October 2001

Hexaméron — Morceau de Concert

Franz Liszt (1811-1886) — Aprés un lecture dé Dante — Fantasie quasi Sonata

Henri Herz (1803-1888) “Les perles animeés” Grande Valse Op.211

Frederic Chopin (1810-1849) Barcarolle Op.60

Sigismund Thalberg (1812-1871) Grande fantasie de concert sur l’opéra “La Traviata” de Verdi Op.78

Carl Czerny (1791-1857) Variazioni sopra un tema di Rode “La Ricordanza” Op.33

Franz Liszt et al Hexaméron — Morceau de Concert (contributions from all the above composers)

Oleg Marshev (piano) / Danacord DACOCD 530 / 76.51
Recorded in the Concert Hall Sonderborg, Denmark, April 1999

By any stretch of the imagination this is a very special and also quite unusual CD. Not only is it full of relatively unknown composers, it has one work that was written as a joint project between six composers. Each musician is represented by one original work and also his contribution to the joint project.

It is not necessary in this short review to give details of Frederic Chopin or Franz Liszt. Their life stories and musical outputs are well enough understood by most listeners. Although I will qualify this by noting that probably three-quarters of Liszt’s work remains virtually unknown to most people. It is only through Hyperion’s massive cycle of the complete piano works of the master that we can begin to evaluate the massive contribution he made to the pianoforte literature. Chopin of course is well kent and better explored. Yet even this most loved of composers is probably only really appreciated with a couple of dozen works. It certainly bears thinking about.

However the names of Pixis, Herz, Czerny and Thalberg will be closed books to most people who may happen to come across this CD. Czerny, of course is common knowledge to pianists the world over for his excellent studies. It was always said that if you can play all his studies you could play anything. Even those of us who can only nibble at the edges of these highly complex and technically difficult works know what a wonderful pianistic style this forgotten composer had.

The CD opens with the great “Dante Sonata” by Liszt. This is an extremely popular piece of music and it deserves to be. This piece is the last of the second book of the Années de Pélerinage, which was dedicated to the composer’s “travels” in Italy. It is well known that the Liszt was an enthusiast of the great Italian author. And it is a meditation on the great themes and ideas of this pivotal book that creates the form for this work. Of course this is not a sonata in the accepted sense of the word, but a fantasy in the style of a sonata. It is a tremendously important work that is still played in recital rooms and is well represented on CD. However this is a fine performance by Oleg Marshev. He is able to generate the necessary passions and pathos to make this piece work. It is one of my favourite pieces of Liszt and I am not disappointed with this rendition.

Johann Peter Pixis was not a great composer by any stretch of the imagination. However he was one of the great piano virtuosi of his day. In fact many people claimed he was on a par with Liszt himself. Pixis wrote quite a bit of music including some operas, symphonies, chamber music and a piano concerto. However it is for his fantasies on tunes from the operas that he was perhaps most famous in his day. It was the custom of the great pianists to make transcriptions of all the most popular operatic arias. There was no wireless, of course, and this was often the only way that the best numbers from the operatic stage would get known by the general public. It is often told that the great Verdi used to ensure that the hit numbers from his latest opera were played by the orchestra at Florian’s in St Mark’s Square within minutes of the first performance in the Venice Opera House coming to an end.

Transcriptions and fantasies are not flavour of the month at the moment, although I think that they are beginning to be appreciated a little more. Again this is largely because of the Liszt cycle and perhaps a re-discovery of some the music of Sigismund Thalberg.

Pixis used themes from Rossini’s opera “The Siege of Corinth.” It is the elaboration of these relatively simple themes into a robust pianistic style that makes them effective. The effect is also achieved through the ability to write a piece that is in many ways a free composition, yet gives the appearance of structural unity. This work is stunningly played by Oleg Marshev. Any slight reservations I may have had about this compositional form are removed by the sheer pleasure of listening to his charming, accurate and enthusiastic playing. A complex of adjectives perhaps — but this is a complex piece.

Henri Herz has given us a charming Grande Valse. The programme notes advise us not to seek any profound meaning in these pages. Yet this is not to criticise the composer’s ability to produce an effective display of the pianist’s art. It is fun — and it is well composed and well played fun. This composer produced some eight pianoforte concerti that would probably deserve an occasional airing. However it was as a pianist in the fashionable salons of Paris that he was best appreciated. Naturally this led to a number of prestigious teaching contracts. He travelled extensively abroad, including a tour of Mexico, the U.S.A. and the West Indies. He invested his fortune made by playing and teaching in piano manufacture and designed and built a concert hall. He sounds a fascinating character — a footnote in the history of nineteenth century music. I wish there was more available about him and by him. Yet I romance — we have only two short works here on which to form an opinion. They are both well played by Marshev.

