 (1863)
No.19 Casta diva (from Bellini's Norma)
No.20 Voi che sapete (from Mozart's Marriage of Figaro)
No.21 Fröhliche Klänge, Tänze, Gesänge (from Weber's Euryanthe)
No.22 Dafydd y garreg wen (ancient bardic aria)
No.23 Ein Mädchen, das aif Ehre hielt (from Haydn's Seasons)
No.24 Fenesta vascia (Neapolitan song)



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