Sunday, 19 April 2020

MUSIC REVIEW: Piano music of Sigismund Thalberg


Another little known and mostly forgotten composer who deserves better recognition. Sigismund Thalberg was a Swiss-born German who lived between 1812 and 1871, and was recognised in his time as being one of the most distinguished virtuoso pianists and piano composers of his century. His piano playing was in great demand all over Europe and his style and interpretation of scores was one that was copied by the good and the great all over. His compositions therefore are flowing, lush, inventive, and a mix of Classical and Romantic. His works for the piano were also quite innovative and new for the time too, forever pushing the boundaries of aceptablity further away from the Classical norms, closer to the writing styles of what became known as The Late Romantic period in music.

There is quite a lot of his piano music still avaialble, and YouTube has once again provided me with some of it. Here I listeend to four different pieces played by four different pianists.

The first piece I listened to was 'The Grand Fantasy And Variations On Themes From Bellini's Opera, Norma' (opus 12) (1834). This was the longest of the four pieces I listened to, lasting about 16 minutes, and here the pianist was Francesco Nicolosi. The piece is a love poem to Bellini's opera, as the phrases Thalberg chose to use for this Fantasy are all lyrical, flowing, and romantic. The piece sounds very Classical though in its form and writing, and so we immediately hear a juxtaposition between the accepted norms and rules of the period and Thalberg's thinking. This is a work that would sound superb orhcestrated; but here Nicolosi plays with real connectivity and sensitivity, as the piece requires dexterity and lightness of touch.

Next came Etude No 1 (op26) - Allegro. A very short piano study, no more than 3 minutes in length, and played here by Stefan Irmer. It is a bright and jolly tune. It is what Brahms would have sounded like if it had been written by Chopin! There is a lovely quiet end to this fast, melodic and never-stopping piece.

The third piece was his Tarantella in C minor (op 65) (1848), and in this recording played by pianist Ian Hominik. This tarantella clearly owes a massive debt to Mozart, despite the writing being much closer to the music of Liszt. Thalberg's love of the opera comes through again in this piece too, despite it being primarily a dance (a tarantella), the music is crying out to be sung. Hominik obeys the wishes of the composer and instead makes the piano sing.

Continuing and finishing with opera, the final piece was again a piano fantasy on operatic themes,. this time his Fantasy On The Barber Of Seville by Rossini (opus 63). This 9 minute piece played ebulliently by Valentina Lisitsa, is perhaps the most technically difficult of the four, and perhaps also the most mature in writing, despite all the themes being taken directly from Rossini's opera, it is what Thalberg does with them which is very interesting. There is a very distinct thematic / programmatic feel to this work which is not present in the others, which makes it stand out.

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 18/4/20

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