We need say little of Chopin’s life and works. The piece that is so wonderfully played on this disk is the charming Barcarolle Op.60. This piece was composed in the winter of 1845 when Chopin had returned to Paris for the “season”. It is dedicated to Baroness Stockhausen who was at that time a great society hostess. She was the wife of the Hanoverian ambassador to France. This is one of Chopin’s later works and it has charm all of its own. “Barcarolle” of course, means a “boating song” as perhaps sung by the gondoliers in Venice. Here Chopin captures the rocking of the boat. Yet it is a more serious piece than this. It is, to quote the liner notes, “a refined study in rhythm and harmony, devoid of ostentatious display and superficiality.”

It is played in a truly magical manner on this recording. I compared it to a number of other versions and I have to confess that this is probably now my favourite!

The pianist and composer Sigismund Thalberg is a name that is largely unknown to today’s generation of recital goers. However in his day many critics saw him as a serious rival to the hegemony of Franz Liszt himself. He was definitely a greater pianist than a composer; there was never any real argument about that. Although his style of composition differs considerably from that of the Hungarian master his main contribution was to the literature for the pianoforte. There is a piano concerto and a sonata. However most of his opus consists of studies, transcriptions and other genre compositions popular in the mid-nineteenth century. The Traviata fantasy is an excellent example of his work. He does not attempt to give a chronological narrative of the opera in this work. The music is all-important. He used themes and extracts as he pleases. This results in a logical, well-structured piece, which although in free form, has a sense of unity about it. This piece is a great work and has been finely performed on this recording.

Carl Czerny, as I mentioned above is best known for his didactic works. He occupied a mid-point in the development of romantic piano music in the nineteenth century. He was a pupil of Beethoven and taught Liszt. His catalogue of original compositions is vast. There are over a 1000 works in every possible genre. For example he has 24 masses attributed to his name! Perhaps one day the works of this well-known but little heard composer will be explored in a little more depth?

The charming work given here is based on a long forgotten melody by a long forgotten composer — “La Ricordanza” by Pierre Rode (1774-1830).

The main event of this CD is the great Hexaméron — Morceau de Concert. It is not the place to give the whole story of how this unusual composition was produced. However a few pointers and facts will not come amiss.

The Italian Princess Belgiojioso was involved in agitation for the Italian Liberation movement. In order to raise awareness of this cause in the fashionable salons of Paris she asked six leading pianists of the day to work together on a series of variations. She appointed Franz Liszt as the coordinator of the project. The theme that was chosen for the composition was the “Suona la tromba” from the opera I Puritani by Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835). This was seen to be appropriate to the “cause.” As planned, all the composers contributed a section. However poor old Liszt was left with the task of expanding the piece into a decent length with a number of his own “variations.” In all there are eleven sections to this work — including an introduction and the theme itself. Liszt wrote six of these sections. The work as a whole actually hangs together well. The individual styles are perhaps complimentary rather than similar. However the fact that Liszt wrote over half of this music gives a deal of coherence. There are technical difficulties in this piece and there are tender moments. Amid the pyrotechnics we find a delicious “nocturne” from the pen of Chopin. It is unnecessary to analyse the work in detail for this review — save to say that it is effective, satisfying and wholly consistent. It is an amazing achievement both for the composers and for the pianist. It deserves to be better known than it is.

The rumour that all six pianists assembled in Paris to play this work in the presence of the patron seems to be untrue. For reference purposes I give the full title of this piece — “Hexaméron, Morceau de concert: Grandes Variationes Bravoure pour Piano sur la Marche des Puritains de Bellini, composées pour le Concert de Mme la Princesse Belgiojosi au Bénéfice de pauvres by Liszt, with Sigismund Thalberg, Johann Peter Pixis, Henri Herz, Carl Czerny and Frederic Chopin.” Quite a mouthful!

This is a great CD. However the repertoire may put some people off buying this album “on spec”. It is not the kind of CD one would pick up in Tower Records and say to oneself — “I’ll give this a whirl,” or “Father-in-law likes a bit of piano music.”

It is very much an example of a series of pieces for the cognoscenti. And this is a pity. Any one of the short pieces in the first half of the CD would be attractive to virtually anyone who enjoys the piano repertoire. The Hexaméron may present a problem because it is somewhat different to the normal course of musical listening.

What I would say is that it is an excellent introduction to the kind of music that may be making a minor comeback — the transcription and the fantasies on forgotten and once popular themes.

The playing is stunning — but that is hardly surprising for Oleg Marshev is one of the best pianists around at the moment.

As always with Danacord the CD is beautifully presented, the sound quality is perfect and the programme notes are totally adequate.

Let us hope that this is the start of the recovery of many fine works which have been lost to three or four generations of concert-goers. I notice that Oleg Marshev has already recorded Pavel Pabst’s Operatic and Ballet Paraphrases. So perhaps a start has been made. If this present recording is anything to go by I look forward to hearing them with great anticipation!

John France