June 02, 2022


Saint-Saëns: Piano Works, Paraphrases, and Transcriptions, Volume 1—Opera and Ballet; Places. Antony Gray, piano. Divine Art. $27.99 (2 CDs).

Saint-Saëns: Piano Works, Paraphrases, and Transcriptions, Volume 2—Oratorio, Cantata and occasional pieces; Bach and Milan. Antony Gray, piano. Divine Art. $27.99 (2 CDs).

Thalberg: Fantasies on Operas by Donizetti. Francesco Nicolosi, piano. Naxos. $13.99.

     It is of Caesar that Shakespeare’s Cassius speaks when he says “he doth bestride the narrow world like a Colossus,” but it was Franz Liszt who bestrode the pianistic world of the 19th century like that proverbial giant. Despite all the other superb virtuoso pianists of the time – Herz, Pixis, Kalkbrenner, Czerny, Alkan – everything was compared to and measured by Liszt, an incomparable showman as well as a pianist of the first water and a composer of not-inconsiderable talent. So dominant was the Liszt cult that excellent composer/pianists could fall by the wayside simply because they were less skilled than Liszt at self-promotion and had more inward-looking personalities. A prime example is Camille Saint-Saëns, an excellent pianist (and organist) as well as a skilled composer and conductor. In terms of piano works, Saint-Saëns is known for his five concertos and the hilarious “Pianists” movement of Carnival of the Animals, but for almost nothing else. It turns out that this is a real shame: an excellent and genuinely important two-volume, four-CD recording of Saint-Saëns’ piano works on the Divine Art label provides a heretofore unavailable chance to hear just how good Saint-Saëns’ solo-piano music is and to muse about its longstanding neglect. The pieces are of interest on multiple levels, sometimes involving forms also much favored by Liszt: paraphrases of operas, travelogues (although far less extensive than Années de pèlerinage), and Bach transcriptions. In addition, Saint-Saëns created a considerable number of lighter “salon” pieces, plus some interesting piano versions of music from ballets, oratorios and cantatas. Antony Gray tackles Saint-Saëns’ very considerable solo-piano output – these CDs contain nearly five hours of music – with relish, seeming to delight even in the trifles while giving the more-considerable works the level of seriousness and dedication they deserve. The first two-disc volume places Saint-Saëns firmly in the pantheon of Romantic-era compositional virtuosity, including extended treatments of music from Gluck’s Alceste, Meyerbeer’s Thaïs, and Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles, plus shorter works based on his own ballet, Javotte, and other stage works. This volume also includes Saint-Saëns’ pianistic travel pieces, the most substantial being Rhapsodie d’Auvergne, Souvenir d’Italy, and Africa; other highlights are the two-movement Suite Algerienne and the charming Barcarolle: Une Nuit à Lisbonne. There is a great deal of understated elegance in Saint-Saëns’ piano writing: he certainly ventures into display pieces from time to time, but retains a sense of good taste and moderation in almost every piece. These characteristics stand him in particularly good stead in the transcriptions of Bach offered in Volume 2 of this exemplary project. There are 13 of those (although their title, oddly, gives the number as 12), taken from cantatas, partitas and violin sonatas, and offered uniformly in good taste and with considerable respect for the earlier composer – although certainly not in any way that would today be considered “historically informed.” Saint-Saëns actually delves even more deeply into the past than his handling of Bach would suggest: Volume 2 includes two pianistic transcriptions of works by the early-16th-century Spanish composer Luis de Milán (c. 1500-c. 1561). This volume also ties Saint-Saëns closely to Liszt in two very interesting, highly virtuosic works. One is Improvisation sur la Beethoven-Cantata de Liszt, whose 1870 version (revised by Liszt for the centenary of Beethoven’s birth) led Saint-Saëns to create this piece – which, it should be noted, Gray takes at a somewhat expansive pace, not really slow but perhaps a trifle too deliberate. Also here is Paraphrase sur Gallia de Gounod, based on a now-little-known 1871 motet for soprano, chorus, organ and orchestra. Here Saint-Saëns writes a very Lisztian piece (again played at somewhat deliberate speed by Gray), showing that he could, when he wished, absorb, interpret, modify and offer in new, pianistic guise a considerable number of works of all types – in addition to creating entirely new ones of his own. The four CDs in these two volumes excel in showcasing a side of Saint-Saëns with which most listeners will be unfamiliar – an element placing Saint-Saëns firmly within the upper echelon of composer/performer virtuosos of his time.

     Although Saint-Saëns may not have been a direct colleague/competitor of Liszt, other famed pianists of the 19th century certainly were, one notable among them being Sigismond Thalberg (1812-1871). While Saint-Saëns’ solo-piano works almost all retain a sense of urbanity and polish, those of Thalberg tend toward the spectacular – and as such were very definitely deemed competitive with similar pieces by Liszt (although the supposedly bitter rivalry between the two was largely a journalistic fiction). Thalberg created one performance technique that continues to amaze today, having the thumbs of a pianist’s hands play a middle-of-the-keyboard melody while the other fingers of both hands provided accompaniment (often arpeggiated) above and below the notes used for the theme – the result being to make it sound as if three hands were playing. Many other pianists adopted this innovation, which continues to sound surprising to this day. Thalberg also excelled at operatic transcriptions and fantasies, bringing audiences for his recitals elaborate and often highly complex expansions of popular melodies and scenes from a wide variety of well-known works. Five superb examples of Thalberg’s excellence in pieces of this sort are now available on a Naxos re-release of Francesco Nicolosi performances from 1991. The works of Donizetti were so familiar to audiences of Thalberg’s time, and so packed with memorable melodies, that they were a natural vehicle for Thalberg’s brand of pianistic display. The pieces on this disc were created from the mid-1840s to the mid-1850s, and all neatly encapsulate the Thalberg style of expansion, variation, and what might be called “complexification,” turning Donizetti’s generally simple, emotionally communicative tunes into building blocks for grand-scale elaborations that have “virtuoso display piece” written all over them. Nicolosi conquers these works – saying he “plays” them seems inadequate – and presents them in all their superficial-but-highly-engaging glory. The underlying thematic material of the five pieces comes from Donizetti operas that continue to be heard frequently, which means the melodies may be familiar to listeners even today. The five foundational operas are La Fille du régiment, Don Pasquale, Lucrezia Borgia, Lucie di Lammermoor, and L’Elisir d’amore. Thalberg makes no attempt to be true to the underlying material emotionally or structurally: he does not hesitate, after initially presenting a Donizetti melody, to pull it into its component parts, rearrange and reassemble them in multiple ways, and stack trills and octaves and runs and chordal passages and rhythmic complexities upon every note. The result is music that is genuinely thrilling if avowedly superficial. Thalberg’s aim was 100% to entertain – he may have been at Liszt’s level as a performer but certainly was not as a composer – and Nicolosi does exactly the right thing by taking these works at face value. That, after all, is how Thalberg himself wanted them to be taken: not quite the showman that Liszt was, Thalberg was certainly not above pianistic display for its own sake, and his music is impressive, exciting and enthralling even today – if scarcely professing to a depth that it does not possess, and does not need to have.

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