August 25, 2022


Sigismond Thalberg: Fantasies on Operas by Verdi, Rossini and Bellini. Francesco Nicolosi, piano. Naxos. $13.99.

Sigismond Thalberg: Les Soirées de Pausilippe—Hommage à Rossini, 24 Pensées musicales. Francesco Nicolosi, piano. Naxos. $13.99.

Eleanor Alberga: Two-Piano Suite; 3-Day Mix; Donald Grantham: Fantasy Variations on Gershwin’s Piano Prelude II for Two Pianos; Thomas H. Kerr, Jr.: Concert Scherzo—Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel?; Stella Sung: Epicycles; Ástor Piazzolla: Milonga del Ángel; La Muerte del Ángel. Nyaho/Garcia Piano Duo (William Chapman Nyaho and Susanna Garcia). MSR Classics. $14.95.

     Although the notion of a notoriously bitter pianistic rivalry between Franz Liszt and Sigismond Thalberg (1812-1871) was largely the creation of reporters looking for juicy stories to build their publications’ audiences – some things never change – there is no question that Thalberg and Liszt were among the preeminent pianists at a time and place when the salons, recital halls and concert venues seemed to overflow with keyboard pyrotechnics produced by the greatest exponents of their instrument. Naxos has been re-releasing a number of Francesco Nicolosi performances of Thalberg’s music that were originally recorded in the 1990s, and what is remarkable is not only the quality of the readings – which is uniformly very high – but also the unexpected variety of material that listeners can discover, or rediscover, through these CDs. The disc called Fantasies on Operas by Verdi, Rossini and Bellini is pretty much what audiences in Thalberg’s time, and listeners who are familiar with him today, will expect. Like Liszt and other great concertizers of the era, Thalberg was an expert at creating extended sets of variations-cum-tone-poems based on well-known tunes from well-known operas – lest we forget, opera was popular rather than rarefied entertainment in the mid-19th century, and audiences would be quite familiar with the “hit tunes” from multiple works. Thalberg developed specific pianistic techniques that allowed him to make his opera arrangements distinctive – most famously, he created a form of composition and performance that made it sound as if three hands were playing, by producing tunes in the middle of the piano while ornamenting them above and below. The point was to impress audiences with both showmanship and musicianship, and Thalberg – like Liszt, if to a lesser extent – was a master of this combination. Of the six fantasies on this particular CD, five use music that today’s operagoers (if not the public at large) are likely to recognize; this means the pieces have some of the same impact in the 21st century that they had in the 19th. There are two Verdi fantasies here from 1862, on themes from La Traviata and Il Trovatore, and two from 1864, based on music from Un ballo in maschera and Rigoletto. In all four cases, and indeed in his opera fantasies in general, Thalberg selected musical material that would allow him to build an effective display piece: he did not try to trace the stories of the operas, preferring to use music out of its original order and juxtapose unrelated themes because, in so doing, he could produce a more-effective work of his own. In addition to the four Verdi fantasies, Nicolosi here plays Thalberg’s 1853 arrangement of one of Bellini’s most-famous arias, Casta diva from Norma – another opera that remains popular today. It is only the sixth piece on the disc that explores now-less-familiar territory, being a fantasy (from 1828, when Thalberg was just 16) on Le Siège de Corinthe by Rossini – an opera that is only occasionally revived nowadays. Still, this fantasy is every bit as effective as the later ones based on better-known Verdi and Bellini works, and Nicolosi’s highly idiomatic virtuosity showcases all the material to the best possible effect. This may be superficial music, but it is superficial by intent rather than by accident: Thalberg knew how to entertain the audiences of his time, and the pieces remain very entertaining for listeners of today.

