Tag Archives: Sigismund Thalberg

The Operatic Pianist



Andrew Wright (piano)

Divine Art dda 25113

TPT: 64’48”

reviewed by Neville Cohn


The Operatic PianistDuring the 19th century, there was a remarkable flowering of operatic composition. It met a huge popular demand and every European city of significance built an opera house to cater for the genre’s enthusiasts. But for opera lovers living in small towns, say, or in villages, there was almost no opportunity to experience opera, apart from, perhaps, a visit from this or that small touring company. To counter this shortage – or complete absence – of opera beyond the big cities, pianists responded to this need by incorporating into their recitals arrangements of operatic excerpts, most frequently a favourite aria, say, or this or that overture or dance episode.


This was a successful development and some pianists were able to maintain careers based largely on these operatic offerings.  And until radio and recordings made opera more widely available, operatic extravaganzas at the keyboard kept many pianists very busy on the concert circuit.


Nowadays, operatic excerpts in piano recitals are rare – and Andrew Wright is one of the few musicians to maintain the tradition. This fascinating CD includes not only 19th- century operatic extracts but some composed by Wright himself.


They make intriguing listening.


Operatic extracts for piano solo or piano duet were also very popular in the drawing rooms of wealthy homes in European cities. This was especially so for young ladies for whom some accomplishment at the piano was considered desirable in the marriage stakes.


Numbers of significant composers made arrangements of grand opera for piano solo, the most famous being Liszt. His versions of extracts from Wagner’s operas are still  occasionally encountered in piano recital programs. Israeli conductor Asher Fisch recently brought out a memorable CD of piano arrangements of Wagnerian opera extracts.


During much of the 19th century and up until the 1920s, virtuosic arrangements of this type were an ineradicable feature of just about every pianist on the international concert circuit.


But in broad terms, the age of virtuoso arrangements for piano of operatic extracts is largely past – but there’s a good deal to be said in positive terms of Andrew Wright’s CD “The Operatic Pianist”.


In the grand tradition of pianists playing their own arrangements of excerpts from this or that opera, we can listen to Wright’s own keyboard versions of extracts from, inter alia, Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable  in which he seems positively to revel in the many challenges posed by music that was never intended to be played on the piano. I think Meyerbeer would have been chuffed no end by Wright’s keyboard arrangement. It’s a winner.


Listen to the version of Casta Diva from Bellini’s Norma, here in an arrangement by  Sigismund Thalberg (no mean pianist himself). It is most beautifully played, its inherent simplicity of line presented with most appealing tone quality. Wright is no less persuasive in an arrangement of one of Wagner’s most loved arias: The Evening Star from Tannhauser. And the aching beauty of Liszt’s version for piano of Isolde’s Liebestod is splendidly revealed.

Johann Peter Pixis: Concerto in C, opus 100; Concertino in E flat, opus 68


Sigismund Thalberg: Concerto in F minor, opus 5

Howard Shelley (piano and conductor)

Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra

Hyperion CDA67915

TPT: 70’10”

reviewed by Neville Cohn


Recently, I conducted a mini-poll at an orchestral concert. During the interval, I asked a number of people whether they knew who Johann Peter Pixis was. No one had a clue. I followed up by asking the same question concerning Sigismond Thalberg. Identical outcome except for one concertgoer who wondered if he was a property consultant!


For this reason alone, Howard Shelley’s tireless work in retrieving and recording long-forgotten concertos deserves every encouragement. Certainly, it resuscitates music of an era when pianistic giants roamed the earth. Unlike the dinosaur, however, these piano concertos, courtesy of Shelley’s artistry, have been brought back to pulsing life.


Pixis  ThalbergPixis’ Piano Concerto in C is a charm-laden opus. It might not be music of any great depth but it is put together with skill – and Shelley plays it as if to the manner born.


From an authoritative opening statement, Shelley is entirely in command both of keyboard and orchestral accompaniment. And if through some miracle of time-travel, the shade of the composer had hovered over the recording session, I imagine the phantom Herr Pixis would have saluted a job well done.


This is music which in lesser hands, could well descend into drabness or meretricious note-spinning – but not here, performed as it is by a pianist/conductor at the top of his game.


DSC_8960In physical terms, the playing is entirely convincing. Even in the midst of avalanches of notes, there’s no hint of strain. It unfolds with an ease and clarity that warrant the highest commendation.


In the slow movement, Shelley’s playing is beautifully expressive – and he romps through the finale, in turn delightfully delicate and robustly emphatic.


Also on disc is the first ever commercial recording of Pixis’ Concertino in E flat. How easily the first movement could come across as a succession of Czerny-like studies – but Shelley, like the pianistic conjuror he is, makes the piece sound very much better than it in fact is.


There’s some fine horn playing in the adagio sostenuto, the piano part given a deeply expressive reading with contrasting moments of rapid fingerwork.


There’s an utterly engaging, jovial and devil-may-care insouciance to the finale.



Pixis, incidentally, was, as well as a composer, a fine pianist. Chopin, in fact, thought so highly of him that he dedicated his Fantasy on Polish Airs to him.


Shelley seems positively to revel in Sigismond Thalberg’s Piano Concerto in F minor, whether in dramatic flourishes or extraordinarily nimble passagework. He does wonders, too, in the adagio which comes across like an exquisitely considered nocturne; it is the high point of the concerto. And in the concluding rondo allegro, Shelley’s astonishingly nimble fingers steer a faultless way across treacherous  terrain where even a split second of hesitation could cause a musical crisis.


Not the least of this recording’s many pleasures is the consistently meaningful accompaniment which Shelley coaxes from an in-form Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra. Its playing is a joy.