NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).-
Never was Liszt more controlled, more thoughtful, more energetic, more passionate; never has Thalberg played with greater verve and tenderness.
When Franz Liszt and Sigismond Thalberg, two of the great piano virtuosos of the 19th century, shared a bill in Paris in 1837, critic Jules Janin was there to report on what he called an admirable joust. Both in their mid-20s at the time, these musicians were already rivals on the European scene, each with devoted partisans. Their meeting at the salon of Princess Belgiojoso, for a concert benefiting refugees of the Italian War of Independence, was bound to be a duel to remember.
Among the finger-blurring works on offer was most likely Thalbergs rendition of his fantasy on themes from Rossinis 1818 opera Mosè in Egitto.
Marc-André Hamelin, a contemporary heir to these pianistic giants in his searching creativity and utter technical security, includes the piece on his new release on the Hyperion label.
The whole album evokes a sense of that 1837 encounter, featuring something of an anything you can do, I can do better selection of Liszts and Thalbergs solo-piano adaptations of Italian opera excerpts. Hamelin also plays the formidable Hexaméron, commissioned by the princess but not ready in time for the benefit; for this work, Liszt and five other composers, including Thalberg and Chopin, wrote variations on a march from Bellinis I Puritani. (Another superb new release, on Harmonia Mundi, compiles Liszts solo transcriptions of Beethovens symphonies.)
They were written, from a purely pianistic standpoint, to dazzle, Hamelin said of the opera-inspired pieces on a FaceTime call from his home near Boston. But they were also meant to popularize these operas, which werent necessarily produced very often.
(BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.)
The great keyboard duel seems to have been something of a draw. Liszt and Thalberg were both proclaimed victors by this glittering and intelligent assembly, Janin wrote. But the hostess conclusion, while diplomatically ambiguous, is perhaps suggestive of the judgment of history which has favored Liszt over Thalberg, whose life and works have faded into semiobscurity. Thalberg is the first pianist in the world, the princess said. Liszt is the only.
These are edited excerpts from the conversation with Hamelin.
Q: What were the origins of the album?
A: A lot of people seem to think, quite naturally, that it came about because of the famous Liszt and Thalberg duel. But no, though it does contain work featured in that duel. For a long time, I wanted to do a disc of Liszt operatic transcriptions, and I also wanted to explore Thalberg. But the more I studied Thalberg and his transcriptions, the less successful they seemed to me. A lot of his opera transcriptions arent held together well; these on the album (the Mosè and a fantasy on Donizettis Don Pasquale) are his two successes by a good margin.
So I stuck to what I knew of Liszt; I did Hexaméron at the 92nd Street Y in 2007, and (Bellinis) Norma and (Verdis) Ernani Ive been playing forever. He was more successful than Thalberg as an architect; he knew how to shape works of this kind from beginning to end. There are only a few examples of Liszt rambling. I thought it best stylistically to stick to Italian opera, for homogeneity, or I could have added his arrangement of the Faust waltz (originally written by Gounod), the Liebestod (Wagner) and, if I was very brave, the Tannhäuser overture (Wagner again).
Q: Is there still a prejudice against whats been perceived as Liszts empty-headed bombast?
A: Liszt has been pooh-poohed a lot for his overt virtuosity, I guess. I cant think of a better word, but virtuosity should be something very positive. Maybe hes been criticized for his excessive writing. But I think that anybody who hurls that criticism at Liszt should do that at Paganini, too, dont you think? But virtuosity has always been considered part and parcel of violin playing and not of the piano even though Liszt was the greater musician. If you take the time to really look at Liszts writing and his accomplishments, he practically gave us the symphonic poem. He is at the root of the harmonic explosions of the 20th century; Liszt and Wagner really started it all.
But Liszt has been polarizing. I have copies of the old Urania records that my dad had of the symphonic poems, the Dante and Faust symphonies, and he used to just wear those out. He was a little militant about Liszt. But then I have a friend who was a concert presenter in Montreal who really, really did not like Liszt; he thought all of it was a circus. Except every year he put on a performance of the Via Crucis. He loved late Liszt; it was stripped of the excess, stripped to its essentials.
Q: The unavoidable question: How are you doing in this crazy time?
A: Like all of my colleagues, or most, theres been a colossal loss of income. My wife and I had to have recourse to loans, which have kept us afloat. Happily, there are some concerts on the horizon. If Im admitted at the border, I have the first 2 1 /2 weeks of October playing in Europe. Thats really encouraging.
And I do have a recital on Sept. 25 near Montreal, with an audience. Its the Lanaudière Festival; they made up a minifestival with five events, and Im one of them. Its in a town called Joliette, and the concert was relocated to the cathedral. Im including two pieces by Enescu, a chorale and a carillon nocturne, which is very interesting, especially considering it was written by someone who is not known for his pianistic production. Its nothing but harmonics effects, and in a church, itll be perfect.
Im not one to take breaks. I kept hearing about colleagues who really lost their artistic momentum, and I can understand how one would feel that way. But I tried to buck up and say, this is the time to explore new things without the pressure of a deadline.
One thing I did was relearn Beethovens Hammerklavier Sonata. I performed it once, in 1993 or 94, and I dont think it went very well. But now, with added experience, so many of the problems solved themselves. Half the battle of that piece, especially in the fugue, is to find the right fingerings. The piece is so anti-pianistic. But theres a solution to everything; you just have look hard and be a little iconoclastic. Ive never been one to shy away from putting thumbs on the black keys, for instance, which would horrify some teachers.
And Im looking toward recording Fauré and C.P.E. Bach. Fauré Ive always admired and wanted to perform, so Im doing all the nocturnes and barcarolles. Its a universe I was so taken by; his harmonic world and his emotional world is like nobody elses. Theres an aristocracy and a sensuality.
I owe C.P.E. Bach to my wife, Cathy Fuller, who is a producer and host at WCRB. (We met over an interview, incidentally.) She was broadcasting and I was at home, and she put on one of the sonatas from Mikhail Pletnevs recording on Deutsche Grammophon, and at the ending, I got completely thunderstruck. Bach just chooses to end in the middle of a phrase on a first inversion. I went to the score, and, sure enough, it wasnt an editing mistake. That alone set me off exploring his work, especially his late work.
Q: You did some audienceless performances for streaming over the past months. What did that feel like?
A: Ive been in a studio so many times, and it felt like that. And when Im in the studio, I always try to imagine an audience. My level of commitment is always the same. But inevitably, when theres an audience, there are faces youre playing for. You have more a feeling of sharing. Thats what the concert experience is for me. Its not displaying, its sharing.
© 2020 The New York Times Company