     If the six opera fantasies are fine but unsurprising examples of Thalberg’s art, another Naxos re-release, this one entirely based on Rossini’s music, is off the beaten path and is fascinating for Thalberg’s willingness, within it, to eschew virtuosity for its own sake. Les Soirées de Pausilippe (“Evenings at Posilippo,” created in 1862) is designated as Hommage à Rossini and also as 24 Pensées musicales (“24 Musical Thoughts”). Thalberg owned and lived in a villa at Posilippo for the last few years of his life, and just as Rossini himself retired from the stage and thereafter composed only his “Sins of Old Age,” so Thalberg mostly retired from the rigors and stresses of performance and planted vineyards – from which he produced prize-winning wines. Les Soirées de Pausilippe is relaxed and pleasantly laid-back in a way that Thalberg’s operatic fantasies are not. The 24 pieces are subdivided into two books of 12 each, and each book is further broken up into six pairs of pieces. Virtuosity is not entirely absent from the material, but in this case it very much takes a back seat to expressiveness and a near-Mendelssohnian relaxation: it is reasonable to think of Les Soirées de Pausilippe as Thalberg’s set of “songs without words.” Thalberg’s publisher wanted each of the 24 pieces to be given its own evocative title, but Thalberg refused, preferring to have the music speak for itself – which it does, mostly gently. The works bear nothing but tempo indications, and they are songful rather than intense and dramatic (Thalberg had actually written a piano-instruction work on applying the art of singing to piano performance, and it is from that work that his Casta diva arrangement is taken). There are certainly some operatic and dramatic elements in Les Soirées de Pausilippe from time to time, such as the pairing of a rather grand Lento con molta espressione with an ominous minor-key Presto. But by and large, the music evokes the gentler, more-nuanced side of Rossini and, by extension, of Thalberg. It also seems expressive of the relaxed atmosphere of Posilippo itself. Thalberg lived for nine years after producing Les Soirées de Pausilippe and continued, during that time, to create some of the grander-scale fantasies for which he was best known – including several of those on the other recent Nicolosi re-release. But he never again wrote anything quite like Les Soirées de Pausilippe, which shows a more-sensitive side of his compositional and performance capabilities and proves that Thalberg was quite capable of nuance and delicacy when he was so inclined – even though his enthusiastic audiences were generally not looking for those qualities in his music or his pianism.

     The exuberant piano performances of William Chapman Nyaho and Susanna Garcia are the main attraction of an MSR Classics release featuring 20th- and 21st-century works that, like Thalberg’s in an earlier time, seem designed mainly to entertain. There is certainly fine craftsmanship in the music, which includes world première recordings of pieces by Eleanor Alberga (born 1949), Stella Sung (born 1959), and Thomas H. Kerr, Jr. (1915-1988). But it is the pieces that have been recorded before that are the most engaging. One is Fantasy Variations on Gershwin’s Piano Prelude II for Two Pianos (1996) by Donald Grantham (born 1947) – a piece that may be said to lie in the Liszt/Thalberg tradition of expanding some rather slight material into something altogether grander, more extended and more complex, lacking profundity but sounding highly attractive as a display piece. The others are Pablo Ziegler’s two-piano arrangements of two of the 1962-1965 “angel” works by Ástor Piazzolla (1921-1992): the lyrical, wistful Milonga del Ángel and the strong and assertive La Muerte del Ángel (the last of the Serie del Ángel pieces, Resurrección del Ángel, is omitted). The pianistic attractiveness of Grantham’s work and the underlying lyricism of the two by Piazzolla (originally written by him for his bandoneón-led quintet, including violin, piano, electric guitar, and double bass) come across very well through the exceptional sensitivity of Nyaho and Garcia not only to the music but also to each other – they seem to sense the best way to have their two pianos interrelate to bring out the nuances of the music. Indeed, Nyaho and Garcia perform on two pianos with much the same careful intertwining that they display in the works here for piano four hands: Sung’s Epicycles (1992) and Alberga’s 3-Day Mix (1986). These pieces themselves, though, are less interesting than those by Grantham and Piazzolla. Sung’s five-movement work is full of pounding and dissonance to no particular purpose; Alberga’s single movement is more sensitive, even delicate in places, but somewhat meandering. Alberga’s Two-Piano Suite (also from 1986) is more effective and better-constructed: it is a single extended movement that gives Nyaho and Garcia plenty of opportunities to lead and follow where the music takes them – indeed, the whole lead-and-follow idea is almost irrelevant in this well-integrated piece, while the performers’ mutuality of technique results throughout the CD in excellent balance and readings of care and integrity. These performance characteristics show especially well in Kerr’s 1996 Concert Scherzo—Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel? This work could easily function as an encore, although it appears midway through the disc. It has jazz/swing rhythmic drive laid atop the underlying spiritual, as Kerr attractively explores what nuances the basic music possesses while having the pianists carry the melody and its development through warmth and heartfelt concern, if not to the level of intense religious fervor. The piece is pleasant – an adjective applicable to just about all the music on this CD – and these top-notch performers raise everything on the disc to the highest level at which the material is capable of being displayed.

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