August 29, 2019


Sigismond Thalberg: Fantaisie sur des motifs de l’opera “Les Huguenots” de Meyerbeer; Grand Caprice sur des motifs de l’opera “Charles VI” de F. Halévy; L’art du chant appliqué au piano, Nos. VII and XIX; Grande Fantaisie sur des motifs de l’opera “La Muette de Portici” de D.F.E. Auber; Grand Caprice sur la Marche de “l’Apothéose” de Berlioz. Mark Viner, piano. Piano Classics. $18.99.

Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition; Mozart: Piano Sonata No. 9; Debussy: Deux Arabesques; Paul Turok: Passacaglia; Henco Espag: Herinneringe; James Adler: Elegy for Norman. James Adler, piano. Albany Records. $16.99.

Bach Transcriptions by Ferruccio Busoni, Ignaz Friedman, Harold Bauer, Franz Liszt, Alexander Siloti, Leopold Godowski, and Percy Grainger. Jean Alexis Smith, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.

     Opera was the pop music of its day in the 19th century, and virtuoso pianists who created works based on hyper-popular operatic tunes were the equivalent of rock stars. And there were no greater rock-star pianists than Sigismond Thalberg and Franz Liszt – who, like Brahms and Wagner, were pushed as rivals by their fans but who actually had a closer, more-complex and more-cordial relationship than their supporters realized (or, perhaps, wanted to realize). Posterity has been far, far kinder to Liszt than to Thalberg (1812-1871), whose many piano innovations and compositional developments were so popular and, indeed, so over-popularized by others, that they were already being overdone, over-imitated and mocked in the last decade of his relatively short life. Certainly Thalberg was not innovative to the extent that Liszt was, or in the same way, and certainly he saw himself as almost entirely a performer, while Liszt saw himself as composer, performer, Hungarian patriot, musical reformer, champion of music filled with literary allusions (including, of course, the works of Wagner), and perhaps as anointed by God in all those roles. But, invidious and unnecessary comparisons aside, Thalberg was a very considerable presence at the piano in his time, and the works he composed for his own performances were extraordinary in the way they extended piano technique and elicited a broad range of emotions from the audiences that heard them. It is possible to admit the superficiality of much of the music, and the facile nature of the emotions evoked by it, without in any way diminishing the sheer quality of the pianistic creativity that Thalberg displayed – both in writing his works and in playing them. Mark Viner, a modern pianist of exceptional skill and a knowing student of piano history, has just the right combination of intelligence, understanding and virtuosic ability to revive Thalberg’s works at a time when opera is deemed suitable strictly for the elite – and in so doing, Viner displays the “popular” qualities that made this music so attractive to so many people when Thalberg flourished in the mid-19th century. Viner’s new Piano Classics CD of Thalberg’s music shows just how neglected this onetime giant of the piano is today: the works based on Charles VI, La Muette de Portici and the final movement of Berlioz’ Grande Symphonie funèbre et triomphale have never been recorded before. Yet they are all amazingly effective display pieces, and not just display pieces: the choice of musical material is in each case exemplary, and the decisions on what to emphasize and how to do so show Thalberg’s exceptional musical taste as well as his showmanship. For instance, the use of the onetime showstopper from Charles VI, an aria called “A minuit,” and the way Thalberg ties it to the famous and highly patriotic “La France a l’horreur du servage,” shows great subtlety of understanding as well as the ability to produce breathtakingly difficult piano passages (which Viner handles superbly). The focus of the fantasy based on La Muette de Portici on the Act III “Tarantella” is also highly clever, giving what could otherwise be a sprawling 14-minute work considerable focus. And the Berlioz elaboration – which Berlioz directly told Thalberg was “superb” – condenses and then elaborates all the fervor of the original. The other pieces here are equally impressive and equally well played. The fantasy on Les Huguenots accepts the opera’s focus on the Lutheran hymn, Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, and effectively intertwines that building block with various other tunes that audiences in Thalberg’s time would have known intimately. And all these fantasies stand in interesting contrast to the two excerpts played by Viner from Thalberg’s L’art du chant appliqué au piano, which includes 24 works in all: No. VII is from Mercadente’s Il Giuramento and No. XIX from Bellini’s Norma. Although scarcely simple, these transcriptions remain faithful to the originals on which they draw, and lack the complex passages and extensive ornamentation of Thalberg’s more-grandiose works – serving, Thalberg hoped, as lessons for pianists of his time in better cantabile playing. Viner is an outstanding advocate for Thalberg’s music, and if the operatic foundation on which this material was constructed is now deemed rarefied rather than popular, that in no way diminishes the quality of the works that Thalberg created at a time when the emotions of opera seemed more in tune with everyday feelings than they seem to be today.

