Marc-André Hamelin: Liszt & Thalberg [Hyperion]

5 of 5 stars

Hexaméron, Grandes Variations de Bravoure
Réminiscences de Norma, Grande Fantaisie
Ernani, Paraphrase de Concert

Moïse, Fantaisie, Op.33
Don Pasquale, Grande Fantaisie, Op.67

Marc-André Hamelin (piano)

Recorded 15-17 May 2019 at Teldex Studio Berlin, Germany

Reviewed by: Ates Orga

Reviewed: September 2020
Duration: 75 minutes



September 1960. Kensington Odeon. A clandestine afternoon watching Dirk Bogarde’s Song Without End biopic, a travesty redeemed only by an unknown off-the-shelf tinkler playing the soundtrack. Jorge Bolet. (Hollywood music men, Abram Chasins on call, knew their pianists in those days – think of Nyiregyházi’s lot a generation before.) In no time at all, Bayswater way, I was high above the hoi polloi in the piano gallery at Whiteleys, long vanished, living out the noblimente passages of the Hungarian Fantasy on whatever Steinway or Bechstein I could find. A year on, marking to the day the 150thanniversary of Liszt’s birth, Tamás Vásáry, Hungarian, handsome and young, gave a 3pm recital at the Royal Festival Hall, taking us from the B-minor Sonata to Don Juan to five encores including the 6th and 15th Hungarian Rhapsodies and La Campanella. The fire lit, that was the moment, there was to be no going back. 

In the Britain of the post-fifties, during the early spring of the wider (largely American generated) Romantic Revival, two New York recordings caught my imagination – and still do, unsurpassably so. Raymond Lewenthal’s 1966 RCA Hexaméron, gilded with sleeve notes from another world. And Earl Wild’s 1964 Vanguard Don Pasquale. Magical piano playing. On the one hand the Russo-French Jewish Texan “octave thrower, long-distance arpeggioer and general producer of volcanic rumbles”. On the other the Knoxville, Pittsburgh “renaissance man” knocked out by “the glorious sound of music”. I played those black LPs until nothing was left. Deeming the repertory shallow, the younger among my academic colleagues, into Lutoslawski and Ligeti, scoffed at my passion, ceaselessly. Undeterred, I did a Radio 3 talk in February 1971, then eighteen months later found myself contributing to a bizarre costumed corruption of Hexaméron at the Proms – Michael Tilson Thomas’s debut as it happened, conducting the LSO, with six pianists taking part: Thomas Walsh, John Bingham, Martin Hughes, David Wilde (in the role of Liszt), Howard Shelley and Ronald Lumsden. “A spectacular event to watch but a disaster to hear,” I reported. Two CDs for Ted Perry at Saga, 1975/76, won me over to Wilde’s molten dedication: I recall a Wigmore Hall Norma from him reaching a climax of visceral, terrifying thrust, he, instrument and music in bonded overdrive, possessed by the moment in eddies of sweat. Strange to relate, however, trips across the river to hear, among the many, Argerich (imprudently fast), Arrau, Berman (messily pedalled) and Horowitz, left only a transient impression. 

Come 1992, currents stirred again with a Canadian newcomer, Marc-André Hamelin, who on a Music & Arts disc traversed Norma and the Don Juan Réminiscences with ardour and rock-solid technique. Subsequently I devised and produced a Wigmore series for him, Virtuoso Romantics, in part released by Hyperion (CDA66765). Opening and closing the middle recital of our triptych, Don Pasquale and Hexaméron, what else, gleamed at the core of the agenda. 

Twenty-five years hence, it’s good to turn these pages again, to savour the stratospheric pyrotechnics and matured emotions of an artist so imperially in command. Longest, at 21 minutes, is Hexaméron. Central to its near-mythical genesis was a Latin princess – champion of Garibaldi and Mazzini, mistress to an age, lover of Lafayette and Heine, reputedly even George Sand, companion to Bellini, Meyerbeer and Dumas, authority on the harems of Constantinople, ‘bird of curious plumage’. Cristina di Belgiojoso-Trivulzio. Twenty-eight. On 31 March 1837 she put on a charity bazaar in aid of impoverished Italian refugees, inviting the most fashionable musicians of the season to her Paris salon, rue d’Anjou, 8èmearrondissement. Heading the bill were Liszt and Thalberg – “two talents whose rivalry at this time agitates the musical world” (Gazette Musicale) challenged to a ‘joust’ with transcriptions for lances. “Thalberg is the first pianist in the world,” Mme la Princesse ruled, mindful of diplomacy, but Liszt – “Liszt is the only one” (le seul). 

Intended to top the unusual, Hexaméron – “Morceau de Concert/Grandes/Variations de Bravoure/pour piano/sur la/Marche des Puritains de Bellini” – was a compilation stitched together by Liszt with “no pretention or intention of doing anything but entertain a crowd of rich patricians who were to be relieved of a considerable sum of money for a worthy cause” (Lewenthal). Had all the composers commissioned to veneer this digest (Thalberg, Pixis, Herz, Czerny, Chopin) met the hour – a cameo performance from each – it would been an astonishing encounter of hands. Only they failed, leaving history to speculate on what might have been. Nucleus of the work is the strident revolutionist number “Suoni la tromba” (Sound the trumpet for liberty), the baritone/bass duet from the finale to Act II of ‘I Puritani’ premiered in Paris two years earlier, which Tamburini and Lablache used to bellow with such might, Rossini quipped, that it must have been heard as far away as Vesuvius. 

The show-tunes, show-pianism, of Louis-Philippe’s Paris define Hexaméron, Rossini-‘Moïse’ (published 1839), Bellini-‘Norma’ (1841), and Donizetti-‘Don Pasquale’ (published 1850) – “documents from the wild and woolly days when pianists were composers and composers were pianists” (Lewenthal). Verdi-‘Ernani’ (1849-59), prayerful, was a later manifestation, stylistically developed out of the Weimar kapellmeister years. Hamelin takes us through honey, heroics and heartache, lingering upon a phrase, a cadential turn, a melodic poignancy where once he might have pressed on, voiced tone production at a premium. Roulades glisten. The bass regions (here and there texturally strengthened or re-octaved) glow and caress sensually, the fortissimos thunder with Jovian, unmuddied declamation, all carried by a Ferrari of a Hamburg Steinway with power and more to take on the crowds at Monza, as characterfully equal to the beauties of Don Pasquale or veils and panoplies of Ernani as the cultured artistry and flowers of Moïse, the “monster” stunts and drama of Hexaméron. Produced and engineered by Andrew Keener and Arne Akselberg, this is a ravishing, high octane journey. Réminiscences, dreams, feather every turn – historical, musical, personal. A pianophile’s paradise. Breathtaking.

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