The Operatic Pianist II = Works by BELLINI; LESCHETIZKY; THALBERG; WAGNER; WRIGHT; MEYERBEER;  SAINT-SAENS; LISZT – Andrew Wright, piano – Divine Art 

The Operatic Pianist II = BELLINI (arr. Jaell): Reminiscences de Norma; BELLINI (arr. Wright): “Col sorriso d’innocenza” from Il Pirata; LESCHETIZKY: Andante Finale de Lucia di Lammermoor; THALBERG: Fantasie sur Mose in Egito; WAGNER (arr. Liszt): Lohengrin’s Admonition; WRIGHT: Paraphrase on Verdi’s “Miserere”; MEYERBEER (arr. Kullak): Cavatine de Robert de Diable;  SAINT-SAENS: Concert Paraphrase on Le Mort de Thais; LISZT: Fantasy on Themes from Rienzi – Andrew Wright, piano – Divine Art dda 25153, 67:45 (9/15/17) [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

The art of the keyboard transcription of opera has a passionate acolyte in Andrew Wright’s assembly of virtuoso treatments.

I vividly recall an intermission feature of the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts in which the late Jorge Bolet delivered a lecture-recital—compressed into fifteen minutes—on Liszt operatic transcriptions, paraphrases and reminiscences, given Liszt’s great contribution to 19th Century pianism and his desire to extend the operatic repertory to those towns and villages throughout Europe that may have lacked an opera house. Nor was Liszt the only advocate for operatic “transmission” via the keyboard, since Sigismund Thalberg (1812-1871) contributed his own share of virtuoso transcriptions despite posterity’s having granted the garland to Liszt.

Vincenzo Bellini

Contemporary pianist and composer Andrew Wright (rec. 11-12 April 2016) provides us a set of nine opera arrangements for solo keyboard, beginning with Reminiscences of Norma by Alfred Jaell (1832-1882). The fluttering virtuosity of the piece does not attempt to rival Liszt’s own mighty transcription, but it does include Casta diva, here set as an arioso, dramatic jewel. The use of repeated notes in the treble has the earmarks of both Gottschalk and the pianola sound from silent film accompaniment. The music of Bellini receives direct treatment from Andrew Wright (b. 1967) himself, setting the bel canto aria “Cor sorriso d’innocenza” from Il Pirata, first with a con flauto introduction and then a literal application that tests the last two fingers of the right hand. Rare enough, the Andante Finale de Lucia di Lammermoor by Theodore Leschetizky (1830-1915) for the left hand testifies to the prodigious fluency of the great pedagogue’s digital dexterity, but to an adept version of the famous sextet from the opera.

Sigismund Thalberg

Wright continues with the largest of the offerings, Thalberg’s Fantasie sur Mose in Egito, after Rossini, a transcription noted for its sheer breadth and seriousness of purpose. Besides potent declamatory passages, the piece proffers lyric, lulling sequences of scalar ariosi, built upon Rossini’s patented crescendos. The succeeding, swaggering melody and its treatment smack of Chopin’s bravura treatment of Mozart for his own Op. 2. The last section intones the same sauntering melody Paganini exploited—here, over rounded, glittering arpeggios—for his own purposes upon the G string. Typically, the dynamic increases, as do the spectacular pyrotechnics.

The music of Richard Wagner naturally adapts itself to keyboard representation, and Liszt arranges the Act III aria “Athmest du nicht mit mir die suessen Duffe?” or Lohengrin’s admonition, as a pellucid moment of joyous light. Liszt himself conducted the 1850 premiere of the opera in Weimar while Wagner hid in Switzerland, a fugitive from political unrest in Dresden. From his own improvisatons at the keyboard, Wright developed his own paraphrase on the Miserere from Verdi’s Il Trovatore, utilizing extremely thick chords and bass harmonies to invoke bells and even bird calls. The texture lightens as tremolos, trills, glissandos, dominate; then, the pesante affect reigns in huge spans interlock the hands in pounding octaves. The progression assumes its own ineluctable momentum that precedes the triumphant coda.

Theodor Kullak

Theodor Kullak (1818-1882) set the Cavatine from Meyerbeer’s Robert de Diable as one of 12 Transcriptions, Op. 6. Here, Kullak receives his first commercial recording. The Meyerbeer opera had proved enormously popular to the Paris audience of the 1830s. The Act IV Cavatina receives the usual hyper-romantic effects, rife with huge chords and tolling bass ostinatos. Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921), like Liszt, had a great reputation as a virtuoso pianist, and Saint-Saens makes a fervent, horse-back approach to his introductory material for the Concert-paraphrase on Massenet’s Thais and its denouement death-scene. For half the piece, the music resembles a Liszt transcendental etude. Then a series of bell-tones in diatonic harmony announce the “Meditation” motif from earlier in the opera, a variant on Wagner’s love-death conceit.

Liszt has the last word, via his son-in-law Wagner, to conclude with most flamboyant means. Wright applies his formidable prowess to an 1859 Fantasy on Themes from Rienzi that includes the famous “prayer” motif—set in glorious Technicolor—and the martial passages taken from the overture. Liszt adds one more motif from the tribune’s sense of honor.

Stunning piano sound courtesy of Recording engineer and editor Graeme Watt makes the entire engaging and educational, at once.

—Gary Lemco

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