     A great deal of the emotion of Thalberg’s music is feigned, just like a great deal of the emotion in today’s pop music: his works’ primary intent is to entertain. But that need not be the sole purpose of piano works, even virtuosic ones, as is shown on a new Albany Records release featuring pianist/composer James Adler. The disc bears the title “Homages & Remembrances,” and its emotional underpinning is clearly genuine: the whole recital was inspired by the death of Adler’s older brother, Norman. The question for listeners, though, is not one of sincerity – that is surely present here in abundance – but one of whether the recording works from a strictly musical standpoint. The answer is a qualified “yes,” qualified because the CD contains so disparate a mixture of music that its primary attraction will likely be the playing of Adler rather than the works themselves. It is unfair to ask an audience to share the deep feelings that led Adler to create this particular mixture of musical material – indeed, it is impossible for listeners to do so, since each of us has a different reaction to personal tragedy and associates different music (among other things) with our own experiences. Listeners will not pick up this disc with the intent or expectation of sharing the meaning that the six works on it have for Adler. They will choose it on the basis of their associations with these pieces and their enjoyment of the way Adler handles them. The six pieces are presented in a highly personal order that probably will not resonate with many listeners: Turok’s (1977), Mozart’s (1777), then those by Debussy (1888 and 1891), Adler himself (2017-18), Espag (2017), and Mussorgsky (1874). The back-to-back works by Adler and Espag are overt memorials to Adler’s brother, and they are distinguished by a high level of gentleness and even pleasantness rather than by any sense of deep mourning and tragedy – celebrations of life rather than a wallowing in death. They are far more in tune with the way many people would prefer to be remembered than are most depressive and dour memorial pieces. Espag’s, whose title is Afrikaans for “Remembrance,” actually becomes jazzily upbeat at the end. Adler’s, which is for flute (played by Cain-Oscar Bergeron) and piano, is gentle and rather sweet, holding the depth of its feeling in check rather than letting it spill over. Together, these two works – which, combined, last just 10 minutes – make an effective memorial for Adler’s brother; although they are not going to be most people’s reason for owning this disc. Nor is Turok’s Passacaglia, which opens the CD in a mood of seriousness and a certain degree of disharmony, the primary attraction here. It is Adler’s sensitivity and interpretative skill in the older music that is most impressive on the disc. His Mozart is light, fleet, delicate, and played with fine accentuation and just the right degree of attention to ornamentation. The contrast with the Debussy works is considerable: here Adler plays with sensitivity and emotional involvement, making the two little pieces into individual musical gems. But the best piece on the disc, and the one most likely to attract listeners to it, is Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, which gets an absolutely first-rate rendition here. The wonders of this piece lie in the skill with which Mussorgsky paints, musically, a series of very different scenes that had been painted on canvas by his deceased friend Viktor Hartmann. The work requires the ability to make the piano sound highly atmospheric (Il Vecchio Castello, Catacombae), light and fleet and almost trifling (Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells), monumental and affirmative (The Great Gate of Kiev), and more. And it is in this piece that Adler shows his emotional (as opposed to merely technical) virtuosity, as he grasps the essence of each miniature and presents it with skill and refinement. Yes, Mussorgsky’s work is a memorial piece, and as such fits the overall theme of this disc. But it is not the “memorial” aspect that has given Pictures at an Exhibition such longevity – it is its sheer musical quality. And that is what Adler brings out here to such fine effect.

    A mixture of pianistic brilliance and emotional resonance can be found in a fascinating MSR Classics CD featuring Bach transcriptions created by seven important piano virtuosos of the 19th and early 20th century. Thalberg is not among them – Bach transcriptions were not to his taste – but Liszt is here, with the Prelude and Fugue in A minor, BWV 543, transcribed surprisingly straightforwardly and thus showing Liszt’s willingness to subsume his own hyper-virtuosity into the needs of Bach’s music, at least on this occasion. There is a purity to Liszt’s work here, despite the fact that modern pianos (or even those of Liszt’s time) sound nothing like any instruments to which Bach had access, and the resulting sonorities of Bach’s works are as thoroughly inauthentic as they are impressive when played well – as they most certainly are here, by Jean Alexis Smith. One composer especially well-known for his Bach transcriptions was Busoni, and Smith here plays the Toccata in C and Adagio in A minor, both from Toccata, Adagio and Fugue, BWV 564, although for some reason Smith places other pieces between them on this disc. The pieces are nicely reflective of the underlying music, but even better is Busoni’s handling of I Call unto Thee, O Lord, from the Orgelbüchlein, BWV 639, which maintains the deeply emotional plea of the original while moving it very effectively to a new instrument. The other composers on this disc are not as familiar as Bach transcribers, but all approach the Baroque master’s work with sensitivity, if not always reverence. Ignaz Friedman preserves the joy of My Heart Ever Faithful, from Cantata No. 68, BWV 68. Harold Bauer finds and displays the underlying patience and calm of The Soul Rests in Jesus’ Hands, from Cantata No. 127, BWV 127. Alexander Siloti interestingly uses the piano’s ability to evoke the sound of other instruments in the bell-like elements of the Prelude in B minor, BWV 855a (originally in E minor). Leopold Godowsky, far from presenting the sort of intensely virtuosic material for which he is known, makes the Adagio in C from Violin Sonata No. 2, BWV 1003, into a sweet, lovely and quiet work of considerable beauty on its own terms. And Percy Grainger, who is scarcely associated with Bach transcriptions at all, creates a version of Sheep May Safely Graze from Cantata No. 208, BWV 208, that highlights the work’s pastoral elements and ends with an exciting if somewhat inappropriate burst of joy. (In fairness, Grainger called this not a transcription but a “free ramble,” and even retitled it Blithe Bells.) Smith clearly enjoys exploring the varying approaches to Bach heard here, and she offers enthusiastic playing throughout. In one sense, none of this material is Bach – certainly none of it is Bach as Bach intended his music to be heard – but in another sense, in terms of communicating the feelings and emotions of the music to much later times, when the harpsichord, clavichord and organ had given way to pianos approximating those we know today, these pieces are very effective indeed.

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